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Lisa Reihana’s 21-metre ‘digital wallpaper’ brings the Pacific to life

Ben Neutze

When New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana’s colossal video work in Pursuit of Venus [infected] premiered in its full form at the 2017 Venice Biennale – the contemporary art world’s most prestigious international event – it was quickly declared by some critics to be the best work of the entire line-up and deserved to be recognised as “one of the key artworks of recent years”.

With that kind of kudos, Reihana could’ve taken and exhibited the work just about anywhere in the world, but instead decided to bring it to Campbelltown Arts Centre for Sydney Festival. The reason was simple: the local Dharawal community was essential to the work’s creation.

Projected onto a 21-metre screen, it’s a digital reimagining of the early 19th century French “scenic wallpaper” Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, 1804-1805. Across 20 panels, the wallpaper depicts the people encountered by Captain Cook on his voyages through the Pacific, all existing peacefully together in an island paradise.

As a Māori artist, Reihana’s take on these scenes is much darker and more complex: the realities of colonisation are acknowledged with tense and frequently violent scenes. Not only that, the people depicted have had significant input in how they’re portrayed in the work.

It’s an extraordinary panorama: as the film slowly scrolls by over 64 minutes, new scenes constantly appear and disappear, depicting First Peoples in a variety of different scenarios set against a backdrop of deep greens and blues.

“I wanted to put some Aboriginal content into this work, and I just didn’t know how to do it,” Reihana said to Time Out. “I didn’t have the resources or facilities to pull it off.”

Thankfully, Campbelltown Arts Centre agreed to help and gave Reihana the time and space to make those parts of the film with members of the Dharawal community. But that process was just one small chapter in the ten-year making of this work.

When asked about the process of creating the piece, Reihana laughs and says: “Have you got a year?”

She says she had a “Eureka” moment when she decided to take on the project more than a decade ago, and it’s proven to be just as successful as she expected. It’s both a wonderful and vibrant platform for an exploration of colonisation and a work that connects with broad audiences: even those who aren’t fans of digital work can enjoy the painterly quality to the romanticised island background.

It all started with the creation of that background – and a little “digital gardening” as trees were rearranged – before Reihana created each vignette as she could afford to film it. All up, there’s ten terabytes of footage used in the film – all shot in 16K Ultra-HD – which required a significant amount of data wrangling.

“We had two languages: one was the technology and how we go about actually making it, and the other was the ethics and how to work with the people and invite them into that place,” Reihana says.

This is hardly a new theme for Reihana, who has made innovative video works about identity and been one of New Zealand’s leading artists for several decades. in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is part of the first ever survey of her work, called Cinemania.

Lisa Reihana | Cinemania installation view
Photograph: supplied

The exhibition is at Campbelltown Arts Centre from January 12 to March 29, and also includes Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux, a smaller but no less affecting dual-screen video work that flowed indirectly from in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. The mysterious, dark and moody piece sees a goddess lead the spirit of a Māori warrior through the underworld.

But Reihana’s work in the exhibition extends beyond the themes of colonisation and Māori culture; one of the first works audiences will encounter as they enter is Colours of Sin: Headcase Version, which features 1970s Ralta hair-dryers embedded with speakers playing a soundtrack of intimate conversations about gender and sexuality.

“It’s just to show another side to the work that I do,” Reihana says. “I’m predominantly known as an Indigenous artist – a Māori artist – but my interest has been in gender politics.”

Lisa Reihana, Colour of Sin: Headcase Version, 2005
Photograph: supplied

According to Reihana, the connections between these two sides of her practice are clearer than you might expect.

“Coming from New Zealand, and with our Maori history, my feeling was that if we could have those really good, intense discussions about those issues, then you can actually create a really fertile ground for discussion. Racism is linked to sexism, and all these things follow through – but if you can open up a field and a productive place to speak from, you can create a better world.

“Big, worthy ideas,” she says with a laugh. “But that notion of people and humanity has really been important to me.”

She’s hoping that Australia, with its political system as combative as it’s ever been and social structures following suit, will find resonances in the survey.

“Australia has one of the most ancient races of people in the world, and New Zealand is the youngest – it’s the last piece of land on earth to be peopled. We’re the youngest and the eldest of the whole world – we’re the beginning and the end and we have lots of things that we can share across with each other.”

Lisa Reihana: Cinemania is at Campbelltown Arts Centre until March 29.

See our hit-list of the best art in Sydney this month.

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