The New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale has opened with artist Lisa Reihana and Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy arriving in Venice's largest gondola to the historic naval warehouse the pavilion will occupy for the next six months.

Reminiscent of a waka, the Disdotona was rowed through the waters of the Arsenale, once a vast shipyard, by 18 rowers from the Canottieri Querini Rowing Club. They were applauded by some 200 onlookers including La Biennale di Venezia president Paolo Baratta, New Zealand's ambassador to Italy Patrick Rata and a 120-strong contingent of New Zealanders who make up a patrons' group.

The group helped fundraise to get Reihana's work, Emissaries, to the Venice Biennale which started in 1895 and is sometimes dubbed the Olympics of the art world. Biennale Arte 2017 includes more than 200 events and exhibitions by artists from some 80 countries and is expected to attract half a million visitors.

Emissaries, a panoramic video almost 10 years in the making, has already clocked up a number of firsts for New Zealand. It is the first time we've occupied a position in the Arsenale, one of two central exhibition spaces, and the first time a Governor-General has attended an opening ceremony.


Dame Patsy says she came to celebrate and recognise the importance to New Zealand of having a place at the biennale and Reihana's role in helping to put us on the international art stage.

Noting that the work is called Emissaries, Dame Patsy says it reflects the continued cultural exchanges which go on around the world and the learning which can occur because of them.

"It says a lot about tolerance."

Another first was announced during the official opening ceremony. Tim Marlow, artistic director of the London-based Royal Academy of the Arts, says Emissaries will be a central part of the Academy's first major survey show of art from Oceania at the end of 2018. It coincides with the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's first voyage to the southern oceans to observe and record the transit of Venus.

Marlow described Emissaries, which is 23.5m long and 3.3m high, as technically brilliant and utterly profound: "It is a moving tapestry, a cerebral collage. I completely abandoned my schedule when I saw it to sit down and spend 45 minutes just watching and taking it in."

From London, Emissaries heads to Paris for the Muse du quai-Branly - Jacques Chirac Oceanie exhibition. But before either London or Paris, it will be seen at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney which is of significance for Reihana, who did some of her earliest work there.

She says the influence of Aboriginal culture has had a lasting effect on her work as shown by additions she made to create Emissaries. It started life as in Pursuit of Venus [infected], and screened at Auckland Art Gallery in 2015 attracting 49,000 visitors.

Using digital technology, Reihana animated the French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages De La Mer Pacifique, created in 1804 and also known as Captain Cook's voyages, from a Pacific point of view. She included the sights and sounds of performances, cultural ceremonies and encounters between British navigators, astronomers, ordinary sailors and artists and peoples from across New Zealand and the Pacific.

Chosen as New Zealand's representative to Biennale Arte 2017, Reihana added scenes, including dancers and weavers from the Aboriginal Koomurri community, and new sound effects such as the winding of the original clock used on Captain Cook's voyages to the Pacific and rare recordings of puoro (Maori instruments). Cook's death features as a dramatic moment of "rupture" in the video.

"For me, it was important to recognise Aboriginal experiences. When you think about it, Australia was one of the first land masses in this part of the world to be settled while we in New Zealand were one of the last so there's a circularity there."

New Zealand has sent artists to Venice Art Biennale since 2001.

Simon Denny, our 2015 representative, will learn tonight whether he has won the 2017 Absolut Art Award, which gives an artist more than $200,000 toward exhibiting a new artwork or project. Denny is one of six artists in the running for the award.

Meanwhile Francis Upritchard, our 2009 representative, returns to the biennale with work in its Viva Arte Viva exhibition.