On the evening of May 5, Auckland artist Simon Denny's project at the Venice Biennale opens with a party in its venue, the historic Marciana Library on St Mark's Square. Inspired by, but not based on, investigative journalist Nicky Hager's 1996 book, Secret Power, an expose of the Government Communications Security Bureau (the GCSB), Denny's installation is also called Secret Power.

Across town, in the complex called the Arsenale, formerly the shipbuilding centre when the Republic of Venice was at the height of its power until it fell to Napoleon in 1797, there'll be another installation by an Aucklander, Mau dance company founder Lemi Ponifasio. He is attending the Biennale as an invited artist by director Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian curator and critic who heads the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

This is the third time Ponifasio has been an invited artist at the Biennale, which is unprecedented. Enwezor describes him, in a press release, as "an innovative figure and change-maker".

In 2003, Ponifasio presented his work, Paradise, in the Biennale's theatre section; in 2010, he staged Tempest: Without a Body in the dance section. This time, he is creating an art installation called Lagi Moana: The House of Women, which he laughingly renames Open Power, when told of Denny's project title.


But the idea of being open, of searching for truth in his work, cuts to the core of the ethos of Ponifasio and Mau, which he founded in west Auckland in 1995. There is too much bullshit and shallowness in the arts world, he believes.

"I think the entertainment business patronises people too much and disempowers them under the guise that they are developing an audience. I said, 'No'. We are empowering the person and that's the whole point. It's not a distraction or how to soften a life - there are many drugs for that, ha ha. You come to art to meet life in reality. It is much more real, it's not a fantasy.

"I think the arts have become too civilised. I suppose I am thinking that the origins of the arts was a much bigger sense of, 'What does it mean to exist? Who am I in relation to the big cosmos?'. So the art is always a very big, difficult question but we have reduced it down to the point where it becomes meaningless entertainment or cheap politics. I worry about [the audience] understanding the bigger context of what art can be.

"We are talking about freedom, sensuality, spirituality. It's about us experiencing another dimension that we may not know about."

He needs financial support to get to Venice to do the work, "and so far no one has supported the project, which is 90 per cent of my reality in New Zealand". Later, he emails to say he expects to get funding "from outside of New Zealand" and offers some specific details about the work.

"Lagi Moana is a preparation. 'Lagi' is the word for heaven, and also used to describe the songs and chants that call and cry to the ancestors. 'Moana' is the undifferentiated watery world that is the ocean. In the Pacific, songs and chants are addressed either to Lagi or to Moana because they are the abodes of the ancestors.

"Lagi Moana is a welcome call to the ocean or Moana to come and take us back to the gene-archaeological matter. The work takes as a starting point the inevitable collapse of human life under global warming " a recasting of life as we know it. We position this re-imagining within Pacific cosmology where we hail the return of Moana to close the space between the earth (Papa) and the sky (Lagi) so the cosmos might be reformed. Lagi Moana as a project is best described as a song sung at the end of the world, a call which brings about a new beginning.

"It proposes that the rising ocean is not a curse to humanity but is an opportunity to welcome our ancestor Moana to take back what is itself. Within these times of crises when there is an atmosphere of being trapped by natural and man-made disasters, rising inequality and rampant consumerism, Lagi Moana proposes to think unthinkable ideas and propose the rising sea level as the freeing and cleansing agent of change. Under its influence, empires acquire new status in which they will not just be in ruins but are dissolved and become watery ... I have invited artists and members of communities from the New Zealand/Pacific region together with academics, civic leaders and artists from all over the world, in a curated program. The women will host discussions, lectures, workshops, performances and ceremonies during the seven months of the Biennale."

Milan-based Chilean architect Cazu Zegers will work with Ponifasio on the project, which will be shipped to Venice, a city which presents its special set of problems.

"You can't build in Venice. You can't dig foundations," he says. "The bureaucracy is strict and the whole area is heritage so the challenge is to build a house with no foundation and there's a problem with land. For New Zealand we have to hire a pavilion. And, of course, I have a Plan A, B, C and D depending on the funding and the timing.

"But architecture should not define things, they should facilitate things ... Venice is a city of empire, the building of warships - the speed with which they built them [about one ship a day] was quite amazing."

Last year, Ponifasio toured five different productions in 16 countries. He and the Mau company are highly sought after overseas - and he needs the money. "Well, sure. It's one of the reasons I'm in Europe a lot because they offer me the opportunity to make my work. Most of my work I have created overseas with international money. I think to go international is not so much about success, it's about a leadership and I am deeply interested in how the world moves.

"We always make the illusion for ourselves that our politicians are our leaders but I think the arts are a very important dimension to speak about how we are going to move forward. In our country, I can see that it looks like we want to lead our country into a situation of conflict. What a waste of money," he thunders. "If they want world peace, they should give money to the arts. The point of art is to make you feel what does it mean to be a human being, to listen to the forgotten life that's in you and then you learn how to care.

"But if you go out there and you think you are right and you start shooting other people and you can justify it for your democracy, well, that is very barbaric. Nobody ever wins in a war. War is a complete human failure. It's a failure of politicians because that's their professional job to achieve how we live in the world without violence.

"When that fails, democracy fails. How can we fight for democracy by shooting people? That's ironic. Decisions are being made for us from Washington and before that it was London and it's been like that for a long time."

Ponifasio will be in Venice for about a week, leaving Lagi Moana in the hands of his programme of guests. Then he moves on to Toronto to rehearse an epic production in the Luminato Festival, Apocalypsis, written by Canadian composer R Murray Schafer, "reimagined" by Ponifasio for a cast of 1000 choristers, actors, dancers and singers, including New Zealand opera star Kawiti Waetford - and American performance artist superstar Laurie Anderson, who is recording her contribution.

It will be a mighty and moving production. Written in two parts, the first half, John's Vision, is a vision of the world ending in chaos and cataclysm, with part two, Credo, an "ascension to order through a serene exploration of the majesty of God".

It's so big it will be staged in Sony Stadium, which seats 6000, from June 26-28. This is asking, on a grand scale: "Who am I in relation to the big cosmos? What does it mean to exist?"

Lemi Ponifasio


Lano, Samoa, 1964


Philosophy and politics at the University of Auckland


Mau dance company in 1995, where he is director and choreographer

Career highlights:


(2006), commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Mozart in Vienna;

Tempest: Without a Body

(2007), debuted in Vienna;

Birds With Skymirror

s (2010), inspired by frigate birds he saw flying over Kiribati with pieces of toxic VCR tape in their beaks, performed at Edinburgh International Festival;

I Am

(2014), performed at Edinburgh last year and this year's Auckland Arts Festival

Awards: Arts Foundation Laureate (2011); Senior Pacific Artist at the 2012 Creative NZ Arts Pasifika Awards; Artist in Residence Award 2013 at the National University of Samoa