Multimedia artist Lisa Reihana talks to Joanna Wane about finally bringing her seminal work back to town.
From her window, Lisa Reihana can see the ghost town of Auckland Girls' Grammar across the road. Life at the school usually sets the rhythm of her day. "I always joke that when I hear the bell, I think 'Great, morning tea!'" Instead, on the morning of our scheduled photoshoot, there's a ting on her cellphone from Covid-19 contact tracers, notifying her connection to a new "location of interest".
The week before, our plans had already been scuppered to meet for coffee on Karangahape Rd, her central-city "hood" for the past 23 years. Only a couple of kilometres separate my house from hers and I was secretly hoping she'd invite me in for a nosy around. If writers are laid bare by their bookshelves, what does an artist reveal by the pieces she has on her walls?
Inevitably, with Auckland still in lockdown, we end up talking by Zoom. She's warm and relaxed, despite wall-to-wall meetings — earlier in the day, she'd delivered a virtual lecture to an art school in Hawaii — so I can almost pretend we're in the same room.
One of our most internationally recognised contemporary artists, Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tū) was supposed to be in Wellington a couple of days ago for the official launch of the 2022 Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts. The festival's first artist in focus, she's a headline act with four separate exhibitions on the programme, including a new series of site-specific installations along the waterfront.
For now, she's marooned in Tāmaki Makaurau and, like the rest of us, making the best of it. "It's like 'Lost in Space' or something, being able to flick out a phone and talk to someone you can see," says Reihana, who's of a similar vintage to the mid-60s TV series. "You can actually do that now, so there's at least some nice sense of being part of the world."
That's an unexpectedly sweet sentiment from an artist who's made a career out of reinterpreting history through the lens of technology. Her complex, multimedia creations incorporate theatrical elements of film, photography and design but Reihana, who says technology scares her, is strictly the creative "software" in that equation.
Under wraps until this week's programme launch, her major new work for the festival sits neatly at that crossroad between politics and play. Inspired by Pacific navigation stories but retold from a female perspective through six large-scale installations, "Kura Moana" acknowledges not just Kupe but his wife, Hine-te-aparangi. A skilled navigator herself, she was the first to name the North Island "Aotearoa", after sighting gathering clouds on the horizon.
"The histories always favour the men," says Reihana, whose own mother came to New Zealand by water, migrating from England after World War II. "There's a good man standing behind me, but there are always other components to that story."
Also starring in Kura Moana is a magical whēke, a female octopus Kupe is said to have chased across the ocean – represented in an audiovisual display by a spoken-word artist who appears to be floating in space as she takes selfies and dances sensuously above the water. In another iteration, Te Whēke-a-Muturangi (The Adversary) will take up residence in Whairepo Lagoon as a giant inflatable, her tentacles waving in the wind.
Access to all the exhibits is free. Reihana likes the idea of art being egalitarian and hopes families will treat it as a treasure hunt. "It's a lovely time of year in Wellington and the waterfront is glorious. Even in levels 3 or 4, you can still get out for a walk," she says.
Not that the Cook Strait is a benign stretch of water. Reihana has done the ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton in bad weather, with seasick passengers tossed around by the swell. "What does that feel like if you're in a waka? I've thought a lot about the bravery of those early explorers setting off to new places and imagining them paddling into the harbour."
A separate exhibition at the festival, "Te Wai Ngunguru – Nomads of the Sea", features another wāhine on a waka through an immersive 3D installation at Pātaka Art + Museum in Porirua. Exploring social tensions in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Charlotte Badger, a colourful former convict from Australia who was possibly the first Pākehā woman to settle in New Zealand and came under the protection of a Ngāpuhi chief.
The real blockbuster attraction, though, is the return of Reihana's acclaimed Venice Biennale exhibit, "in Pursuit of Venus [infected]". Unveiled at Te Papa yesterday, it's the first time the work has been seen in New Zealand since 2015 and will lead into the festival with an extended five-and-a-half-month run.
A 32-minute panoramic video loop, the extraordinary piece brings to life a centuries-old French scenic wallpaper depicting a mythologised narrative of Pacific exploration — reimagined by Reihana in intricate and insubordinate detail. The project, a disruptive take on colonialism that "subverts the imperial gaze", took years to create and has never been displayed here in its final form.
When the original version was shown at the Auckland Art Gallery, it drew record crowds for a solo exhibition by a local artist (since pipped by Lindauer's "Māori Portraits", which was also wildly popular, but he was 25 by the time he settled in New Zealand).
Reihana was chosen to represent New Zealand in 2017 at the prestigious Biennale Arte in Venice, where distinguished English art critic and documentary maker Waldemar Januszczak singled out "in Pursuit of Venus [infected]" as the best artwork in the show. For many, it provoked an emotional response, with one viewer describing it as a vision of innocence with an undertone of peril. "The artist captures what I want to be able to tell my children; how important it is to be respectful of difference," another wrote in the visitors' book. "I was moved to tears."
Since then, the piece has been in huge international demand, travelling to Vienna, London, Paris, San Francisco, Honolulu, Estonia and Taipei (with several other stops along the way). After such a long wait, Te Papa's art curator, Megan Tamati-Quennell, is savouring its arrival in Wellington. "It is her magnum opus and people love it, it's so seductive – the epic scale, the technological feat," she says. "There's nothing like it."
Funding for the biennale allowed Reihana to polish and expand the original concept, which was developed with minimal resources. Reihana's partner, James Pinker, had created the video's soundtrack on his laptop, using a mix of traditional song, snatches of dialogue and classical music while trying to visualise how the sound would track over 24 metres of spooling video footage.
It was Pinker who first saw Joseph Dufour's 1804 neoclassical-style scenic wallpaper, "Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique", at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and found its skew on history disquieting. It was Pinker, too, who encouraged Reihana to take her work to another level before it was presented in Venice. "The biennale is the Olympics of the art world," she says. "We wanted it to be the best of the best."
In collaboration with Wētā Digital, the entire soundtrack was reorganised and new components were added. Now, you can hear a clock winding in the scene just before Captain Cook meets his fate on a beach in Hawaii — a sound recorded by the couple on a visit to the Royal Society in London, using a clock that was one of the scientific instruments Cook carried on board his ship.
Additional scenes have also been incorporated to add an Aboriginal voice to the story. Reihana connected with a network of local communities through the Campbelltown Arts Centre, on the southwest edge of Sydney. In return, In return, the first exhibition of the work in Australia was held there. "I knew lots of really big, well-known galleries in the central city would want to show it. But there's a big Māori community up towards Parramatta, which is where [Rev Samuel] Marsden had his farm, and the whole area has a lot of Māori place names. So it felt like a good fit."
At art school in the 1980s, Reihana's favourite song was "Aotearoa" composed by Ngatai Huata for her band, the Black Katz. In a piece of accidental activism, the song echo will cross the water in "Kura Moana" as an audio installation by William Trethewey's 1940 statue of Kupe at Taranaki St Wharf.
The concept predated the current flurry of controversy over what this country of ours should be called. To Reihana, it's always been Aotearoa New Zealand (as the 2022 arts festival has been renamed). And as a Māori artist, her work has always been political. Fierce, talented women like Ramai Hayward and Merata Mita were her role models at a time when "Te Karere" was fighting for a three-and-a-half-minute slot before the news and "Crimewatch" had the only Māori faces on TV.
Now, there's a dedicated Māori broadcast station and a huge network of iwi radio. Reihana is on Auckland Art Gallery's Māori advisory board — several of her pieces, including the giant digital artwork "Ihi", were prominently showcased in its recent landmark "Toi Tū Toi Ora" exhibition of contemporary Māori art.
She's also engaged with the new Hundertwasser Art Centre in Whangārei, which incorporates a dedicated Māori art gallery. However, choosing to build a career here, instead of pursuing opportunities overseas, has created challenges around cultural and gender expectations. She still remembers feeling paralysed as a developing artist after being told she couldn't call herself Māori if she didn't speak te reo. And it's still not always easy walking the line.
For "in Pursuit of Venus", a lack of access to indigenous actors led to her using Samoans for scenes that are set in Hawaii, filming them talking and chanting in their own language. While recognising the lack of authenticity is problematic, she decided against omitting the segments from her final work.
"I know it wasn't best practice, but I didn't want to be in the position of again taking away someone's voice," she says, referring to the loss of both language and culture experienced through colonisation. "Who should be talking for whom — they're big debates. But you do what you can. And sometimes you say things incorrectly, but it's a starting point for conversation."
Alongside her work for the arts festival, Reihana is developing a major new video piece for a new contemporary wing opening at the Art Gallery of New South Wales late next year. Called "Groundloop", it explores the flourishing of traditional practices, particularly among Aboriginal women, and continues her focus on navigation and the sea.
"This afternoon, I've got meetings talking to elders and knowledge people over there and we've managed to get a couple of technical tests underway," she says. "We looked at a new thing called the Unreal Engine [a real-time 3D creation tool] that was used in "The Mandalorian" and some other big-screen productions, because if we can't travel, how can we have an interaction between actors in New Zealand and actors over there? But I've just delayed everything. So come the beginning of next year, we'll do a production shoot in Auckland and then we'll fly over to shoot the last part in Australia, so it doesn't matter if I end up getting stuck there."
Last year, Reihana worked with French-Egyptian shoe designer Christian Louboutin on a "surreal biography" of his life he'd commissioned after seeing her work at the Venice Biennale. The exhibition she collaborated on was closed down by Covid, but is set to reopen next July in Monaco. Louboutin — "a lovely man" — didn't wave her off empty-handed.
Her wardrobe now includes a pair of designer sneakers and less-practical 70s platform shoes in rainbow-coloured suede that she wore to the opening in Paris but that haven't seen the light of day since. Here's hoping she can dust them off in time for the arts festival's swanky launch party in Wellington next February, because they'd be just the thing to wear.
Lisa Reihana's "in Pursuit of Venus [infected]" will be exhibited at Te Papa Tongarewa until March 27, 2022. From next Friday, a separate exhibition, "New Histories", will show a series of short scripted dramas made by Reihana for the museum's opening in 1998. For the full Aotearoa New Zealand Arts Festival programme (February 21-March 20), visit www.festival.nz.