Lisa Reihana draws on first encounters between the peoples of the Pacific and explorers like Captain Cook for her massive video installation, opening today at Auckland Art Gallery. She talks to Adam Gifford

Lisa Reihana is excited to see her new work after a year in production. A video installation covering five screens, 8.5m pixels per frame, 25 frames a second over 32 minutes, a terabyte video file to process, it's not something you can curl up and watch in your living room, or even the editing suite.

In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) is the latest attempt by Reihana to contest New Zealand's colonial history. The process she used is the same as In Pursuit of Venus, a finalist in the Singapore Art Museum's Signature Art Prize, where performances by Pacific dancers were filmed on green screen and superimposed on top of a landscape inspired by a 200-year-old French wallpaper depicting a Pacific utopia, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique.

"I wanted to develop a production methodology before I spent a lot of money to do this project, so that was In Pursuit of Venus," Reihana says. "In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) is where I have gone back to Cook's journals and done lots of thinking and writing about those early encounters. The cast and crew have expanded to include Cook, [Joseph] Banks and [Tahitian chief and translator] Tupaia."

That's the infection. "I still use the wallpaper as a backdrop because that is what inspired the project."

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She says colonisation is a huge project to look at. "This is the opening, that moment when it first started to happen, we were all travelling about, we were so interested in each other. I got interested in Joseph Banks because he was operating the trading table, he was a linguist, he had wide and varied interests, so I wanted to show him doing some trading, talking to people, and then getting involved with the chief mourner in Tahiti, haunting villages. I wanted to restage that moment because I think of it as the first instance of an Englishman blacking up.

"I grew up with The Black and White Minstrel Show, so the scene of Banks covering up with black ash and going marauding with the chief mourner, there were these strange intercultural encounters that were happening."

Scenes from Lisa Reihana's In Pursuit of Venus (Infected), a 32-minute video installation that covers five screens and explores Cook's exploration of the Pacific.
Scenes from Lisa Reihana's In Pursuit of Venus (Infected), a 32-minute video installation that covers five screens and explores Cook's exploration of the Pacific.

While In Pursuit of Venus was an eight-minute loop, Infected runs for 32 minutes. She has more than doubled the pixel count, allowing it to be projected on a much larger scale - it will be spread across 26m of the Chartwell Gallery

"I always try to be on the edge of technology so I can future-proof the work. It's ready to go to an even higher-resolution picture, but we don't have the equipment to present it at that stage yet. From a technical perspective it means a lot of data wrangling, but I am buying time so in 10 years' time it will still look good and have relevance. The wallpaper was also technologically innovative. It took 1000 woodblocks to create this complex and narrative-driven panoramic wallpaper. Whatever you think of the content, it had this quality that made it stand out at the time."

Now she has worked out the technical aspects, Reihana hopes in future to include some of the indigenous peoples excluded from the wallpaper, such as the tribes around Nootka Sound in Alaska where Cook spent time, and Australian Aboriginals.

"It's like a long handshake. I can now invite others into this project, including live performances to let those people in. When Joseph Dufour sold this wallpaper he made a prospectus where he said he left out certain peoples because they were ugly, so I want to react against that notion."

Preparations for the work included travelling to England to source an authentic uniform for the Captain Cook character. Reihana drew heavily on writings about first encounters, especially Dame Anne Salmond's The Trial Of The Cannibal Dog.

"She's a really good storyteller. She calls herself a visual anthropologist. [Film-maker] Annie Goldson uses that terminology as well. For an artist that's a good in-point, using visuality and critiquing imagery. I took some of her stories and stripped them back."

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Lisa Reihana.
Lisa Reihana.

In her first foray into scriptwriting, Reihana prepared about 60 scenes. She then brought in writer and director Rachel House as drama coach.

"We had meetings on why a particular scene should be re-enacted, then we went out and cast all these kids, and then during the workshop process she would not let me in the room. So it is her reading of my reading and then it becomes the actors' reading of these ideas.

"It was an opportunity to work with young Pacific people and give them really good stories to enact and bring their own feelings and invoke their own thoughts and their own ideas of these histories. I feel as an artist or film-maker or producer of the project, it is like setting up a structure and knowing what I want from it but then creating space in there so each actor or performer could bring their own history."

She is gripped by an idea that Deidre Brown comes up with in her catalogue essay, that while the wallpaper is the landscape for a land that is nowhere, it becomes the turangawaewae for all these people to tell stories. In that way it's like a marae atea, a performance space for talking across the islands.

The scenes were shot over four days "because I am really efficient. You have to know what you want, you manage it and you get the most you can."

It wasn't inevitable Reihana became an artist.

"There was a moment when I was either going to apply for Nga Aho Whakaari in Wellington because I had done a bit of acting, or go to art school, or become a cobbler, because there was a guy on Dominion Rd who was looking to train up a cobbler and being a shoe lover it sounded a great idea, but I ended up going to Elam, which was a great move."

As an urban Maori with an English mother and a Maori father, she was drawn into the debate about the colonial experience.

"The first residency I had as a Maori artist was to go to Sydney in 1988 to meet Aboriginal artists and communities, as part of an initiative sparked by the 200th anniversary of colonisation.

"Then there was our own sesquicentennial in 1990, so those politics were obvious to me. At art school there were people who argued if you couldn't speak Maori you couldn't call yourself a Maori artist. I call myself a Maori artist because I am Maori, even if I am not a speaker. My father came to Auckland to make money and send it home to the north, which was a very Maori thing to do, but he was of a generation where he got the cane every morning he went to school for speaking Maori.

"Theories on Maori art were expanding, but I was training in a Western art school. Michael Parekowhai and Shane Cotton and Peter Robinson were a year behind so we were a generation of young Maori being trained in a Western art context."

She was also drawn to film and video, becoming involved in the Kimihia television training initiative and Te Manu Aute, which advocated for Maori perspectives in television and radio. While the option was there to go into television, "I decided I wanted to stay in the art world. I saw it as another way of telling stories different to TV because TV still had that Western model of telling stories in half-hour, one-hour, documentary chunks. I could see a different way of telling stories through the artistic process."

Reihana says In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) does not adhere to cinematic rules. The camera is fixed, there is no editing of shots, so the key is the performance and the way the action moves slowly from right to left as scenes change.

"The landscape is there the whole time so that goes back to my animation roots. I love film-making. I think of myself as a film-maker operating in the art world. I love making things, I used to hang out with my Dad in the garage. Film-making for me is making the props, making the costumes, writing, producing. I love all the varieties of things there are to know."

In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) will run alongside Printing The Pacific: 1696-1804, an exhibition of images of the Pacific by Europeans, including prints from Cook's voyages and a section of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique.
What: In Pursuit of Venus (infected) by Lisa Reihana
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, today-August 30