In Pursuit Of Venus (Infected) – Lisa Reihana

At Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

I’ve been looking forward to seeing a full presentation of this work since I heard Lisa Reihana talk about it last year. At the time I had no idea that I would start working with video as a medium but somehow I was drawn in and deeply engaged by the work and the process she was navigating. As it has turned out this work is very relevant and inspiring for me through it’s presentation, medium, technique and narrative.

Walking into the gallery space one is immediately struck by the size of the work; both it’s physical presence and the scope of the content. The work appears as a moving tableau, a static painting brought to life. The painted landscapes and flora are beautifully ‘turn of the century’ in their style and manage to avoid any of the cgi cliches of digitally composited pieces. The human aspects of the painting merge wonderfully into their painted landscape, both blending in and jumping out of the scenes; they can move from being at one moment static painted figures to be fully ‘alive’ and moving almost seamlessly.

The slow scrolling of the scene reveals the narrative in the work. At first sitting it appears to be a tableau of little vignettes (much like the 200-year-old French wallpaper depicting a Pacific utopia that helped inspire this work, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique). After observing for a time the viewer starts to notice recurring characters and sequential scenes that unfold into the narrative of Captain Cook, Tupaia and Joseph Bank’s travels and travails in the Pacific. I watched the full 30 minutes and found that there was no obvious ‘join’ in the work where the narrative started and finished, it was a continual loop, the Pacific islands be colonised over and over ad infinitum. Lisa Reihana talks about the wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique and how this hand-blocked panoramic paper was the only one of it’s kind to depict a death – the death of Captain CookShe talks also about the huge technical undertaking that it took to create this kind of wallpaper which is definitely reflected in the huge undertaking to create In Pursuit of Venus (Infected).
(Cicuit Cast Episode 23: Interview with Lisa Reihana. (2015) http://circuit.org.nz/blog/circuit-cast-episode-23-an-interview-with-lisa-reihana)

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I’m inspired by Reihana’s use of a fixed camera and the illusion of a static image to produce a moving narrative. With my work “Hive Oracle” I wanted to create the effect of a moving painting, a fixed image brought to life, rather than editing camera angles and shots as you usually would if making a film. I’m also extremely impressed by her attention to colour and texture; the interplay between the real people and the painted scenery is so seductive, it draws the viewer right into the world of the artwork and allows him/her to forget the technical aspects involved in the construction of the work.

Another aspect of the production of the work that I was very interested in (and I remember Reihana talking about last year at Whitecliffe) was the collaboration between the artist and the performers. Being members of each cultural group they must have a lot of their own personal experience to bring to their performances. That creates a very different work than a piece that is solely or mostly directed by the artist.

Part of the work that had a huge impact on me personally was the soundtrack. The use of audio in artworks is so powerful and can create instant engagement, emotional texture, drama, narrative. The soundtrack that Reihana has created for In Pursuit of Venus was stunning. Not only did it follow the narrative of the piece but it seemed to give the work a physical depth, in that the layered sounds within the soundtrack actually created dimension within the flat painting. You could hear the people who were meant to be in the distance and they sounded further away than those who were in the foreground meaning that both the visual and audio parts of the experience opened out.

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Lisa Reihana – Digital Marae

Lisa Reihana’s project Digital Marae is an ongoing conversation between the traditions of Maori marae carving and weaving with the use of digital techniques to create a modern visual language that honours the Atua and creates a space in which they can exist in a form outside of time on a continuum of past present and future. A digital marae with digital tukutuku panels, digital poupou, a whole digital wharenui.

Her large, singular portraits of import Atua are reminiscent of the carved poupou that hold up the roof, and the placement of her images plays around with conventions of both gender and importance of ancestors, determining their place within the wharenui.

In Devenport, R (ed) (2009) Digital Marae; Lisa Reihana. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Reihana talks about the spiritual foundations of the marae and how she creates a welcome space within the wharenui by acknowledgement of the ancestors through the sacred karanga song;

“The karanga creates spatial form as the hosts and guests move through metaphysical zones of engagement.” (interview with Devenport, R. No page numbers)

The use of image, space and sound create an immersive installation space. I saw these works in Australia and found the size and luminosity of the works very powerful. There was a relationship between the atua and the human viewers through bodily connection – in my minds eye they were slightly larger than human, giving them an imposing otherworld quality. I appreciate the emergence of the figures out of the primeval darkness, the strong chiaroscuro effect and the richness of the colour and texture. I have always have an aesthetic fascination with the single figure portrayed in this way. They become a symbolic icon of an idea or archetype. It interests me how the Maori word ‘Atua’ is so similar to the word ‘Atu’; the term for the Tarot Trumps. Both are symbolic images that represent an archetype. I also see relationships to the work of Miria Kalman in the digital weaving; bright digital light, acidic, non-traditional colour, non-natural depiction of the weave.

There are certain Maori words I have picked up through my reading about Reihana’s work that I love;
ihi – powerful presence
wehi – awe
whare wanaga – house of esoteric learning

For me the images from Digital Marae with the most ihi are the 2 images where the Atua is facing front, is gazing at the viewer and has very little obvious digital manipulation.
Mahuika depicts an Atua who dwells in the underworld. She is fooled by the trickster Maui into giving him the fire that she carries at the tip of each finger (these powerful figures always seem to fall prey to the trickster!) Her dress smokes and runs with the lava of the underworld and her powerful gaze burns the viewer.

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Dandy shows a rather otherworldly figure, dressed in the garb of the Victorian gentleman, who engages with the viewer directly. He is a representation of takatapui (the closest western term would probably be transgender or non-gender). Rhine wanted to recognise and honour this section of Maori society by including them in the esoteric ancestral pantheon.


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Devenport, R (ed) (2009) Digital Marae; Lisa Reihana. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

Curnow, W. Leonard, R (ed) (2010) Unnerved: The New Zealand Project. Brisbane, Australia: Queensland Art Galllery.

Smith, H. (ed) (2007) Taiawho II: Contemporary Maori Artists. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press.

 

Thoughts about works by Tracey Tawhiao and Tiffany Singh at Te Uru

Justine and I visited Te Uru gallery last weekend to have a look at the current exhibitions. There were 2 that were of particular interest to me due to their intersection with, differences and similarities to my own work.

Tracey Tawhiao’s work is part of a group show called  IOIOIOIOIOIO that examines the hidden order unifying our Universe. She examines the language of sacred geometry,the names of the Māori Creator IO and the simple but unifying language of binary code. In her work she is exploring the same sort of esoteric language that I enjoy and is taking both a universal and local approach by combining both western mysticism (in the form of ideas such as the Metatron Cube and the Tree of Life) with her ancestral understanding through mātauranga Māori. I related to this work because of her interest in sacred geometry and western mysticism and I enjoyed the relationship between the languages of the different traditions that resulted in a very universal work.

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Tracey Tawhiao (Ngai te Rangi, Whakatohea, Tuwharetoa), IOEAU (God and I), 2014, acrylic paint on paper, Te Uru Gallery [there is a material not listed in the artist’s statement which is the acrylic disks overlaying the painted words]

Tiffany Singh was also exhibiting at Te Uru with an exhibition called “Life is But a Vapour” that concerns itself with the grieving process and art as a process to come to terms with grief, death and dying. Over a three month period members of the public were invited to visit Singh’s studio and create memorial string which were incorporated into the work. The work displayed at Te Uru was a combination of this piece and several other in collaboration with other artists. The wall itself was a jumble of objects and symbols, the memorial strings combined with many other items of cultural significance. It felt overwhelming and despite being a participatory artwork I felt it did not invite the viewer to participate. Many of the objects incorporated into the wall were already loaded with heavy religious and cultural meaning so instead of being an inclusive collaboration from many different people it seemed more like a clash of cultures with the viewer being left wondering whether the artist could actually speak for and to all of these peoples who sign their scared items. It felt like a rather cavalier display of symbolic items that the artist might not fully comprehend, rather than a genuine and thoughtful enquiry.

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Tiffany Singh, I Have Died Many Times But Your Breathe Makes Me Alive Again, Ongoing collaborative work, Te Uru Gallery 2015

Tiffany Singh had another piece in the gallery that was concerned with a similar idea but was very different in the way it approached the subject matter. “Earth Air Fire Water Ash” is a suspended glass ash receptacle holding charred remains and suspended above a shallow bowl. There is none of the blatant religious and cultural symbolism in this work, but the materials and their display make it very clear what the viewer can explore in the work. It has a quiet poignancy that speaks to me of grief and death far more than the cluttered wall. The work is open ended, the elemental nature of the materials is understandable to all, it invites the viewer to experience it and it doesn’t block the reading through complex, and potentially exclusionary, symbolism. This was very useful for me to observe because its something I have been grappling with in my own practice.

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Tiffany Singh, Earth Air Fire Water Ash, 2014, Glass and ash, collaboration with Isaac Katzoff Monmouth Glass studio, Te Uru Gallery

These two exhibitions gave me a clarity about my own practice that I had understood to some extent before, but now have SEEN in the work of others. I can now understand exactly why work like this can be exclusionary and ways to approach subjects to make the art interesting for a wider range of viewers; to make the work better. I am going to hold these images and my realisations about them in my mind when creating my own work so that I move one way and not the other.

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