Lisa Reihana, a New Zealand artist of Māori heritage, represented her country in the 2017 Venice Biennale with the epic digital work In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17). The piece, which was originally shown in Auckland in 2015, has just been jointly acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), where it is due to be exhibited at the institution’s de Young Museum in August, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma).
“It’s really captivating—the sheer scale and scope of the work is mesmerising,” says Claudia Schmuckli, the curator in charge of contemporary art and programming at FAMSF. The 80ft wide, 13 ft tall “digital scroll” with a soundtrack—a full 64 minutes—re-interprets an 1804 French wallpaper by Joseph Dufour, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (officially translated in press materials as “Natives of the Pacific Ocean”, but literally, “savages”). Based on voyages of Europeans like Captain James Cook, the wallpaper cast native Pacific people as “noble savages”, dressed in Roman-style clothing and with lighter skin tones.
Reihana’s work replaces this inaccurate, romanticising and exoticicising narrative with the animation of Pacific traditions and celebrations, like the Māori haka dance, and European brutality, like floggings and sexual abuse and exploitation. It draws upon the Tā-Vā (time-space) Samoan cyclical theory of reality, rather than a linear one. The animation’s slow pace “allows you to move along with it”, says Schmuckli, whose interest in the work was shared with her colleague Christina Hellmich, FAMSF’s curator in charge of arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, before seeing it in full scale for the first time at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The piece is currently on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art in Reihana's show, Emissaries (until 14 July).
It took over a decade for Reihana to make In Pursuit of Venus [infected], a process that included making a soundtrack with her partner, James Pinker, requiring a trip to London to record the ticking of Captain Cook’s clock, says Nancy Thomas, Lacma’s senior deputy director of art administration and collections, who pushed for the acquisition of the piece. Birds, lapping waves and chanting music are among the other sounds. “It has so many dimensions,” says Thomas, who has seen it displayed in full and was struck by the reaction of audiences. “People of all ages can’t leave—they just sit down and they watch the whole project through, all 64 minutes of it… I watched children just sit and watch it very calmly,” she says.
“I can see showing this as a point of entry to people so that they can understand works in our Pacific collection,” Thomas says, adding that it offers a “poetic and very sensible” approach. The museum is also actively collecting contemporary photography from the Pacific region, Thomas says.
Lacma does not yet have a definitive plan to share for when and how it will exhibit the work, but FAMSF, which has the Dufour wallpaper in its collection, is due to show In Pursuit of Venus [infected] at the de Young from 10 August to 8 December with the wallpaper and 18th-century engravings of Captain Cook’s travels to the Pacific, also in its collections. Reihana’s work is part of FAMSF’s commitment “to questioning dominant narratives, and integrating new and diverse points of view”, the director Thomas Campbell says in a statement, calling Reihana “a powerful voice in redefining history as we know it”.
This is the first time FAMSF and Lacma have made a joint acquisition. “It’s wonderful knowing this work has two new homes,” Reihana says in a statement.