Video Artist Lisa Reihana Brings Truth Back to the History of the Pacific
August 20, 2019
Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a large 19th-century wallpaper at the de Young Museum, depicts a romanticized version of British Captain James Cook’s three expeditions to the Pacific, and primarily Polynesia. At over 17 feet long, the scene portrays happy people lounging, dancing and unhurriedly working in a verdant tropical setting.
And though each of the 20 panels is meant to represent different locales from Cook’s journeys, the continuous landscape does not readily present the distinction between people and places, not least of all because designer Jean-Gabriel Charvet drew on attire from classical antiquity and the French Empire period when illustrating the people of the Pacific. This results in a scene that is ahistorical even before considering history. The greatest distortion, however, is the artist’s failure to represent the violence and colonization that Cook and the British brought to the Pacific.
After chancing upon the wallpaper in an Australian museum, Lisa Reihana, a Māori artist from New Zealand, embarked on a decade-long project to reimagine Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique by infusing it with the truth that it lacks.
The result is stunning. Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], on view at the de Young until Jan. 5, takes the form of an immersive video that scrolls along a 70-foot screen. The illustrated background is much like Charvet’s, lending an animated feel to the video, but Reihana’s update is populated with a filmed cast of more than 100 characters and performers, all integrated beautifully and seamlessly into the landscape.
Though the video loops back on itself and has no definite beginning or end, there is a narrative progression. Prior to Cook’s arrival, the locals are shown living a life not too unlike that depicted by Charvet—they appear happy and fulfilled. Immediately following the arrival of the explorers, the various groups appear to get along relatively well. But minor hostility on the part of the British quickly devolves into the torture and subjugation of the locals, culminating in the killing of Cook as he tries to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the ruler of Hawaiʻi (a true story).
Tellingly, the first act of violence depicted isn’t a member of Cook’s crew attacking one of the locals, but rather a member of the expedition whipping his comrade. In early scenes the locals are seen tattooing British men, helping them apply body paint, and entertaining them, such as with a comedic mock childbirth with a grown man playing the part of the baby. And while Cook and his crew seem friendly enough at first, the whipping of one of their own breaks the peace—an anticipated inevitability for students of history—and suggests that while they have met with hospitality, the British have brought their own violence and inherited trauma to the Pacific.
Even when it isn’t made heroic in retellings, colonial violence is sometimes dismissed as the unavoidable result of clashing civilizations in which neither party (especially the colonial party) is free from blame. But Lisa Reihana makes clear that the ensuing destruction came from and within the British.
The video is billed as 64 minutes long, but in truth it is much longer. There are simultaneous scenes on the screen at any given time, and it is impossible to fully devote one’s attention to all of them. Once you move on from a scene, it continues to play out regardless of the attention you give it. And if you keep your gaze on it until it exits the screen, you will miss the new scenes that have entered the frame. To combine the time of all of the vignettes might triple or quadruple the length of the piece. Having watched the piece in its entirety, and then some, I wonder what nuance or detail I may yet have missed.
All of this only contributes to the mesmerizing nature of the video. In the peaceful moments, the beauty of the setting, the music and the dancing are captivating, and rather than trying to take in every element (an impossibility), I surrendered myself to the aesthetic experience.
At other times, the video is a cacophony of suspenseful music, screaming and violence. I was ensnared in these moments as well, but it was the spectacle of oppression that had its grip on me, not beauty.
This is a mirror to the reality of colonial violence, which can be overwhelming in its overactivity. The bombardment of the mind can make it too easy to miss details, make it difficult to follow narratives, and ultimately cause bewilderment. And colonialists benefit when it becomes more difficult to hold them to account. There is a difference between an artwork that overwhelms you for a few minutes and centuries of disorientation, exhaustion and propaganda.
in Pursuit of Venus [infected] illustrates the violence and arrogance of colonial endeavors, as well as its dizzying effect on history making. The lesson is not just in the film’s content but in the impact that content has on the senses.