The Venice Questionnaire #16 – Lisa Reihana

The New Zealand artist is looking forward to bringing the Pacific to Europe

Lisa Reihana, detail in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (Captain James Cook and his John Shelton clock), 2015–17. Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015. Image: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery. Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015. Image: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery. Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015. Image: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery.

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2017 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening (13 May – 26 November). 

Lisa Reihana is representing New Zealand with Lisa Reihana: Emissaries. The pavilion is in the Arsenale.

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

Preparing the exhibition, which is titled Emissaries, has been all-consuming. And for the very first time, New Zealand will be present right in the heart of the Arsenale, in one of the oldest buildings. The show riffs off the historic naval warehouse Tese dell’Isolotto, and includes sculptures, photographs and an immersive video. The works meditate on ideas generated by cartographic endeavours and scientific exploration, aims to unravel Enlightenment ideals and philosophy, the colonial impulse, and the distant gaze of power.

The central work, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17) is a vast panoramic wall length video inspired by Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804), a scenic wallpaper whose exotic subject mirrored the fascination with Pacific voyages undertaken by Captain Cook in the seventeenth century. Both are set in a utopian Tahitian landscape; while the wallpaper models Enlightenment beliefs and ideas of harmony amongst mankind, my reading of history is darker, more nuanced. To challenge the stereotypes that developed in those times and since, the gaze of imperialism is returned with a speculative twist. I’ve included figures which loom large in our imagination: Tupaia – the Machiavellian Tahitian who was a gifted navigator; the privileged and inquisitive botanist Joseph Banks; and Captain Cook – famous explorer, gifted cartographer and arguably the harbinger of colonisation.

How is making a show for the Venice Biennale different to preparing a ‘normal’ exhibition? Or another biennial?

Knowing that so many other great artists will be presenting at the Biennale makes you lift your game. New Zealand is a great distance from the Biennale, so taking part requires a staggering amount of work undertaken by a huge team of amazingly talented and generous people. It’s also created opportunities, and opened many doors. The UK’s Royal Society, for example, provided access to some of its precious collection including observational instruments Captain James Cook used during his fateful expeditions into the Pacific.

There are a huge number of biennial exhibitions across the world nowadays. Do you think the Venice Biennale still has a special status, and why?

It’s a great opportunity for me to understand Venice as it’s so different to New Zealand – it’s an honour to take part in it actually. I’ve recently shown in the Kochi Muziris Biennale – a fantastic artist-led event – and I’m currently showing in the inaugural Honolulu Biennial, which has great significance for the Pacific region. I’ve shown in many biennials and international exhibitions, and whilst all have their own vitality and personality, Venice is still the queen.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ your country? Do you find it an honour or is it problematic?

I take this opportunity very seriously. Our country is vibrant, smart and creative – and showing here is the best way I know of demonstrating that. Emissaries has the input of many people, working within the cast and crew and that feeling keeps me going, and keeps me strong. If it was problematic, I would not have applied to take part in it.

The Venice audience is a diverse group. Who is most important to you? The artists, the gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening, or the general public which visits in the months that follow?

Everyone is important, I loathe hierarchies. I also know that works find their own audience, and as much as I’m inspired to make work for the people, its often my own curiosity that drives my creative impulse. I may want to manifest something or investigate an idea so I can see it and come to new understandings, work out what inspired me in the first place. When you’ve received funding to make a work, it’s important to get it out to as many people as you can. The Venice Biennale is going to make that a reality.

Did you visit the last Venice Biennale? What’s your earliest or best memory from Venice?

It’s 24-hours long-haul to get to Marco Polo Airport from Auckland, so one of my best memories was hopping into a water-taxi on arrival. Zooming towards the city with the wind blowing away the fuzziness of stifling aeroplane air, then seeing it emerge like a glorious mirage on the horizon magic. I can see why this beautiful city has enthralled so many people for centuries. And then amongst its historic buildings, at the Giardini and the Arsenale you see the best contemporary art the world has to offer – it’s a wonderful experience.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

This may sound self-obsessed, but my work foregrounds indigenous peoples from Aotearoa New Zealand, Nootka Sound and the Pacific, so I can’t wait to see how my work reads in Europe. I look forward to taking part in Lee Mingwei’s performances, seeing Tracey Moffatt’s new work, seeing work from the Baltic countries, and just soaking in the latest and greatest.

Click here to read all the Venice Questionnaires so far

25 April 2017