10 May 2017

Reihana a gold medallist at art's Olympic Games

12:00 pm on 10 May 2017

Finally, Lisa Reihana gets to show the world her exhibition Emissaries, formerly known and admired as In Pursuit of Venus (Infected).

Lisa Reihana in Venice.

Lisa Reihana in Venice. Photo: RNZ / Lynn Freeman

It was impressive in its first life - now it’s longer, more intensely coloured, with an enhanced soundtrack and truly Pan Pacific.

Reihana is fiercely proud of the giant audio-visual work that takes up an entire side of a massive warehouse-sized space at the Arsenale, the hub of the Biennale.

This work has consumed her for several years. The Biennale commission allowed her partner James Pinker to take it to a whole new level. They essentially unpicked this living tableau set against a painted backdrop which is based on an historic wallpaper of idyllic Pacific scenes, and recreated it.

Lisa Reihana's work, Emissaries.

Lisa Reihana's work, Emissaries. Photo: RNZ / Lynn Freeman

They travelled widely to find new source material and to record authentic sounds of musical instruments and even Captain Cook’s original seafaring clock.

Reihana has added around 10 new vignettes, one of the most important being of aboriginal dancers.

The work, she says, is now complete. It will be a few days before the reviews are printed. Past New Zealand exhibitions have made it into the all important Top Ten lists. There’s a quiet confidence that Lisa Reihana : Emissaries will achieve this too.

On a personal note, I had waited a long time to see this audio-visual epic that Reihana and I first spoke about back in 2015. On walking into the giant space this morning, and throwing myself into the narrative, I was immersed in it.

It is extraordinary. It makes strong points about colonisation and cross cultural misunderstanding, while also celebrating cross cultural appreciation. It is truly beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

Walking around other works at the Arsenale today, I saw nothing else like it there either.

Lisa Reihana's work at the Venice Biennale.

Lisa Reihana's work at the Venice Biennale. Photo: RNZ / Lynn Freeman

Some VIPs were looking around the Arsenale today, but the Vernissage (media preview) starts in earnest tomorrow. It will be madness. Like an annual department store sale. Crowds of people in a hurry, making up their minds in a moment about what’s hot and what’s not.

It’s a shame art doesn’t get the same kind of attention and patriotism that sport does. So, think of the Venice Biennale as the Olympic Games of contemporary art. Imagine Lisa Reihana on the podium, national anthem playing, receiving a gold medal.

Tomorrow sees the formal opening of Lisa’s exhibition at 10.30am. My lips have to be sealed because of promises made, but I can say it will be spectacular. As befits the work.

Lynn Freeman’s coverage of the Venice Biennale for RNZ was made possible by Creative New Zealand

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