Captain James Cook arrived in Tahiti to observe the path of the planet Venus across the sun on June 3, 1769, as part of an international attempt to accurately measure the distance of the sun from the Earth. He continued that world-changing voyage, along with two other scientific explorations of the Pacific, before his abrupt death on the island of Hawaii in 1779. Artist Lisa Reihana uses the framework of this story for her video installation in Pursuit of Venus [infected], yet does not recount the episodes of the tale in linear fashion. Instead she relies on a Pacific theory of time, Tā-Vā, a cyclical process of becoming, where the past and present occupy a single space. Additionally, she reverses the camera, presenting an energetic reclamation from a trans-Pacific perspective.
Reihana is a New Zealand artist of Maori heritage who, among other honors, was selected to represent her country in the 2017 Venice Biennale. in Pursuit of Venus [infected] was created over more than 10 years and updated in several versions between 2015 and 2017. Most recently, the work was a centerpiece of Oceania, an ambitious loan exhibition at the National Academy, London.
The format of the video is based on Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacific, a 20-panel scenic neoclassical wallpaper designed in France by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and printed by Joseph Dufour around 1804–06. Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacific is a bold and highly romanticized panorama of figures, sea-going vessels, and landscape. Loosely based on historic accounts, it depicts Cook and other European explorers interacting with indigenous peoples of wider Oceania, including Australia, Hawaii, and Alaska. Some Pacific figures were based on ancient images from Pompeii, which had been rediscovered just 50 years prior, as well as well-known Greek and Roman sculptures.
The Dufour wallpaper was widely distributed during the 19th century, with many examples installed in American homes of the Federal period, and examples today on view in museums in San Francisco, Honolulu, Auckland, and elsewhere. Lisa Reihana first encountered the wallpaper at the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 and was inspired by the multiple interpretive strategies that it offered.
To create her work, Reihana staged a series of 80 theatrical vignettes performed by representatives of various areas of the Pacific. Prominently shown are two emissaries: Omai, an elegant young man from Ra’iatea who was heralded in London in 1774–76, and Tupaia, who travelled on Cook’s voyage to Australia and New Zealand, serving a key diplomatic role. Together, the vignettes form a sequence of conversations, chants, dances, and social interactions that periodically activate across the wide expanse of screen.
Using the exaggerated desire for exoticism seen in the 19th century panoramas, Reihana restages her own view of the Pacific—displacing the colonial/explorer view and replacing it with indigenous agency, guiding her actors to reimagine notions of power, gender, and representation. Reihana took particular effort to incorporate actual taonga or treasured objects, including garments and textiles, weapons, and musical instruments into the staging of this complex performance.
During our 33rd Collectors Committee Weekend (April 12–13), members of LACMA's Collectors Committee generously helped the museum acquire eight works of art spanning a breadth of eras and cultures.