In a number of art museums and decorative arts collections in Australia, France and the United States, there are sections to be found of an extraordinary expression of the European imagining of Oceania, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (The Voyages of Captain Cook), a 20‑panel wallpaper designed by Jean Gabriel Charvet and printed by Joseph Dufour, around 1804–6. Said to be the largest such composition ever made, over two metres in height, and over ten in length in its complete form, this is an impressive but also a disconcerting panorama of the peoples, costumes, customs and environments of the Pacific.
A luminous evocation of voluptuous foliage, human variety, refined performance, remarkable ritual garb and regalia, it is also evidently fantastic, an overt romanticisation reducing the power, presence and complexity of Pacific life to enticing decoration. Les Sauvages could be dismissed as just another visual anthology of exotic stereotypes. But, whether you encounter the immaculately conserved display in Canberra or a rather dusty version in Honolulu, the wallpaper can’t be so easily consigned to an archive of obsolete, Eurocentric imagery. This may be because, despite being patently a French invention, made by and for people who imagined Oceania, and for whom Oceania was essentially imaginary, the panorama nevertheless bears traces of real meetings and real people.
During the voyages of Captain Cook and others, the navigators, natural scientists, artists and ordinary seamen encountered people from a bewildering range of cultures, on the beaches and in the hinterlands of islands and coasts across the Pacific and around the Pacific rim. They had dealings of various kinds with those people, some hostile, some tense, some convivial, some intimate. Islanders, for their part, made sense of strangers and created panoramas of the mind, featuring various Europeans and their exotic and sometimes anti‑social behaviours.
Over the course of these encounters, real Islanders and real activities were drawn and painted, and those images gained wide circulation through printed engravings. In turn, those printed images were reworked by Charvet. Some of his representations were closer to his sources than others, but at worst they were distortions of something, of drawings of Tu, Purea, Mai and other historical individuals, who met thirty to forty years earlier, on the shores of Matavai Bay on Tahiti’s northern coast, Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound, a deep entry into Vancouver Island, as well as in parts of Vanuatu, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.
Perhaps more obscurely, there’s also the significance of the medium. Vital to the cross‑cultural encounter across Oceania, paper is flexible and portable: no expedition could have been undertaken without it. In notebooks, journals, sketchbooks and on smaller and larger sheets of paper of various kinds and grades, field sketches were made, logs and journals written, charts, coastal profiles and maps of islands and hemispheres drawn, botanical and zoological specimens documented, and the lifestyle, peoples and artefacts illustrated.
Paper, considered as a form of fabric, a textile, by Polynesian people, also had an exchange value as a form of wealth, like a wrapping. The drawing by the Polynesian navigator, priest and artist Tupaia that has become most iconic represents an act of exchange between Cook’s companion, the scientist Joseph Banks, and a Māori man: sometime in late 1769 or early 1770, a crayfish and a sheet of paper change hands.
The wallpaper was at the end of a long process that entailed encounter, exchange, perception, imagination, transcription, illustration, representation, multiplication and dissemination. Viewed from the perspective of the present: paper mediated the business, from beginning to end, Les Sauvages is at the start of another process of encounter, connection and creation: it has inspired a project, a voyage, a succession of meetings, and resulted in an arresting and extraordinary work of art.
Lisa Reihana saw the wallpaper at the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 and soon afterwards began thinking towards work that responded to “the myriad possibilities” it offered, as she put it in an email to me at the time. She has since worked intensively to develop in Pursuit of Venus, an animated, digital recreation of the wallpaper. That recreation is uncannily precise in its reproduction of the panorama’s palette, its organisation through theatrical vignette, its elaborate distribution of near and distant scenes and an intriguing conjuncture of ostensibly naturalistic depiction and stagy artificiality.
But (the difference that makes the difference), Reihana’s panorama is inhabited by living actors, living performance and heterogeneous encounter, and animated by soundscapes that at different times present a disorderly hubbub or moments of pure, haunting song. A 2012 realisation was included in Suspended Histories, an impressive group exhibition broadly concerned with the legacies of trade and empire at the Museum Van Loon in Amsterdam: this was an eight‑minute, two‑channel, video on monitors, a work on a domestic scale that comfortably inhabited, yet also supplemented and engaged, the opulent eighteenth‑century furniture and painting of the Dutch town house.
Powerful in itself, this was in effect a proof of concept for the inaugural showing of a spectacularly enlarged and extended work, which featured not only a whole range of Pacific actors but among them, engaging with them, the European emissaries too: ordinary seamen (one suffering flogging, to the horror of Polynesian witnesses), the voyage artists (the illustrator of a fish, desperately troubled by flies), Joseph Banks (characteristically trying to seduce a Tahitian woman), and James Cook himself. in Pursuit of Venus [Infected], a 70‑minute multi‑channel HD video presented as a stunning, 23‑metre panoramic projection at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2015 generated considerable excitement. How could it not?
Lisa Reihana already had a reputation as an artist ahead of the game in film, photography, digital media and installation. Among many works, her Native Portraits n.19897 (1997) re‑animated the nineteenth‑century colonial studio photography of Māori, which she rendered visible, not as an archive of more or less stereotypical or problematic images, but as a theatre of encounter and performance, with its moments of pleasure, resistance, awkwardness and embarrassment. Incorporating a waharoa or gateway, an architectural form built out of embodiments of ancestors, this work did more than restage or reappropriate imagery, it constituted its own built space and realm. In Digital Marae (2007), the artist similarly sought to reconstitute the form of being that the customary Māori carved house exemplified as an architecture of genealogy, using new media.
I am intrigued by the question of what operation is equivalent to this in the considerably extended 2017 realisation of in Pursuit of Venus [Infected], shown on a similar scale as in Auckland, which together with additional works constitutes Emissaries, curated by Rhana Devenport for an evocative space, a vast waterside warehouse, New Zealand’s first Venice project in the Arsenale, one of the two main Biennale sites. The work could be seen as an instance of an archival turn in contemporary art, and in particular in postcolonial art.
At the end of the 1980s, the late Gordon Bennett began employing popular images of discovery and colonisation, confronting celebratory representations with the realities of dispossession. Many others have subsequently drawn on documents associated with colonial appropriations, manipulated colonial artefacts or technologies, and revalued colonial images for sometimes potent, possibly respectful images of ancestors and ancestral practices. Brook Andrew, in conversation with Reihana in the Emissaries catalogue, has perhaps more than any other artist made the retrieval, enlargement and affirmative manipulation of images from anthropological museums central to an impressive and internationally prominent body of work.
Lisa Reihana’s Native Portraits certainly exemplified this productive engagement with the archive. Indeed, both Andrew and Reihana demonstrated that an archival turn does more than offer more or less subtle critique: it renders the historic collection susceptible to genuine reactivation; it becomes a creative technology, a means to generate new things. Her 2006 piece He Tautoko, shown at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge was a work of reverse repatriation which made a historic sculpture in the museum more at home, by surrounding him with imagery from Aotearoa, and enabling him to listen to the sounds of carving and a Māori choir. Yet it also offered a complicated temporality between past and living memory, rather than just the past and present.
The archival, now also artefactual, turn indeed offers myriad, nuanced possibilities and narratives. The concept of reappropriation is too mechanical and straightforward to convey what the work is and does. When I first viewed a three‑minute proof of concept file in 2012 it made my spine tingle and passages in the finished work still do. This is affect, the power of performance, but more fundamentally the power of presence. Because the technical virtuosity of the work, dazzling as it is, is not an end in itself.
The theory of in Pursuit of Venus is bewilderingly layered. Its audience enters a space of uncertainty between the fictions of Enlightenment Europe and the presence of contemporary Islanders. Les Sauvages offered the visual equivalent of the novel as entertainment: not an educational representation of a real world, but a pleasingly contrived diversion, that nevertheless made some claim to show its European audiences “the savages of the Pacific Ocean", conveniently brought together in an exemplary locality. Reihana's work plays with the notion of offering us a re-enactment of the wallpaper. Voyaging, exploration and the voyages of Cook especially are constantly, indeed chronically re-enacted: the Endeavour replica is only the most expensive expression of this propensity.
Re‑enactment by definition takes place after the fact: it creates a space of continuity, discontinuity, authenticity and inauthenticity. Its premise is a literalism: the right clothes, the right artefacts, the right instruments, bring the past to life; as though either Islanders or mariners in 1769 could experience unprecedented encounters, with the knowledge of hindsight. On the one hand, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”; on the other, no past we present today is what it was.
The difference constitutive of in Pursuit of Venus—its difference also from the postcolonial art of the archive—lies in an aspect of its theory that is not bewildering but simple. And this is the sense in which its action is populated by performances that people do, that in some cases they might often do, such as prepare and serve kava for some occasion, or dance. While passages in the drama, such as the Tahitian mourning ceremony, unpredictably and dangerously orchestrated by the chief mourner, are recreations or re‑enactments of customary rites not routinely undertaken for many generations, they are also present, and available to the living people, the living Islanders who are, above all, present here.
In moving beyond work grounded in Māori history and representation, Reihana has freshly empowered the idea of the “new Oceania”, conceptualised initially by the novelist Albert Wendt in 1976, and articulated in expansive terms by the radical intellectual, Epeli Hau’ofa, in the early 1990s. Their visions had varied strands, but affirmed new, cross‑cultural Pacific communities made up of Islanders and Indigenous people from many Oceanic societies, interacting again through travel and in diasporic settings, enabled to do so by ancestral affinities and historic connections. This vision echoed Faulkner in understanding history as present and vital, yet also open and responsive, distinctively inflected by the moment of decolonisation.
In Reihana’s realisation the “new Oceania” is unambiguously contemporary and cosmopolitan in its identity and engagement. It is fully cognisant of the fertility, surprise, danger and necessity of encounter. Her re‑enactments do not lapse into Endeavour‑replica style literalism. They make sense because our encounters are unfinished. But they have also entailed genuine harm. The work’s title is explicit: contact brought “infection”. For the historic actors, that meant sexual contagion that they were painfully aware of, in the aftermath of the excitement of encounter. Figuratively, those who bear encounter histories may still be afflicted, in ways they may not yet fully recognise or understand.
I asked earlier if a work such as Digital Marae reproduced the customary forms of ancestral architecture in new media, whether customary forms were somehow similarly reproduced in in Pursuit of Venus [Infected]? They are, more deeply and essentially, in the process of encounter and dialogue that enabled the piece to be made. The work is the upshot of a sustained series of collaborations with performance groups, many of which came to Auckland for the annual Pasifika Festival. The artist engaged in extended conversations and negotiations with participants, was responsive to their interests and impulses and gave much consideration to the ethical and political issues that a cross‑cultural project on this scale inevitably raised.
If this was in part a matter of care and protocol, it was also more profoundly an exemplification of the forms of Oceanic sociality that historically and pervasively have been constituted out of encounter, negotiation, exchange and performance. in Pursuit of Venus [Infected] will generate many different commentaries, and there is far more to say about this absorbing and powerfully suggestive work than can be signalled here. Yet, whatever else it did, Les Sauvages incorporated Oceania into an expression of European culture. In Pursuit makes European emissaries, European science and European art, parts of a Pacific story, a global story of Oceanic encounter.
Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit Of Venus [Infected] was commissioned by Alastair Caruthers and curated by Rhana Devenport for the New Zealand Pavilion, at Tese dell’Isolotto in the Arsenale of the 57th International Art Exhibition, Biennale Arte (13 May – 26 November 2017).
Nicholas Thomas is Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, UK. His books include, Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook (2003), Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (2010), which was awarded the Wolfson History Prize and, most recently, The Return of Curiosity: What Museums Are Good For In The Twenty‑first Century (2016).