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WWLD? In Conversation with Lisa Reihana

WW..D? Is an interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are a part of the creative community in New Zealand.

This week we spoke to Lisa Reihana. Lisa is one of New Zealand’s senior practitioners whose work has been a pioneering force in the challenging of prescribed Māori aesthetics. Her multi-disciplinary approach to art making creates sophisticated multiplicities. The much anticipated in Pursuit of Venus (infected) recently had it’s world premier at The Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, receiving much critical acclaim and situating itself as a landmark work for New Zealand contemporary art. Read more for what would Lisa do?

In a way, your practice emerged on that 2nd wave of Māori contemporary art, at the time you were ’young guns’. Has that generational gap been something that you’ve ever been conscious of?

Yes I was aware of the generational gap, the importance of being active in your own time, as well as knowing what came before. You should be aware of your context and history. I went through Elam Art School in the eighties, the ’83 intake was a force to be reckoned with, I am proud to say so many of that original intake are still creating work today. Of course the term ‘young guns’ was coined many years later, when this brash new generation of Māori artists’ impact was being felt locally and becoming recognised internationally. The Artspace exhibition Choice was a defining moment. George Hubbard’s visionary curation pushed against what had gone before, asserting new concerns and an aesthetic not confined to the customary.

Take us back to when you first laid eyes on Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique (1804-05), reactions, thoughts, comments?

It was James Pinker who urged me to view it, I didn’t fully comprehend this work at the time. My initial reaction was disbelief – how could anyone call these Grecian figures Pacificans. It was a fabulous concoction. I didn’t think about it for many years until, I realised it could be totally awesome with a geek-girl make-over. It was at this time, and while thinking about restaging it as a video that I realised what an incredible and multi-layered work it was. I have come to admire the work’s technical feat, it takes 1000 woodblocks to create the composition. Eventually getting to the [infected] version has made me appreciate how difficult it is to make something of this scale and intensity. I am writing as we create the soundtrack, and we are stunned by the ironies played up between the visual beauty and the horror within many of the scenes.

Colonisation is this big word that we often avoid or get fixated on, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] tackles this head on and also highlights the reciprocal nature of first contact. With such heavy subject matter how important is the process, making, technical and aesthetic aspects of the project?

Tackling colonisation is difficult – how do you tell these stories, and what does it mean today to yourself and others. Another issue to confront was authenticity, how can you even begin to represent ideas of another time today. I’m of mixed Māori and English descent – and so I’m reconciling historical realities and my DNA? Many years ago while I was visiting London, I felt the weight of colonisation as a big depressing chip on my shoulder. However, I soon realised the Brits passing me on the streets had no idea of my reality nor our Māori and Pacific histories. Some artists are very clear about their position, but I’m still exploring my thoughts and feelings. In making this work I have been able to look at these strange stories I read as embodied by real people. Working with actors is such a privilege as they breathe life into words on a page and give it meaning. I love beautiful things and strive for a high level of finish, it is very difficult for me to feel truly satisfied as I set my own bar very high. I am thrilled with the reception of the work – a lot of that is due to the immersive aspect, and only possible to spending so much time getting the technical aspects right.

The work in many ways touches on Epeli Hau’ofa’s idea of Oceania and shared Pacific histories. New Zealand the migrant corridor sits almost centre of what we call ‘Oceania’ making it an ample place for the works premier.  Why Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki?

Rhana Devenport has known of this project since its inception, and has been a fervent supporter. Much of the talent is Auckland based, and Auckland is home, so this is an appropriate place to premiere in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition and is out July 11th, and there is a concept expounded by Dr Deidre Browne which looks at the wallpaper as a utopian landscape that exists nowhere, and so belongs to no one, but it also functions as a turangawaewae for everyone. If you look closely, the sea is animated, and this is in deference to the ocean which made it possible for us to find our island homes, and why the explorers also washed up on our shores.

Being an ‘artist’ is often seen as a singular thing as in the sole ‘artist’ takes credit for the work. In a project of such an epic scale your many collaborators from the producers, actors, technicians, editors etc have all weaved in an out of the project. Is collaboration at the core of your practice? How have you found welcoming so many people into this project?

Well, I am no saint, and I am happy to take credit for dreaming up the idea, but I consider myself a filmmaker who works in the art world. Film credits differently than the western art world [a sweeping generalisation]. Working on ‘epic’ ideas requires a vast support network of cast and crew. I enjoy some parts of the process more than others, or rather, I find some roles very challenging. It has been amazing to work with so many people. There was a spirit of generosity and there is so much learning when that many people come together. I don’t always work on such large works, and see myself slipping between both small and epic scale productions.

You mentioned that part of the reason the project has taken 6 years is that you want to ensure you can pay all of your collaborators. Do you have any comments on the current arts ecology in New Zealand, what needs to change?

It’s important that we work professionally and demand a level of professionalism of each other and institutions. However, it was interesting that a Pacific person suggested that sometimes Pacific people prefer not to take payment, that a koha of time is even more valuable, and I have to agree. I was involved in 41 exhibitions and a number of residencies during those six years. They were to maintain my public profile, and ensured I was able to network while the project was in development. I’ve chosen my own art-world route, and there are so many different facets to it. And now the digital sphere offers other ways of promoting your work and ideas. Some of the easier things to change are your own ideas and approaches, stay open and flexible and true to your vision.

What’s next for in Pursuit of Venus [infected]?

Now iPOV begins its public reception, and there is interest from other folks to present it. A week later, the work opened in in Queensland Art Gallery playing on 4 large flat-screen monitors. I like the idea that it can operate as a handshake that opens doors to further performances. There were several scenes that l couldn’t include as I needed to finish it. Maybe what is next is to tell the missing yarns of First Nations and Australian Aboriginal peoples. I am now thinking, dreaming and scheming.

If you could buy any 5 artworks what would they be?

Any Ralph Hotere pinstripe painting – he rocks, these works have the groove factor of Holden’s in the 80’s. Any Sally Gabori painting – they are joyous and super present beyond belief. An Areta Wilkinson gold speech bubble, I love the pop aesthetic in these works, and that they simultaneously question Western value systems and Kai Tahu Maori material culture. I could live with Christian Marclay Tape Fall, theres something sentimental and nostalgic about the quarter inch tape, and I love the activism of the work, its monster-like appearance, and nothing beats an awesome ladder. Finally an installation that I haven’t had the [dis]pleasure of experiencing is Via Negativa by the Korean artist Lee Bull, I love her sculptures with their sci-fi aesthetic and materials really appeal.

Finally, what advice do you have young artists?

Work hard, get involved, support others, look wide and far and tell your own stories.

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