Transit from Venice

Lisa Reihana has wowed audiences at the Venice Biennale with her Emissaries project and its centrepiece video In Pursuit of Venus. Rebecca Fox discovers she has also been working on a exhibition for Dunedin.

After devoting seven years to a work, two of those full-time, artist Lisa Reihana is ready to tackle the next project.

But given Lisa Reihana: Emissaries is still on show at the world's largest and most prestigious international contemporary art exhibition, it will be some time before she lets go of it completely.

Reihana was selected two years ago by Creative New Zealand to represent the country at the La Biennale di Venezia.

Her exhibition - featuring the panoramic video Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015-17 (23.5m long by 3.3m high) was officially opened by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy.

It is housed in the Tese dell'Isolotto, one of the oldest and most expansive maritime buildings in the Arsenale, the biennale's central exhibition area. This is the first time the New Zealand pavilion has been located in this area.

Lisa Reihana with her Pursuit of Venus panoramic video, on show at the Venice Biennale. Photos: Supplied
Lisa Reihana with her Pursuit of Venus panoramic video, on show at the Venice Biennale. Photos: Supplied

''It is pretty personally fantastic. To get the work completed and shown is really amazing. It's been an enormous project.''

The feedback had been positive, with some ''quite surprised'' by the work as it is ''unusual, new and different''. Pursuit of Venus is described as a ''filmic re-imaging'' of the French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique made in 1804-05 by Joseph Dufour. It includes images from voyages by Captain Cook and Captain La Perouse.

''It's a big opportunity. I hope I can now continue to focus on art as a career,'' Reihana said.

''I'm living the dream.''

After the opening weeks of the show, Reihana and partner James Pinker escaped to the French Alps for a break and to work out where to go next.

''We're thinking through the next challenges and I'm starting to think about my next work.''

Aware that now Venus has a ''public life'' she needs to support that, the couple have stayed in Europe to see it through. She had received many requests to show the work but given the complexity of the piece there are many logistical issues to work through.

''I think I've created a small monster.''

Lisa Reihana explains her work to Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy at the opening of Lisa Reihana: Emissaries
Lisa Reihana explains her work to Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy at the opening of 'Lisa Reihana: Emissaries'. Photo: Supplied

It already has a couple of exhibitions locked in, such as Campbelltown Art Centre near Sydney which helped Reihana record Venus' Aboriginal content.

''But I've also had a couple of projects I've put on hold to concentrate on Venice as I wanted to throw everything at it, as it's such a great opportunity in an international forum.''

As she finished up the Venice project she began work on an exhibition for Dunedin's Milford Galleries - adding to about 20 projects she has completed while working on Pursuit of Venus and Emissaries.

''I haven't stopped, even though we are in different time zones,'' Reihana said.

Given she has been immersed in Venus for such a long time, she is looking forward to getting into some ''short, sharp'' projects to ''get the muscles going again''.

''There are a few other techniques I've spied my little eye on.

''I realise video work is quite a tricky one to present, so it's useful to create projects that are less complex so I can get a couple out quite quickly.''

A teacher by trade, Reihana only gave up work two years ago, and hopes Venice will provide her with the launching pad to continue to work full-time as a professional artist.

Bank’s Transit of Venus has been mounted in a new state-of-the-art system for the Milford Gallery show.
Bank’s Transit of Venus has been mounted in a new state-of-the-art system for the Milford Gallery show.

Her interest in using technology in her art came from being ''nosy'', she said.

''I think when I was really young hearing descriptions of Maori adopting new techniques post-colonisation and quickly adapting to that - I identified strongly with that, I thought it is the way to be.''

As a young female artist she found the type of work she could do was clouded by gender.

''Working with new techniques and technology is another way to sidestep that.''

Coming from a family of women, the message women could do anything was strongly reinforced.

''It's a political act to be seen to be utilising these materials and inspiring others. For me that is really important and a political act.''

She also loved that she was able to create magic with film techniques.

''A sense of magic and wonder appeals to the child in me and I hope it appeals to the child in others, too. The beauty and other-worldliness which seems to expand the way people might think. There is more to the world than just what we see.''

Venus and the work she had created for the Milford exhibition were time-consuming projects, as she had to create a new ''cinematic language''.

''With film, anyone can do it but you have to be quite creative on the computer.''

A lot of the images in the Milford show, while quite different from the Venice video itself, are based on the video.

''I had to find new production techniques to work remotely. This is going to arrive in Dunedin while I'm over here.''

She has used a ''state of the art'' mounting system which seals the selected images between an aluminium dibond backing and an acrylic glass front. The images sit off the wall and look like they are floating.

Working with other talented people is also a way to address the isolation some artists might feel, she says.

''It's an opportunity to see and work with different workers and organisations - to be part of the wider community.''

Reihana always hated the term ''arty-farty'' used in relation to artists, saying professional artists need a lot of skills.

''You have to be really organised to deliver these things.''

In the two years Reihana was putting together the Venice show she also tackled about 20 shows and two public projects.

''I'm my own little cottage industry business. You need good skills. We're producing work at a really high rate.''

She works closely with her partner, who is a musician and produced the soundtrack for Venus. Together they are ''Artprojects'', which gives them a ''moniker'' to work under.

They ''divide and conquer'', with Pinker taking on much of the managing and digital work.

''It's great to have his support. To talk through ideas before you take them out to market. You need safe people. He's a great sounding board for concepts and ideas.''

Putting your ideas and work out in the public domain is not an easy thing to do, she said.

''It's hard. If people don't like it they can slag you off . It takes a lot of energy to create an idea in your head and then make it into the real thing - it's a lot of hard work.''

Her success at Venice highlighted how New Zealanders can learn and practise differently, she says.

''I'm looking forward to what happens next. It's been gratifying that my work has been really well received for myself and all the others involved in it.''

How the Venice exhibition will impact on her work during the next five years has still to be seen.

''I want to base myself in New Zealand but have an international profile. It is scary and exciting.''

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