Lisa Reihana Gives 200-Year-Old Art a Modern Spin

A new video exhibit at the de Young puts James Cook in a more accurate context.

For more than 200 years, the French panoramic wallpaper called Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique — whose literal English translation is “The Savages of the Sea Pacific” — has made an impression on millions of art-goers. 

San Francisco’s de Young Museum acquired a version in 1977, and Jean-Gabriel Charvet’s wallpaper found a home most recently on the institution’s second floor, right next to its extensive collection of art from the South Pacific island of New Guinea — as if Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique were a colonial-era counterpart to the de Young’s centuries-old masks, robes, and other objects from Oceania. But visitors who now walk up to that second-floor spot find a blank wall where Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique once reigned.

Since August and continuing until Jan. 5, Charvet’s wallpaper has been relocated to a more appropriate de Young spot: in a separate, second-floor exhibit space devoted not to Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique but in Pursuit of Venus [infected], a new scrolling video work that deconstructs and subverts Charvet’s art while borrowing from its visual aesthetics. Lisa Reihana’s new video — 68 feet wide and 10 feet tall — is a revelation in the way that Jordan Peele’s Get Out reimagined The Stepford Wives through a surreal lens of race and in the way that Joe Cocker reimagined The Beatles’ With a Little Help from My Friends from the edge of a wild musical precipice. Once Cocker and Peele went over that edge, it was impossible to look at The Stepford Wives and The Beatles’ song in the exact same way. Hell, it was impossible to look at the wider world the same way. 

So it is with Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Where Charvet’s Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique was born from a colonizing era that celebrated Captain James Cook’s illustrated 18th-century voyages in Oceania and elsewhere — and celebrated Europe’s new perceptions of the region’s peoples as almost simple exotics — Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] takes an opposite approach: The peoples of Oceania have a complex culture that’s impressive and inspiring, and their interactions are understood not from the exotic European gaze but from their own. That’s what Reihana has done: taken the “savage” and the static out of Charvet’s work and replaced it with a dynamic movie-like video that’s literally and figuratively moving. 

Reihana cast actors and actresses to play the roles of colonizing Europeans and the native people of Oceania, and put them in appropriate settings and in the appropriate clothing — unlike Charvet, who used drawings of Cook’s travels and his own imagination to portray a kind of Pacific Shangri-La that was filled most prominently with lighter-skinned men and women. It was as if Charvet repopulated the Pacific with French people in Roman robes. 

Reihana was the ideal artist to offer a new vision of old-world Oceania since she’s from New Zealand, is descended from the island nation’s Maori people but also has European roots (“my mother is English, Welsh, and Jewish, and my father is Maori and Irish”), and has known about Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique for many years. The de Young is giving Reihana’s video, which it acquired, its first exhibition in the continental United States, after in Pursuit of Venus [infected] screened at the Honolulu Museum of Art, the 2017 Venice Biennale, and other venues. 

“I took the wallpaper and removed the characters, because that’s what I couldn’t recognize in terms of the costuming and facial features and some of the gestures — and what I wanted to do was populate the work with the living, breathing faces of Pacific people, so we could have them speaking back through time,” Reihana said at a recent de Young press event for in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. “If you look at the original wallpaper, there really aren’t any of the European travelers in that work. But in my work, the ‘infected’ component of the title is about complicating history and bringing them into that field of view, too.” 

Charvet’s original work is 20 panels long. Seen in the de Young’s special second-floor exhibit space, in a room that’s next to the screening space for in Pursuit of Venus [infected], Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique is now much smaller in scope and much smaller in stature. It had its own wall before, but now it’s dwarfed by Reihana’s nearby video. And now it’s almost an afterthought — eclipsed two centuries later by a work that took four years to record and included musician and producer James Pinker (Reihana’s partner and collaborator), whose sound work for in Pursuit of Venus [infected] accentuates singing, drumming, chanting, and other artistic pursuits that the performers act out. 

Like JR’s new animated mural at SFMOMA, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] places a series of different scenes into a scrolling artwork that makes it seem the scenes are all intimately connected. With in Pursuit of Venus [infected], this happens against a backdrop of trees that are clearly illustrated as we see hula dancers swaying and — minutes later — colonizing British soldiers flogging a native man and  — minutes later — a native man attacking and killing Captain Cook as the British explorer tried to bully other native people. We also see British men trading items for sexual favors. And native people laughing with the colonizing British. And other intermingling that would be considered positive. So Reihana gives art-goers an in-depth look at the life and times of colonial-era interactions that happened in Tahiti, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), and other Pacific Ocean places that many people today think of as “paradise.” That’s what Charvet’s original artwork tried to do: Project a kind of romanticized vision onto the people of the Pacific. The truth was much more complicated. The making of Reihana’s video was also complicated. 

“For the actor that I really wanted to work with, colonialism was a really big issue, and the way I enticed him to be part of the weekend shoot we were doing instead of going to his friend’s wedding was giving him the part to kill Captain Cook — because he really wanted to kill Captain Cook,” Reihana said when SF Weekly asked how difficult it was to make the video. “But I don’t want to be didactic — I think that puts people off — and this work invites many, many people in. . . .  The faces of the people, and hearing people speaking — that makes you feel much more empathy, and perhaps that’s a more empathetic way of looking at history.” 

Brothel Video

Another innovative video project has made its way to San Francisco — this one to Catharine Clark Gallery, where “How to Fall in Love in a Brothel” invites art-goers to be active voyeurs outside a faux, 1950s-era Korean shoji-room, and also invites them to watch a video that recreates a courting between a young Korean man and his object of affection. Conceived and created by the artists Sunhui Chang, Ellen Sebastian Chang, and Maya Gurantz, “How to Fall in Love in a Brothel” lets visitors poke fingers in the shoji screen to see what’s inside. The hands-on interaction reveals layers of family history that crisscross the globe — and raises questions about the importance of identity, social pressures, and transactional intimacy. 

“The brothel is a metaphor,” Ellen Sebastian Chang told SF Weekly on the day we visited. “The more we commodify every aspect of our life — things like Instagram and influencers — how do you even meet anybody now? You’re a creep if you look organically at someone in public. Everything is transactional — because for you to even develop a relationship now, you have to have a phone. Phones cost money… It’s more and more monetarily based. And the more we take mystery out of how we connect, the more that becomes commodified. ‘Who are you — and what do you do?’ It’s not, ‘What kind of person are you?’”

“How to Fall in Love in a Brothel” uses curtained, election-style spaces to give peephole instructions to visitors. That way, art-goers experience what it’s like to be cloaked in a public space that’s still private — and also experience, through the peep-holed shoji walls, what it’s like to expose another person’s intimate setting. 

in Pursuit of Venus [infected]

Through Jan. 5 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Golden Gate Park). $6-$15; 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org.

“How to Fall in Love in a Brothel”

Through Dec. 21 at Catharine Clark Gallery, 248 Utah St. Free; 415-399-1439, cclarkgallery.com

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