WELLESLEY — Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” spans 80 feet of gallery space at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. It’s an illuminated, animated tableau of South Pacific idyll with a sharp edge. The piece, a multi-channel video composite, is a riff on a blithely fabulistic early-19th-century French decorative wallpaper, loosely — very loosely — depicting early European exploration of the Pacific Rim.
Reihana takes dead aim at its vision of the uncomplicated pleasures of colonization as portrayed in drawings, paintings, books, and, it turns out, decor options for the most privileged of European homes of the day. The ravages of colonialism and its persistent echoes remain opaque to large swaths of the western world, and Reihana, a Maori New Zealander, is game to deliver a remedial lesson. By bringing static images to life, “In Pursuit of Venus [infected],” made between 2015 and 2017, addresses historical exclusions with a dynamic form best equipped to unravel them. It is art about the past, made for the future.
Reihana’s source material is Joseph Dufour’s “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique” (The Savages of the Pacific Ocean), a 20-panel French wallpaper (14 reproduced here) made in 1804-05. It was a cheerfully edited reflection of reports from the Pacific forays of British explorer Captain James Cook, the French Louis de Bouganville, and the waves of conquerors that followed. Dufour’s tableau exults in joyful inaccuracy: Towering palms frame pale-skinned “natives” in Grecian togas performing synchronized dance, grappling in contests of strength, lounging amid tropical bliss. Their dress is a mash-up of quasi-Indigenous stereotypes fused to neo-classical aesthetics: feathered headdresses and grass skirts paired with flowing robes.
The whole scene is a fantasy of an imagined exotic of no fixed address: References within its 20 panels span the Pacific, from the North Coast of British Columbia to Hawaii to Easter Island. It debuted in 1806 at the Fourth Exhibition of Industrial Products of the French Industry in Paris as a marvel of art meeting technology: a composite of more than 1,000 individual woodblock prints, able to be mass-produced.
Dufour’s wallpaper now serves as an outsize symbol of the paradox of the Enlightenment in Europe. The late 18th and early 19th century was a time of rapid scientific advancement that ran parallel to an era of peak exploration and colonialism, a toxic crossover whose collision gave shape to our world today. An enlightened Europe imagined itself the yardstick by which its encounters on far-flung endeavors, whether in Africa, the Americas, or the South Pacific, would be measured; its own superiority established, this could only go one way. And so, the pillage of those places, and their breezy fetishization back home, became a simple matter of course.
It’s too simplistic to suggest that “In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” reverses that gaze, though the piece brings Indigenous experience fully into the frame. A reversal would mean a villain/victim narrative, and Reihana is less interested in narrative vengeance than veracity. In the contrived visual space of “Les Sauvages,” the artist offers a complex mise-en-scene fueled by anxiety and tension. Stepping into the gallery, the screen dominates your field of vision to the periphery: You’re not so much watching as stepping inside it, a sense amplified by the characters being projected at human scale.
The piece became something of a sensation when it was presented at the New Zealand pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s enveloping, with its basic elements setting a stage for fantasy: The rolling green hills, beaches, palms, and sea are all drawn from the depiction of the Tahiti in “Les Sauvages,” a cartoon Arcadia of blissful perfection. Its 64 minutes loop endlessly, scrolling right to left, though it does help to think of the piece as linear, with a beginning and end; watching it several times through, the progression matters.
Reihana dismissed the Dufour scenario of a Pacific cultural mishmash for obvious reasons, consulting deeply with Indigenous groups throughout the region before settling on Polynesia. But the story matches up to almost anywhere European tall ships touched shore.
The piece is a quick journey from pre-contact — peaceful scenes of islanders drumming or dancing, or mending fishing nets by the shore — to encounter, and the rapid decay that follows. The format of the piece, rolling slowly by, means multiple scenes occupy the screen at the same time; as you’re watching pre-contact idyll at the center, you can see stiff-backed British sailors in an audience with the island chief creeping closer from the right.
Innocent exchange — islanders learning how to use a sextant; the British fussily cataloging their findings in ledger books propped on ornate wooden writing desks dropped on the rolling green — devolves into disconnect and violence. Sailors and islanders playing a game split along racial lines following a disagreement, and a gun is drawn; the British captain misconstrues a young woman displaying traditional dress for him as a romantic overture, and conflict ensues as he tries to lead her to his tent.
The piece reaches a crescendo as the captain and chief scream wildly at each other, both locked in a frenzy of miscomprehension; but there is no explosive conclusion, no massacre or war. Instead, the piece settles into a simmering malaise, a grudging divide unspoken but evident in every gesture and word, which is hardly only historical fact. “In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” is an annotated history that’s as much about now as it is then.
LISA REIHANA: IN PURSUIT OF VENUS [INFECTED]
Through Dec. 18. The Davis Museum at Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley. 781-283-2051, www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum