Parlour Projects, a contemporary art gallery situated on Eastbourne St in Hastings, is a large-ish, well-lit, handsome exhibition space. It routinely mounts impressive work by talented local and out-of-town artists. On show at present are Billie Culy’s large photographs of retro flowers. They feel like throwbacks to the New Zealand of the ‘50s: church hall arrangements, Temuka props and those dense cake icing/food colouring hues that take the air out of things.
If you want to see Lisa Reihana’s photographic portraits at Parlour Projects, though, you’ll need to climb the metal spiral staircase to the galley-like mezzanine that doubles as a stockroom – but don’t worry, it’s not either as dangerous or as cluttered as that sounds. Lisa Reihana is something of a superstar of New Zealand art, now that her large-scale video work, In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] (2015), is being shown at this year’s Venice Biennale. This work takes the form of an animated historical tableau played out by costumed actors against an Arcadian landscape that Reihana repurposes from a 19th century French wallpaper design, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique.
What I’m looking at here on the mezzanine, though, are a row of five still portraits of historical personages selected from Reihana’s larger work. Once you know that these images are, in a sense, components exiled from their original setting (that crucial wallpaper landscape), you unavoidably feel the absence of a narrative dimension.
That said, there is still a lot to see. These five historical protagonists, namely William Hodges, Nootka Warrior, Sydney Parkinson, Maori Chief Mikaara and Joseph Banks, are modelled by costumed actors. Reihana could have photoshopped them into rich facsimiles of 19th century oil painting – but she’s too aware an artist to settle cosily into that aesthetic ‘costume-drama’ cul-de-sac. Instead she heightens our sense of the artifice of the concept with unmistakably anachronistic visual residues that infect the notional past with the palpable present. The characters’ faces seem somewhat over lit, exposing, especially in William Hodges and Sydney Parks, a kind of sweaty pallor that seems to reflect the cold sterility of office lighting and whiteboards rather than the exotic sun of the South Pacific; the historical fiction won’t hold. The characters earnestly demonstrate their identity via pose and accessory – quill, taiaha, palette, journal, but they can’t stop being like edutainment GIFs. Even the costuming, though no doubt researched for accuracy, is somewhat perfunctory and flat – all standard cosplay and compressed signification. Intriguingly, the backgrounds are odd silvery warps of space reminiscent of enlargements of microscopy, either biological or mineral or chromosomal. Are these visual acknowledgements of the scientific endeavours that brought these men together? Endeavours financed by the imperial and mercantile acquisitiveness of London’s corporate head offices?
What’s certain, though, is that the infection carried in part by these ambiguous backdrops heightens our sense that these figures are somehow as trapped in their shallow identities and functions as video game avatars are within the confines of a game; or as trapped as their descendants may feel in the digitally mediated, artificially engineered South Pacific of their cultural legacy.