Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Remixing Myth

Maui by Lisa Reihana
Image courtesy of Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Myths are the fence posts that we use to grasp understanding of the world, to colour our perception of reality and to navigate life’s riddles. Whether they be moral fables or cryptic wonders - myths in whatever form they come in are crucial to how we live life. Stories, theories and even accounts of history could also be viewed as myths which we manufacture to help us understand the past, navigate the present and head towards the future. Therefore, how a myth is told and by whom is very important. Since the creation of a story will always be shaped by the media of communication and someone’s perspective.

In traditional Maori culture, for example, myths of creation and stories of ancestors are represented in pouwhenua (wooden carvings) within a Wharenui. Pouwhenua figures are typically not “realistic” but stylistic representations shaped by how a story or ancestor is perceived through Maori mysticism and worldview. Pouwhenua is also depicted through a males perspective since carving, traditionally speaking, is reserved for men only. As in any artistic tradition the style of pouwhenua varies depending on iwi and historical period. The current exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery presents a new manifestation of pouwhenua which also gives some insight into the roles at play in the creation of myths and their contemporary significance. The exhibition is called Digital Marae a solo show by artist Lisa Reihana consisting of both computer aided photography and video. Reihana’s Digital Marae is an ongoing project that started in 2001 with a particular focus on representing mythic female figures. The Digital Marae has been exhibited in different formations each time. The Govett-Brewster installment features many new works previously not seen before - this time depicting male figures.

Once entering the main gallery doors you are catapulted into a betwixed realm. The gallery is painted in a dark metallic grey with dim spotlights illuminating a series of nine life-sized full body photographs. The photographs are of both living and mythical Maori figures depicted using contemporary technology and aesthetics that provide the same function of pouwhenua within a wharenui. One mythical figure represented is the heroic demigod Maui. An integral figure of Maori mythology as the one who tricked and battled the gods to attain knowledge and quality of life for humans. Many of the stories tell of Maui having to undertake long and perilous journeys into the elements requiring much skill and cunning to complete his missions. Reihana depicts Maui as a muscular man in his mid 30s carving up a pewter grey ocean on a surfboard. Known for their agility, creativity and courage to venture into and master turbulent seas the modern surfer shares some likeness to Maui’s strength and trickster characteristics. Therefore, by re-imaging Maui as a surfer Reihana helps us gain a contemporary understanding into this mythical character. It is also fitting that Maui is depicted on the ocean as it tells the story of his infant years being cast into the sea swaddled in this mother’s topknot. The ominous sea and the obsidian like shards of water that encircle him also suggests Maui’s ultimate death in the vagina of Hinenuitepo (the goddess of death) which caused the cataclysmal loss of immortality for humankind.

Other images delve further into the fantastic by depicting hybrid women/taniwha like creatures and beautiful goddesses personifying natural phenomena. While other images depict contemporary male figures in an illusionary or historically ambiguous manor. The saturated colours, controlled lighting and figures set on a dark background has a striking similarity to seventieth century Italian painter Caravaggio who used such dramatic realism to both illustrate biblical stories and inspire religious devotion. On the other hand the illusionism in these images also closely resembles the dark cinematic aesthetic of popular big budget fantasy and science fiction movies such as The Matrix and 300. By adhering to these popular aesthetics it is as if Reihana’s Digital Marae functions as a type of community/public service making myth accessible and relevant for the multitude. However, this slick aesthetic is juxtaposed by a large video projection work entitled “Let There Be Light”. In low resolution, strange uncoordinated audio and distorted imagery the footage beckons the viewer into the disorientating and undecipherable reverie of the gods. By freely playing with these different aesthetic languages Reihana also re-mixes the societal role and responsibility of the artist - by acting both as a type of 21st century urban visual bard and an avant-garde protagonist.

Digital Marae is evident of cultural adaptation and resilience in the recovery of urban diaspora (commonly termed the “urban drift” of rural Maori beginning in the 1920s and peeking in the 80s with 80% of Maori based in urban centres). While also posing a reminder that culture and our perception of the world is not static but is fluid and ever changing. It also draws our attention to the authorship of myth and how a particular perspective alters the way we understand and live life.

Exhibition closes 2nd December 2007.