Shot at Karekare on Auckland’s west coast, this dramatic, dark installation explores the role of men and women in Maori death practices, but like much of Reihana’s art, it merges wider Pacific cultural practices to explore indigenous knowledge systems. Watching it is a deeply unsettling and immersive experience for the viewer.
Characters appear out of the enveloping darkness, enacting the passage from life to death – a young warrior looks for a place to die, Hine-nui-te-po (the goddess of night and death) guides his spirit across the watery space of the underworld, mourning women draw blood on their arms, and most compelling of all is the figure of the Chief Mourner, modelled from a 1789 drawing by Tahitian navigator and high priest Tupaia, who accompanied Cook on his first Pacific voyage.
With its long tropic bird tail feathers and glistening mother-of-pearl embellishment, this beautiful Tahitian costume was traditionally worn by the Chief Mourner during the killing spree that marked the transition period after the death of a chief. Cook collected ten of these costumes during his second voyage, but only five remain in the world today. Reihana spent more than two years researching and making the costume we see in her film. The same figure appeared in in Pursuit of Venus [infected], but this rendition is far more terrifying and violent.
Maori tikanga is powerfully embodied in this work: the body is intimately connected to the landscape, and the bones of a hand, scraped clean by the women during mourning, appear almost indistinguishable from the glimmering roots of a tree. A figure slowly emerges from a shallow lake, seemingly enacting birth from the amniotic fluid of the womb. The waterfall flows backwards, travelling up – not down - the rock face and emphasising the circular unfolding of the narrative, which mirrors non-linear understandings of time in Maori cosmology.
The fact that it’s impossible to watch both screens at once scrambles the narrative, further adding to our feeling of disorientation, the sense that we’re witnessing secret, forbidden rituals from the ancient world. Both culturally specific and universal, Tai Whetuki underlines the intimate interconnections between life and death.
Auckland Art Gallery
Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux featured in Cinemania, a large scale survey exhibition of work by Lisa Reihana, that was on display at Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2019.
It also featured in whitianga <<>> the crossing, on display at Milford Galleries in 2018.
Lisa Reihana was nominated for The Walters Prize in 2016 and exhibited Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux, 2016 in the exhibition.
Tai Whetuki - House of Death, 2015
Ultra HD, 14mins
Dying Warrior / Attendant Chief Mourner | Eds Eramiha
Chief Mourner / Tuatara / Strange Figure / Te Kuwatawata | Ali Foa’i
Kaikaranga / Grieving Woman / Hinenuitepo / Shaman | Rosanna Raymond
Beaten Villager | Trey Newrick
Producer & Directed by Lisa Reihana
DOP / Editor / VFX | Sam Tozer
Sound Composition | James Pinker / Sean Cooper
Costume Design | Robert Buck / Ani O’Neill / Lisa Reihana
Production Manager | Natalie Tozer
Assistant Director | Joe Fish
Locations / SPFX | Paul Rhodes
Make-Up | Vee Gulliver
Runner | Trey Newrick
Commissioned by Auckland Arts Festival
Awarded Best Experimental Film , imagineNATIVE Festival, 2015