Chun's challenge: Know Hawaiian history?
By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser
By Marie Carvalho
What's fascinating about Kaili Chun's sculptural installation, "Nau Ka Wae (The Choice Belongs to You)," is what's withheld. Typically, we gather information before making decisions. But what if the information is obscure? What if it's been framed so we can't, don't, examine our true options? What if we make our choices blind?
That's a terrifying thought. And it's a quiet argument behind this fabulously crafted work, which Chun created as winner of the Honolulu Academy of Arts' Catharine E.B. Cox Award, on view in conjunction with Artists of Hawai'i 2006.
The artist has painstakingly carved and burnished basalt into sculptural archipelagos of stepping stones; a "jumping off" stone that reads alternatively as precipice/god/island; twin sacramental basins (one holds salt, the other water); and 40 corked "pohaku piko" or "prophecy" stones, wall-mounted at eye level like stations of the cross.
The integrated space offers a meditative glimpse into (among other things) the complex, problematic Native Hawaiian spiritual heritage, simultaneously marrying and querying its Christian and indigenous strains.
But the offering isn't free; it's a subtle barter. On her part, Chun demands interaction.
Crossing the two thresholds, viewers are interrogated: What is "the" choice? Does one subscribe to Joshua's scripture, or a brotherly Hawaiian battle call — or both? Inside, there's a similar dialectic tension between dualities. Which path — mirrored stones or rough lava? Which sacrament — holy water or sea salt?
Imbedded within the polished prophecy stones is an intimate portrait hall of Hawaiian history. Viewers must remove wooden stoppers, examine words carved into the wood (many in Hawaiian), peer into tiny umbilical piko/portals to view ghostly, iconic photographs. The oracle-like stones frustrate certainty and invite nuance. A stopper over an image of the Christian cross, for example, reads both "truth" and "deceit."
Navigating the installation requires not only wits, but also multiple manuals: Hawaiian language and cosmology, Christian doctrine and symbolism, history. Why no legend, no guide?
Chun leaves viewers to shoulder some of the good work of constructing meaning.
For those rusty in history and culture, a rebuke: To decide, one must first know. For those privileged to know, a reframing: Has one seen the complexities, or been blinded by their customary frames? For all, a charge to learn, and choose, carefully.
Dead center within Artists of Hawai'i, Chun's installation pulses like its ironic heart: Here is raw and stunning stone, rage, reflection, resistance of tidy truths, blood, the imperative — something, maybe, for those insatiables.
Through July 30.