Artist tackles homes crisis with floor-plan installations
By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser
By Marie Carvalho
In his ode to the home's inhabited geometry, "The Poetics of Space," philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes, "A house that has been experienced is not an inert box." Cuban-born American artist Maria Elena González opts for a post-minimalist approach to this concept, often featuring floor plans as visual shorthand for "home."
As the Catalyst Artist in Residence at The Contemporary Museum, González has constructed a pair of site-specific installations on O'ahu. "Nani's House," in the museum gardens, recreates the floor plan of Julia "Nani" Kamaiopili's longtime Waimanalo residence, recently demolished and rebuilt by Honolulu Habitat for Humanity. "The Muse in the Park," installed at the Waimanalo Beach Park playing field, outlines the floor plan of the museum's galleries.
The tandem works are intended to draw attention to lack of affordable housing, and Habitat for Humanity's labor to answer that need. Given the recent steep rise of housing prices and homelessness locally, it's a timely issue to tackle through community-based art.
González has broached these topics before, using similar language. Her 2002 installation at the Bronx Museum of Art outlined the floor plan of her childhood home in Cuba; a series of semi-permanent "Flying Carpet" installations at parks around the country transformed public housing floor plans into undulating, metaphorical sculptures for play.
In "Nani's House," the artist delineates the razed residence's floor plan not with its own wood, but with rebar-studded concrete rubble, salvaged from two Waikiki demolition sites. The refuse, reorganized neatly along the former home's lines, evokes both the poignant absence of that particular dwelling and the larger human history of dislocation.
The modest home — a tiny four-bedroom, done to scale — contrasts sharply with its museum surroundings: It's roughly equivalent in size to the former mansion's nearby vintage swimming pool. And the recycled concrete from local building sites, while not specific to luxury housing, references the gap between a city focused on development and tourism (and those who profit from those activities), and its less-fortunate residents.
While there's implicit critique there, and terrific poetry to the lines that extend across the lawn like an archaeological ruin, there's also an inkling of something more insidious operating.
In the Bronx, González resurrected her lost childhood home; here, she resurrects that of a member of a community to which she has come into, briefly, as what cultural critic Hal Foster terms a "quasi-anthropologist." That home is positioned as metaphorically representative, and legitimized by its replacement within a museum — traditionally, the state-sponsored protector of indigenous history.
While such dynamics don't diminish the poetics of rock and space in "Nani's House," they do call into question its self-critique of the relationships between artist, museum and community. That intellectual quibble would remain minor, were it not compounded by "The Muse in the Park," the Waimanalo counterpoint to "Nani's House."
The artist describes the Waimanalo work as a "natural" outgrowth, a "conceptual exchange" between the museum and the Windward community. That impulse seems earnest enough, but the resulting work doesn't deliver.
First, there's the concept: The museum itself, transported. Certainly art, and public arts institutions, are valuable to every community. And certainly the museum is as inhabited as a home, is even an extension of the artist's home — and as important to the museum's distinct community as Nani's home is to hers.
But that's the rub: As a community-based project, rather than decentralizing the authority of artist and museum within that community, this work underscores it. How the museum, as a visual symbol, is pertinent to the most pressing issues facing the Waimanalo community — including public housing — remains unclear.
And though the museum is a historic residence, lending tidy symmetry to the exchange, it's a particularly loaded context: Initially a summer home for an influential missionary family, that house was, by poverty standards, palatial, replete with lush private gardens (versus the burnt grass on Waimanalo's public field). It seems a conceptual oversight to reconstruct that particular floor plan within the community immortalized as a "last bastion" for native Hawaiians in Country Comfort's anthem, "Waimanalo Blues."
In fact, the gallery — the former "main house" — is so unlike an average dwelling, that representing its floor plan half-scale, as here (versus "Nani's House," rendered full-scale on museum grounds), glosses over any class incongruity and is visually confusing as well.
Successful public art also engages, even risking its own destruction — a gamble González ironically declined when selecting a "safe" medium for the more public site. The white field-marking paint that creates the floor plan was a last-minute adaptation; she'd intended to use tall prairie grass, which wasn't practical in Hawai'i. Instead, she riffs off the playing field's visual language, perhaps too successfully: The lines bleed into the field, lacking beauty or distinction — and meaning, seemingly, to park goers, who obliviously traverse the marks (all but vanished, less than a week after installation on Aug. 25).
Overall, against the weightier, sculptural installation at Makiki Heights (and the artist's previous public work), the Waimanalo piece appears inadequately considered and aesthetically barren.
And that's unfortunate. It's obvious that González' work is well-intentioned, but while artist, museum, and invaluable charity organization all benefit from association, the public artwork itself suggests oblique denial of the issues at hand, rather than enduring community exchange.
Marie Carvalho writes about art and literature.