In July, artist Andy Graydon was in the museum vault, examining a 5,000-year-old Chinese jade block, or ts’ung, an object he is considering including—through words—in his upcoming installation Fig. 1, opening in February. Funded by a Laila Art Fund grant, Graydon was at the museum doing initial research and laying the groundwork for his project, which focuses on the relationship between media and environment. The work for two-channel sound will be made for the Honolulu Museum of Art and its environment. The only “material” Graydon will use is the sound of two voices, one describing two sets of objects, such as the stone Chinese bowl—in exacting detail in English, the other describing the objects in Hawaiian. The actual objects will not be on view. Also included in the project will be a performance and workshop.

Born and raised on Maui (his mother was a public school teacher and his father is an editor who founded the defunct Maui Sun), and now living in Cambridge, Mass., Graydon is a sound and media artist whose work has been featured in exhibitions at New York’s New Museum, the Berlinische Galerie, the Portland Art Center, and the Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna, among many other venues. After seeing Graydon’s photographs two years ago, museum deputy director Allison Wong got in touch with him and invited him to visit the museum the next time he was in the islands.

“Eight months later, in May 2013, I was coming to visit family. Allison and I talked a lot about sound, because my work started in film and video, then I got interested in sound,” said Graydon, taking a break from his project research in the museum collection.

In subsequent conversations, Wong raised the idea of sound in relationship to public art, and also talked about Graydon’s interest in sound and its relationship to place.

“I’m interested in acoustic ecology and the way the island and my experience on Maui influenced my work—it has to do with a sense of containment, placed-ness, and part of that is ecological interconnection, and the way a thing is not really a thing but a force, with inflows and outflows,” said Graydon. “I got that—it came to me quite naturally from the place I grew up in, from just the environment. Growing up in upcountry Maui, and going to Haleakala, you see patterns, see how volcanism and erosion are very closely related, how the earth is part of a flow process, not just a thing. I took my son to look at steam vents in Kilauea, they were like the ts’ung—what seem like solid things are actually very fluid processes.”

What attracts Graydon to sound is its ability to indicate an object, while not being an object itself. “It involves all objects, disturbs all objects in its field, but is not of them. That disturbance makes it sound, like it’s breaking something,” said Graydon. “If you’re overhearing someone’s conversation through a wall, it’s suddenly connecting those two spaces. It’s making you aware that they are joined. It joins you.”

Though Fig. 1 comprises voices describing art objects in a scholarly manner, “my work is not intended to be like a museum tour,” explained Graydon. “What I was saying about sound and place has a lot to do with the materiality of sound, or what sound does to the listener or their ear. So when people use the phrase ‘sound sculpture,’ they often mean how frequencies in a room make you aware of the size of the room. The way a high frequency sounds thin, like it’s from above and how low frequency lends spatial quality to sound. I thought certain kinds of sound, the human voice for instance, has several added layers that could be considered to have a connection to the forming of an object in your imagination.”

What Graydon likes about the ts’ung, made in the Neolithic period, is that it is so ancient their significance remains a mystery to scholars. They are believed to be used in burials, but “the few scientifically excavated burials do not provide a further key to the meaning of these curious jade forms,” according to the museum’s book Selected Works. “Objects that are being forgotten—like the ts’ung, so old that human understanding no longer has a grasp of it.”

In fact most of the objects he is considering including in the installation are from the Asian collection. “The focus is on the ideas of forgetting and decaying, so it’s naturally going to be the older objects, antiquities. This came out organically. It’s the objects that made the most sense to me because they are often in an indeterminate state.”

Graydon is also using three, possibly four, Hawaiian objects. “One object that was really clear right away is now on display in the Holt Gallery, what they call a stone mirror, which I’d never heard of before,” he said. “It’s like a hocky puck of black stone that is listed as ‘probably a stone mirror’. I was like, ‘What’s the “probably”?’ Is it polished? Turns out it’s supposed to be submerged underwater and provides the dark background that allows the water to be reflective. Crazy. I thought that’s just fantastic, that reminds me of this Chinese object, it’s mysterious because of what we attribute to it. How does that work? [Collections assistant] Jenny [Leung] looked up the provenance of that object and also what the deal was with these mirrors. Apparently when contact with the Europeans happened, silver mirrors came in and the stone mirrors fell out of use. But the disks had already been made, so they ended up being used for other things, like wetstones or the backings for poultices, so they would have been incorporated, found, or turned into artifacts maybe as other things. So there’s this funny chain—that’s why ‘probably’ a stone mirror. Talking to the curators, they said other people have come in and said, ‘You need to take that “probably” out, it’s definitely a stone mirror.’ So there’s this funny indeterminacy, which is great. It’s like the indeterminacy that will happen when I’m describing something you can’t see. It will always be different for any kind of perceiver.”

While Graydon has never done an installation quite like this before, it does have its roots in The Findings, a film that was on view at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle earlier this year.

Fig. 1 grows out of unpacking what was happening in The Findings, really. Because that film was anchored by this very particular voice of an Icelandic artist with whom I was on a residency in Norway. I became enamored of his approach to things, and his voice, his whole affect. So I wrote this text for him to read, and I shot him walking through the forest with super8 film. What I had him read was this narration that says, ‘I found this amazing thing in the forest, you’ve gotta come with me, I’ll show you.’ You follow him in the forest in the film and he can’t find the place again. He’s wandering through, he’s trying to tell you about it, so he describes it and he says, ‘Nah, nah, nah, that’s not it, but I don’t need to tell you, it’s right here.’ So you’re wandering in language and you’re wandering through the forest and he never gets to the place again to show you, and in the meantime he’s described the same thing, whatever it was, four, five, or six times. So the description keeps changing and your idea of what he found and what it meant keeps shifting.”

While Graydon has not lived in Hawai‘i since he left for college, he has come to realize that growing up here had a profound influence on him and his work. “Besides exhibitions I make records of music, soundworks that would be classified as experimental – works that are made to just for listening. I make field recordings in the world, hold them for a time, listening to them, coming back to them, thinking about the place that they were in, or listening to the sounds as abstract sounds, then trying to connect them conceptually with their dynamic of place, and then making transformations to the material from within that dynamic. You can leave the weave of something very open, very close to its origins, and with just subtle points of transformation turn it into something entirely different. That has a lot to do with what I learned from the ecology of the islands but also what it was like to grow up here—I was born and raised on Maui, but my parents were from the mainland. And growing up haole on a neighbor island, where I very much loved the place but was kind of fitting and not fitting at the same time. Understanding that there are different layers to the approach to a place, the kind of rootedness or naturalism of a place. I was thinking of the Art Deco Hawai‘i exhibition and the 20th-century room in the Hawaiian galleries—they talk about tropes of representation of Hawai‘i, as a landscape, as a culture, etc., and that rings totally true, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. There’s already a transformation of the naturalism, and even the word naturalism, like realism, it’s not real, is not natural but rather a formation that’s been designed to look or read that way.

In 2007, Graydon was interviewed for a book on sound artists and the writer asked if his Hawai‘i upbringing influenced his work. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m from Hawai‘i, but my work has gone off in another direction,’ and I was noncommittal about it, but she didn’t let it go and kept coming back to it: ‘didn’t it influence you?’ said Graydon. “So I really thought back to a deeper understanding, and it occurred to me that I should probably try to address it more directly. So later in 2007, I decided to come back to Maui and just be in residence for a month and just do work. When I was in high school I wasn’t an artist, I was writing and interested in science fiction. So came back to upcountry Maui and did basically media and land art works—photographic series related to the landscape, super8 film, video recordings, light projections from a video projector into the night landscape. It was like a residency.”

Through his work, he tried to figure out his subjective position with the place, “and a lot of it kind of did have to do with kind of science fiction, elements of reconfiguring or reconsidering the landscape without actually changing it, kind of providing a new emphasis or vision of it.”

One project he completed while on Maui was a series of line tracing works, projecting white lines into architectural spaces. I thought, ‘What if I did that with environments I grew up in that are not rectilinear?’”

Graydon recalls that “when I was a little kid there was a party in our backyard and they dug an imu and they filled it with stones and had a lū‘au. I don’t remember what the occasion was, but a bunch of the stones just got thrown into the bushes afterward, and eventually my dad was weed eating or something and ran them over with the mower and decided to pile them up. So the stones became a pile. I set up projector over them, and ran a straight line over the pile of stones and it just maps a topography line over that. That’s become a series of work that you can project onto any pile of demolition or building materials that are from the local area.”

“Again, that idea of material being part of a flow and also looking at the built environment, but at a stage before or after it’s ‘building-ness’ [laughs] and that was something that occurred to me from being on the Big Island, just at the end of the last active lava flow going to the ocean. I was able to see that and really think about the process of the islands’ formation and volcanism and I was also looking at things like the history of the military in the islands. I grew up hearing the bombings on Kaho‘olawe and thinking of that like a secondary process of volcanism, like exploding and blowing up the islands because they were ‘just volcanic desolation’ so it was OK to rip them apart. And being on a tour and going across Saddle Road and having the tour guide explain that the flags on the road meant you had to be off it by sundown because they were going to be bombing again. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s really current, and the natural volcanism and this explosive second order volcanism is going on right together.”

Maui’s ongoing struggle with waste also inspired Graydon. “I was there in 2007, when they were excavating a landfill expansion. To do that they had a conveyor belt that took rocks from the excavation site about a quarter of a mile to where they were being pulverized to become landscaping material. So I have this film that looks like a lava flow—it’s a river of stones, it’s this great conflux of things. The metaphor here is just really strange. I’m interested in that kind of human intervention.”

When asked what it’s like to be back in Hawai‘i working at the Honolulu Museum Art, he said, “It feels fantastic. When this grant came through, and it was clear it was going to support not only an installation but a whole program where I will be able to come spend a few weeks, give a workshop, a performance, a talk, I realized this was really the first time I’ve been able to bring my work back to the islands. And it brings forward these questions about coming back to where I’m from and where I fit in anymore in Hawai’i, this very particular and multicultural ecology. I fit into that in a certain position. Like one of the artists I had lunch with here at the museum yesterday said, ‘Welcome to the islands! I assume I’m welcoming you here for the first time,’ and I said, ‘Well, no, I’m from Maui but you can welcome me to lunch!.’ I’m a visiting artist so the assumption is that I’m not from here. So that return is really interesting. I’m excited about it. It’s asking me to think about a lot about how I can fit in as an artist here.”