The four artists in the upcoming Artists of Hawai‘i 2017—Kaili Chun, Kasey Lindley, Kaori Ukaji, and Hongtao Zhou—have been at work on their projects since last February.

As the longest-running, all-media juried exhibition in the state, Artists of Hawai‘i has been an island staple since 1950. Almost a decade ago, the museum thought it was time to start reassessing the exhibition to better serve artists. Since 2009, when the museum made the annual exhibition a biennial event, Artists of Hawai‘i has been steadily evolving. In 2011, the show featured 118 works by 79 artists. The museum’s curatorial team wanted the exhibition to offer artists a deeper experience than having a work in a show for a couple of months, but with so many artists, it wasn’t possible to work with each one.

So for the 2013 exhibition, in 2012 the museum asked artists to submit images of 10 to 12 works that provided an in-depth look at their work. From 341 entrants, the curatorial team selected 11 artists to create new work for the exhibition over 10 months, with curator of contemporary art James Jensen visiting their studios to discuss their projects and monitor progress. The result was a focused show for the first time, which leaned toward painting.

In 2015, the selection was refined down to eight artists, with installations—ranging from .5ppi’s psychedelic video installation to Jesse Houlding’s “drawings” made of magnetized iron shavings. Again, Jensen went on studio visits guiding the artists through the process. It was an exciting advance, pushing artists out of their comfort zones and exposing visitors to new kinds of work by artists they normally wouldn’t have access to.

For next year’s exhibition, opening Feb. 9, the museum has pushed the envelope further, selecting—and inviting—artists to fit a theme of work based on spatial experience that has a participatory element. Read our press release for more on the changes and selection criteria for Artists of Hawai‘i 2017.

In August, the HoMA blog tagged along with Healoha Johnston, curator of the exhibition as well as of the museum’s arts of Hawai‘i collection, on a studio visit. The destination: The University of Hawai‘i Architecture School, where the collaborative team of Kaili Chun and Hungtao Zhou—both artists and architects—had a temporary studio where they were experimenting with their Artists of Hawai‘i installation, titled Net_work.

Plugging into Net_work
Zhou is an assistant professor of architecture and director of the Architecture School Gallery at the University of Hawai‘i. In between exhibitions, he coopted the gallery as an interim studio space for his and Chun’s work. Inside was a work table covered with maquettes, tools, and reference books, and behind it, aqua and orange fishing nets stretching across the room at different angles, like the laser beams challenging a lithe Catherine Zeta Jones in the 1999 film Entrapment. And that is exactly what the collaborators hope visitors to Artists of Hawai‘i will experience (they urge you to wear pants).

Architect-artist Hongtao Zhou (left) and artist-architect Kaili Chun (right) discuss their Artists of Hawai‘i project with HoMA curator of the Arts of Hawai‘i Healoha Johnston (center).

“Their expectation is that people will move through it and have their shirt buttons get caught on it and be made to feel uncomfortable if they’re wearing dresses,” says Johnston. “It’s the kind of thing that makes the visitor aware of their body, and aware of how they’re actually connected and interconnected in ways that are often invisible—which we sometimes ignore because it can be overwhelming to think of life in that way.”

The installation will have a path through it that allows visitors to walk through upright—“the safe path,” says Zhou. “But not everybody will follow that.”

The alternative path is one that people will need to find—“we don’t give them instructions and say, ‘There is a way through, are you smart enough to find it?’” explains Chun, who wants people to feel off-kilter. “That’s the point. When we lay net in the ocean, it is in someone’s migratory path—they get caught. Maybe we can share that experience of getting caught with humans.”

Through brainstorming and lots of sketches, Chun and Zhou found their way to this concept. Early on, recalled Johnston, the artists considered working with bamboo and steel cables. “We had been exploring a lot of materials and probably did more than 30 different drawings, but I think the net idea first came up when we were with Healoha in our first meeting at the museum,” said Zhou.

“I remember the term ʻvisual language’ coming up as they talked,” said Johnston, “and this idea of the nets being a language that made sense in Hawai‘i and it being an appropriate type of material to address systemic issues and to also address how we are perpetuating a culture oftentimes through materials that can be dangerous or harmful. It does take a type of mindfulness to make sure we are enagaging with these materials and ecologies in sustainable ways.”

“In the beginning, we started with this sort of ocean situation for fish and other creatures—with fish, nets and the great Pacific garbage patch. The idea of ‘net’ is really interesting,” said Zhou.

“The net has all kinds of layers of meaning—the literal, what it does, what we do to the ocean and the system that we live in, but it’s also representative of a system, like transportation systems, or artery systems that make things work—like within our own bodies,” added Chun. “And initially, we thought of the net as something we use to sustain ourselves, but in the end it ends up destroying what we’re trying to preserve.”

Once they settled on nets as their primary material, Zhou took note that in their discussions Chun used the word “stretching” repeatedly. “She was saying we don’t have to make the shape of the net, we can stretch it, so that word came up three or four times. We thought that was interesting, so then we started stretching it across space,” said Zhou.

Then, when they started attaching nets to hooks, “suddenly it’s like a drawing on the wall, then projecting, capturing the space. It’s a space inside here, it’s not enclosed. Then Kaili wanted to make it open, so people can come in, and we arrived at the concept of capturing people. We were very happy when we discovered that.”

Along with ideas, practicality also comes into consideration. “Nets are so easy for shipping,” said Zhou. “We can use maybe 30 pounds of net to fill the whole space. We couldn’t do that if we used steel cables.”

“It can travel easily and adapt to new spaces,” added Chun. “And it’s a really interesting material to work with. It’s so pungent—there’s a quality about it that’s enticing and attractive. It’s very beautiful yet dangerous. It’s loaded with kauna. The way that it will envelope people is going to be beautiful and interesting.”

As the artists and curator discussed the work, they revealed different layers of meaning in the different layers of net.

“The orange net and green net are made of different materials, and are used to catch different things. The orange net is used to catch lobsters, while the blue is standard monofilament, so the piece itself introduces these different industries and economies,” says Johnston.

In August, Chun and Zhou were still working on the net configuration, and had two models going at the same time. “We can switch in one system or another, and when we come down to the installation, it will change, but we know we will try to overlap and integrate layers of systems so things are happening subconsciously and consciously.”

Serendipitous partnership
Johnston, taking the artists’ backgrounds into account, reached out to Chun and Zhou to suggest they work together for Artists of Hawai‘i. Her instinct turned out to be a home run.

“When Healoha proposed a collaboration, I was hesitant at the time—I had the Honolulu Biennial and other projects in the pipeline and I didn’t know if I had the time to do it. But then she said, ‘I don’t know if you know this artist, his name is Hongtao Zhou,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s my brother!’”

It turns out that Zhou is the reason Chun is currently back in school, working toward her doctorate in architecture at the University of Hawai‘i (while also teaching at Kapi‘olani Community College and creating work such has her brand new installation Hulali ka lā in the lobby of the Waikīkī Prince Hotel). Chun, who has a BA in architecture from Princeton as well as an MFA from UH, said, “It’s an honor for me to work with Hongtao. I love his work.”

Zhou in turn said that Chun has been “an amazing student in class. We have some really good students here, but she makes them work harder. Her capacity is beyond everybody else.”

The two fruitfully feed off of each other, while bouncing ideas off Johnston. We can’t wait to see how Net_work turns out when Artists of Hawai‘i opens in six weeks.