In a corner of Artists of Hawai‘i 2009 is a video installation by David J. Merritt. It’s a neverending loop from Jean-Pierre Melville‘s 1967 New Wave classic “Le Samouraï,” in which a heartbreakingly young and handsome Alain Delon is sitting in a car methodically going through a ring of like 60 keys to see which one fits the ignition. One, two, three, four, then it starts over. It is hypnotic, and the longer I watch, I can feel my anxiety mount. Like trying to get through the stack of papers on my desk, and by the end of the day it’s the same height. Called “Pendant” (scroll down to eighth row), the work is one of my favorites in the exhibition. It’s also one of the pieces that would be right at home in “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus,” the New Museum exhibition co-curated by Artists of Hawai’i juror Laura Hoptman (I was lucky enough to see the show last month). And as a matter of fact, Merritt will soon move to New York, where he’ll start grad school at NYU—he’ll be in studio arts.
Why did Merritt, who has been doing a lot of work involving looping film scenes, wind up using “Le Samouraï”? “It’s one of my favorite films. I’m really attracted to that sort of character,” says Merritt, “he’s sort of a hitman for hire who can pretty much do anything. He lives a sort of hermit solitary life, and he gets the job done. With the piece, I took that characer out of context—he’s in this state where he’s trying to steal this car, but I tried to lock him into this loop, [his situation] is kind of a failure in that he’s constantly trying but never succeeding, but he must press on. I relate to it as an artist—you keep pressing on. The way this character lives his life is kind of similar to that of the artist.”
The concept of appropriation (“I think of that as a recycling”) intrigues Merritt. “On youtube, people are remixing things and looping them. And it’s becoming a point of contention. I’m interested in that conversation, and how digital technology is changing the way people think of appropriation, originality and meaning.”
Merritt, a New Jersey native who moved here four years ago after earning his BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, leaves Honolulu reluctantly. “One of the reasons why I applied to schools is because the economy for the art world seems to be nonexistent here,” says the 29-year-old. “It’s just really hard. Even though we live in the digital information age and know what’s going on in the world, it’s hard to have a career here, there’s just not as much money in the arts. If there was more capital investment in what the young people here in Hawaii are doing, artists would stay here. Leaving is not the first choice for most people.”
Merritt points out how high rents affect what might be an art market, citing thirtyninehotel. “They have great art, but they also have to be bar and music venue. It’s hard to have just art. I know there are wealthy people here who are interested in art, but they don’t spend money here.”
Merritt moved here to “try out new things and see the world without leaving the country. I definitely have experienced a lot of new things being here that I feel a lot of people on the mainland don’t understand at all—the way people treat each other here and care about the land in a different way.”
“I’m going to miss Hawaii a lot,” he says, “and having this show up right now makes me realize how much I’m missing Hawaii already. I’ve lived here for four years, and it’s taken that long to start to connect with the art scene and figure out what’s going on, and now it’s time to go. It’s kind of sad.”