Like Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, O‘ahu-born Sean Connelly is an architect who makes art. At the invitation of curator of contemporary art James Jensen, Connelly has been creating the installation Land Division while on summer break from earning his Masters in urban development at Harvard University (he already has a doctorate in architecture, from the University of Hawai‘i). The work goes on view Aug. 29, during ARTafterDARK: Art Deco Hawai‘i.
It continues a concept Connelly started with his debut gallery work A Small Area of Land (Kaka‘ako Earth Room) at the now closed ii Gallery last year. For that piece, exploring land-use issues in Kaka‘ako, he worked with dirt he collected from watershed areas around the island. This time he harvested strawberry guava saplings from different parts of Kāne‘ohe, dried them out, sanded them, then assembled them within a frame to build a seven-foot-tall mass of what he calls “sticks.” (This was all done with a cadre of volunteers and advisors.) Both installations are the result of 10 years of research he has been doing on traditional Hawaiian resource management and urban design, which he posts on his website Hawaii-futures.com.
Connelly took a break from his temporary studio space at Lana Lane Studios in Kaka‘ako to talk about Land Division.
So, what is it like working with a museum for the first time?
It’s been a very exciting and rewarding challenge. It has allowed me to build relationships with people I’ve long respected. For example, I got to meet Leland Miyano, who helped coordinate the material harvest at Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden. We talked about the complexities of the project. He gave me clues as to what to think of and what to anticipate in working with the material.
I’m managing the production of the project at Lana Lane Studios—delegating responsibilities to volunteers is a huge learning curve for me. Working on a project like this, there are considerations that I’ve never had to think of before. I couldn’t have done it without the input of a lot of people—seasoned artists and professionals such as Trisha Lagaso Goldberg who have helped me navigate the complexities of managing a project. John Koga and Lawrence Seward have come to check out the weight and transport of the structure. Other artists in the community and friends have stepped in and offered valuable advice and help.
You’ve been working on Land Division for how long?
More than a month of actual work. We harvested a bunch of material and let it dry, chopped them down to size and brought them to the studio, then built a frame, and we’ve been been cutting sticks to fit the size of the frame— there are thousands of sticks that are up to four feet long—and stuffing them in the frame, then the frame will be removed. People who see me working at Lana Lane ask me if I’m a wood worker. [laughs] I just learned how to use an impact diver—a screwdriver with a little hammer in it.
My past projects have been design- and theoretical-based, and I don’t really get a chance to build them out. For Land Division, since I’ve never worked with this medium before, I really under estimated the time it would take to prep and build. Each stick has been wiped down, cut, and sanded and put together. When I started, I put a lot of time into building the foundation, sanding each stick by hand, and a week later I was like, my base is only six inches tall of sanded wood! There’s since been six people sanding—and there is a whole new element in the surface of the sculpture, the accumulation of different skill sets, attention spans, frustrations, and joys. It’s about the process of compiling these materials.
You’re using the same build-with-a-frame process that you did for A Small Area of Land. Is this now a thing for you—will you be doing more installations based on this technique?
I’m not really thinking that far ahead. Since Jay [James Jensen] first invited me, I’ve gone through many iterations of the design. Originally I was going to make a fake geometric mountain standing straight up covered in glitter, then I looked at hanging it from the ceiling, and I ended up coming up with a form related to the first sculpture. It’s not necessarily a sequel but the message is along the same lines—what is our relationship to land, and the watersheds in Hawai‘i. Whether or not I decide to stack something else in a form remains to be seen. I would like to work with water as a next project.
For A Small Area of Land I was inspired by red dirt because that was the environment I grew up in. More than the stacking within the frame, I’m interested in the geometry. A Small Area of Land was a rectangle, this one is derived from a cone. I divided it proportionally into thirds, and did all these design things to come up with this shape.
Both installations have environmental references. A Small Area of Land was facing the position of the moon when the sun rose on Aug. 6, 1850. For Land Division, the sculpture faces the position of the moon when the sun set on March 7, 1848, the last day that the Māhele Book was signed. There is also a divide in the sculpture that points in the direction of the Hawai‘i State Capitol. On the wall I have the dates of the Māhele in 1848, and when the Land Use Commission, zoned all the land in 1961.
What drives your interest in watersheds and land use?
For my college application essay I wrote about wanting to be an architect to keep Hawai‘i beautiful. In college, when I started learning about how things work, I saw it was about more than keeping things beautiful. It’s about integrating with the natural cycles of our watersheds, which is the foundation of our environment. I became interested in watersheds and land use because prior to western contact in Hawai‘i, people lived where they grew their food, and the entire system of the Hawaiian civilization aligned with the watershed. I really think traditional Hawaiian resource management is the future for Hawai‘i and many parts of the world. People in other cities are realizing water is very important. Historically, cities have been designed to be dry, and now they’re looking at ways to reincorporate water. Hawai‘i is one of the few places that has a written record of what you might call a pristine ancient civilization whose entire economic and political system was based on water. Right now I’m doing more research on this, some of which I’ve published on Hawai‘i-futures.com.
In 2012, Patrick Dougherty harvested strawberry guava saplings from Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden, and was assisted by Leland Miyano, to create his installation Footloose on the museum’s front lawn. Was Land Division inspired by that work at all?
I wasn’t aware of Patrick Dougherty’s work until after Jay invited me to create something for the museum. I’m always embarrassed when people asked me about artists. I know architects. I’ve always admired people with art knowledge. I approached Land Division from an architectural standpoint. This form is symmetrical geometry, I chose to work with symmetry because when I was designing the piece, a lot of the research referred me to the Modernist era, when technology was taking off. You look at formative Modernists like Mies van der Rohe and they worked with symmetries. Land use in the 1960s tended to have symmetrical layouts. The State Capitol was part of the Modernist era. I was picking up on that.
How will Land Division be moved to the museum?
It comprises two forms, each split into two segments. We’ll lift it onto a truck with a pallet jack and we’ll roll it onto the truck, then freeze it and bring it into the museum. The frame will come off in the museum.
Artist talk: Sean Connelly | Walk #1: Streams
Date: Aug. 21, 6:30-9pm
Location: Kaka‘ako Agora, 441 Cooke St., between Auahi and Pohukaina
Sean Connelly talks about Honolulu’s channelized stream network and gives a virtual tour of the stream flowing beneath Kaka‘ako. His talk is followed by a screening of the documentary Lost Rivers, directed by Caroline Bâcle. The talk and film kick off 88 Block Walks, a monthly walk-and-film series organized by Adele Balderston. Held in collaboration with The Value of Hawai‘i II.