HAA: For your installation “Unraveling” in “One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now,” you’ve solicited sweaters from local artists. How did you come upon the idea of using sweaters, and what do they signify?
Jean Shin: When New York’s Asia Society approached me to make a site-specific art commission for this exhibition, I thought it would be interesting to make work in response to a specific community of Asian Americans.The project was inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities.” In his description of the city, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, its inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of houses. This image—a city created out of a web of interconnected strings—resonated with me.

I began this project by asking Asian Americans in the arts community to donate a knitted sweater for the installation. The sweater becomes a literal stand-in for the body and the individual who donated it. In the studio, I deconstructed the sweaters and unraveled the yarn into spools that would be ready for on-site-installation. If you look closely, each sweater has a printed silkscreen label with the donor’s name. I contacted each participant and asked them to indicate who they know from the full list of participants in the project.

To organize all of this information, I have an elaborate system—a multi-page spreadsheet indicating each and every one of the connections between the linked individuals among all five cities across the U.S where the exhibition traveled. To date, there are approximately 160 participants, 17 of them from Honolulu. The unraveling of the knits allows me to create a metaphoric life-line that I can then weave into a dense web of social networks. The project is about complex issues pertaining to our identities as individuals and within a large Asian American collective.

It will take about 7 days and a team of 5 assistants to install this labor-intensive work at the museum. Like a life-size cat’s cradle, the installation’s web of strings will literally entangle my assistant and local volunteers as they stretch the yarn from one wall to another. The experience of learning to work together on scaffolds and coordinate the path that each strand of yarn takes is a community-building experience itself and certainly integral to my installation.

In the spirit of the notion of six degrees of separation, the installation suggests that we are all connected in its visualization of this dense web of associations. Through the project, participants map themselves within this network of the Asian American art community.

HAA. Since it’s pretty hot here, I’m wondering how the selection of sweaters stacked up against what you got in New York and San Francisco?

JS: The Honolulu community (17) was greater than Houston (around 10), less than San Francisco (around 25). The project started in NYC where we had over 80 participants. Since both the curator and the artist were based in NYC, the connections are wider.

HAA: Do you find Asian communities in different parts of the country to be drastically different or amazingly similar?

JS: Certainly there’s a density population in a very urban place like NYC, less so in the smaller cities across the country. In the smaller cities, it seems like communities are smaller and tighter. Whereas, perhaps you New York City, people have the opportunity to know greater numbers of individuals and there is a larger concentration of art professionals.

Shin will begin installing her work at the Honolulu Academy of Arts with the help of Oahu artists and students on June 16.