GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Artist Won Ju Lim's exhibit "In Many Things to Come" is an installation that mixes 11 sculptures with DVD projections and the shadows of its audience.
'Atmosphere of nostalgia'
Won Ju Lim's "In Many things to Come" will provoke love-hate debates
You will not be indifferent to the contemporary art installation now showing at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Won Ju Lim's "In Many Things to Come" is sure to provoke love/hate debate in audiences that have seen it all -- abstract scrawls, bare lightbulbs in empty rooms and sculptures made of bodily fluids.
'IN MANY THINGS TO COME'
Exhibition by Won Ju Lim
» On view: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 26
» Place: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St.
» Admission: $7; $4 seniors, students, military; children 12 and under free
» Call: 532-8700
The exhibit in the Clare Booth Luce Gallery -- devoted for the third year to work by an internationally known artist -- is not controversial for the usual reasons. If it had been a piece about outer space, or a summer in Newfoundland, it wouldn't get quite the same attention, either.
But the Los Angeles artist was specifically commissioned to create an exhibit on the subject of Hawaii. Stepping bravely (or unknowingly) into the controversial history of island imagery, Lim, 38, spent two years and three visits to present this, now part of the academy's permanent collection:
Eleven sculptures huddle in the large room, which might be lit or dark, depending on when you enter during the slow video projected on the ceiling and walls. These forms are mountain shapes, some covered in foil; stacked architectural model sections; a reef-like bulk made of curled butcher paper and tape; and train-set scenery mountains encased in large orange Plexiglas boxes. Parts of these pieces drip with melted glue sticks or are painted a blinding white.
Viewers' silhouettes interrupt the projections from three DVD loops of island scenery. Clouds, waving palm fronds, street scenes and the like change so slowly that you cannot really watch them, just notice they have changed.
While the piece is said to address Lim's recurring themes of fantasy, longing and remembrance through the "atmosphere of nostalgia created by a visitor's experience of Hawaii," Lim says it is not necessarily about Hawaii or Oahu -- though that was her goal in the beginning.
Bearing in mind her memories of Hawaii as a tourist, Lim began by studying kitschy island souvenirs and images. Intrigued by the gap or "lie" between the souvenir and all that it claims to represent, she decided to focus on the slipperiness of memory itself -- how it slides between remembered and imagined images that constantly slip out of grasp.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Won Ju Lim's installations about Hawaii take root in her memories as a tourist. She was raised in Los Angeles.
The mountain scenery in cases, for example, resulted from her experience of creating in her Los Angeles studio volcanic ranges half-remembered from two or three brief visits. She made a large mountainscape out of model-train scenery and chopped it up, like her memories. The resulting sections are encased in orange Plexiglas because, Lim says, she wanted viewers to get lost in the orange.
Her intuitive relationship to color applies also to materials, which were chosen not for any symbolic reason, she says, but more through a fascination with their physical properties -- glue sticks because they are hot, moving and drippy, for example. She was drawn especially to materials that show the effects of time: Butcher paper curls differently if peeled quickly or slowly; foil offers a sculptural record of how it was handled.
NOT KNOWING any of this, my first reaction arose from my immediate cultural references, which is to say an aversion to the tawdry commercial effluvia that we throw away daily: foil, adhesive paper, glue sticks, particle-board furniture, plastic scenery -- the stuff of landfills, tedious in its all-too-brief shiny promise.
Revulsion to the materials softened, though, with the seductiveness of the projection. Lim's use of video is unique in that the images do not serve as backdrop, narrative or commentary about cinematic experience. Rather, the slowed- down motion and almost imperceptible dissolves make of time something physically palpable; one experiences the frustration and confusion of never being able to grab hold of an image, as we have learned to do with television or movies, but being drawn into them nonetheless.
The constant disruption of viewers' shadows across the piece is a desired effect, Lim says, as are the clicking of the projectors in the absence of any other sound. If you find the experience a bit annoying, she takes that as a compliment.
"Encounters with Lim's work involve being absorbed into the installation such that there is no ideal perspective for viewing or feeling," according to the entry text. "The idea is to enter a world in which space and time, like memory itself, is something ethereal yet powerful."
LIM'S previous solo shows in London, Berlin, Madrid, Los Angeles and in several biennial exhibitions appear to have been more instantly appealing. Several featured large, transparent Plexiglas cityscapes through which projections cast a slow-moving scenery of light on the bare walls. Viewers were drawn into a dazzling, surreal world where light, motion, perspective and image could not be controlled.
Her installations all exhibit this same confidence in pursuing the elusive, trying to make concrete the shadows that cross our solid sense of the real.
It helps to learn that Lim started out studying architecture -- not only to understand her preoccupation with space, light and landscape, but also an approach to art-making that is not about producing objects, primarily, but evoking an experience. Architects think in terms of the body's interaction with its environment, and how to influence that experience. Lim decouples from this pursuit any concern with practicality, making the leap from architecture to installation art.
Yet, as provocative and evocative -- to use the academy's words -- as this project is, the approach doesn't quite resonate in the place and space of Hawaii, for a number of reasons. First, as an artist raised and schooled in Los Angeles (where she moved from Korea as a child), Lim declares her relationship to landscape always a step removed from the physical, coming through books, ads, images, movies, the car window, rather than the actual experience of feeling the blazing sun while walking across the desert, or immersion in the total ocean experience so common in Hawaii.
In fact, any mainlander who moves to the islands can testify to a greatly changed relationship to the physical world the further one "goes native" and takes up surfing, fishing, paddling, hiking or cooking and sleeping on the beach.
IN TERMS of culture, too, landscape and its components are thick with symbolic, spiritual and historical meaning here, whether native Hawaiian or arising from the heavily fraught nostalgia for "small-kid time" in the local population. You cannot paint a rock or corner store in Hawaii without evoking all kinds of questions in the viewer's mind, rightly -- for it is never just a generic rock or store.
Lim approaches this place, however, much as she does the LA skyline or European castles -- as a tourist (she is the first to admit) reaching through the perceptual layers of memory, souvenir, the real and imagined landscape, to talk about the shadowy ways in which we know things. Small wonder if this experience takes a while for an uninitiated Hawaii viewer to grasp, digging through the possible reasons for linking Oahu to this train-set scenery from a temperate climate, dripping with melted glue and encased in orange Plexiglas.
It is not easy, either, to get past the sheer nastiness of the material, so alien to the symbolic and sacred natural world that is not, to many people here, something mediated and constructed, but a gateway from the real to the supernatural, the very source of life.
Yet, these gaps in understanding, one could argue, make "In Many Things to Come" an intriguing visitor to the Academy of Art, one that continues the museum's emphasis under director Stephen Little on presenting contemporary works that will evoke the modernist cliché: "But is it art?"
Just the fact of devoting a huge gallery to a prominent exhibition forces people to consider what the curators must have been thinking. Whether you come to the conclusion that the piece is brilliant, or just junk, this kind of challenge is important in Honolulu, where too many art venues appear too timid to stray from what is pretty, easy and pleasing.
In fact, one of the most striking effects of Lim's piece is that it reanimates in viewers that uncomfortable, heated puzzlement about what art is, what artists think they're doing, and what place it has in our lives, which so many media -- movies, books, music -- simply take for granted.