Beauty & the Blight


POSTED: Sunday, July 12, 2009

The crux of fine art's problematic relationship with the general public is also what fuels its greatness: deep, open-ended, provocative, often symbolic explorations of subjects, concepts and themes. Such art demands engagement from its audience; it requires the viewer to reflect and think.

Yet, in this instant-gratification culture, in which all our wants don't just come to us, but arrive quickly on a silver platter, society has become more than lazy. It's become apathetic: “;Bring it to me now, or I don't want it at all.”; Ease becomes the ultimate goal.

Is there any way to bridge the disparity? Any way to light a spark of interest?

A chat with San Francisco artist Michael Arcega, who's completing an on-site installation titled “;Overlook”; at the Contemporary Museum, would certainly do the trick. Arcega's warm personality and down-to-earth discussion of his art could draw in even the most reluctant of audiences. Plus, the work—miniature tents hugging branches of the museum's three enormous monkeypod trees—does require some interpretation, roots from which viewers can sprout their own musings.

“;I was walking around Oahu and talking to locals. I know there's a huge military presence and the homeless, and a huge recreation aspect to this place,”; says Arcega, recalling his visit more than a year ago while he was formulating ideas for the work. “;The outdoor (theme) is pretty prevalent, and I thought tents were a perfect representation of that.”;

Arcega went home and worked on picking the most fitting tent form to mimic. He settled on the single-person tent, thinking it would be easier to identify with for the viewer.

Also, “;it looks like scales or animal shells or a cocoon—a parasitic thing. It's a loose representation of how the homeless population is characterized,”; he says.

While the 100 or so miniature tents come in one style, they were created in a wide array of colors: bright ones to signify recreational campers, camouflage for the military and “;drab ones that indicate they're used out of necessity.”;

Parachute cords of every hue attach from the tents to the ground.

“;It seems as though the ropes are pushing the tents into the trees. It's their last connection to not being displaced,”; Arcega says.

The bright colors of the cords are eye-catching, especially when they glow in the sunlight.

“;They're eye-popping in an already beautiful landscape. But does it need that punctuation?”; the artist asks. “;My idea is to explore the tension between blight and beauty. The monkeypods themselves are an invasive plant, but they're beautiful so they're welcomed. It's interesting that in a state looking at the whole issue of invasiveness, there's that duality.”;

The installation's title, “;Overlook,”; pushes home that concept.

“;It's a double-entendre,”; Arcega says. “;The site itself literally overlooks Waikiki and Diamond Head. But there's also an overlooking of certain issues; in this well-manicured landscape, you can lose sight of other things. There's this site's relationship to other sites on the island: the Waimanalo encampment, the ones in West Oahu.

“;The term 'overlook' seemed to be most appropriate. It's open-ended but not overly didactic. This is an artwork, after all, not a protest. I just want it to be a glimmer to offset the viewer's thoughts.”;





        » Place: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive

» On exhibit: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 25


» Admission: $8; $6 students, seniors, military and TCM members; free to children 12 and under


» Call: 526-1322 or visit www.tcmhi.org




ARCEGA and his girlfriend made each tent themselves, and the artist had to learn how to sew for this project. He crafted his shelters with “;as much actual outdoor material as possible: rip-stop nylon, tarp, strapping.”;

The details in his work are astounding. Each tent is constructed with a clear plastic window, and wire strips mimic tent poles, providing a pop-up function as they're threaded through tiny strapping loops. Arcega even varies the color of the threads along his double-stitched seams.

“;I wanted to show a bit of a handmade quality, so there's no chance any two tents are exactly the same. They're all individual.”;

The artist conducted tests early in the process to ensure the durability of his materials and researched tents and outdoor equipment extensively.

“;I worked from three actual tents that I hung up on the wall of my studio. It looked like an outdoor sports store,”; he says. “;Putting them on the wall gave me a good perspective on their shape and structure.”;

Contemporary Museum curator Inger Tully says one of the reasons she wanted Arcega to come to the museum was because she saw his work as a learning opportunity for local artists.

“;This was an artist-centered decision,”; she says. “;I really wanted to involve a community of artists to participate in this kind of site-specific installation. I wanted them to experience how much effort it takes—this one took two weeks of 10-hour days to install. I knew Mike works very well with people. He was the perfect person to connect with others and include them in that process.”;

In turn, she says, she thought Arcega would benefit from being in Hawaii because he's done a lot of work about emerging cultures.

“;I thought he would find Hawaii to be an inspirational place to work from.”;

Arcega's interest in culture is no doubt rooted in his background. The artist was born in Manila and raised in Southern California, where he moved when he was 10 years old. Even at that tender age, he enjoyed art, and he carried that interest through the years.

“;I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was turned in for graffiti in high school,”; he recalls with a laugh.

He wasn't a rebel, he insists, just “;a normal kid who thought it was really cool.”;

Arcega earned a bachelor's degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and graduated from Stanford last month with a master's. His schedule has been filled with not only producing art, but teaching it as well at Stanford. Coming up: a solo show in San Francisco in the fall.

In the meantime in Honolulu, “;Overlook”; “;offers a very unique opportunity for local audiences to see a site-specific outdoor piece that's conceptual and ambitious,”; says Tully.

“;Mike really leaves it open to people's interpretations. It's a nice challenge for people to start to understand the form of art and see a piece in person. What I love about his work is that it's whimsical enough that people will engage with it.”;