Breaking Ground: The First Honolulu Biennial

Mar 9, 2017

Art Biennials are big business, as you can tell by the proliferation of bi and triennials around the globe over the last twenty years.  Cities launch these high profile art extravaganzas to attract tourists, sales, and cultural cache.  The Honolulu Biennial has just opened in nine venues around town, HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on how to make the most of it.

Les Filter Feeders: Sally Lundberg and Keith Tallet (Hawaii Island). Local Knowledge (series). Inkjet on silk, enamel, powdered pigment, resin, on wood. Find this luminous series in the Hallway gallery on the Diamond Head side of Honolulu Hale.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Art works at Honolulu Hale, Bishop Museum, Foster Botanical Garden, and other venues are viewable during regular business hours.  The Hub at the former Sports Authority is open noon to seven, except Wednesdays.  See a video inside the TeamLab installation, Graffiti Nature, at The Hub.  Exhibits and programs for the first Honolulu Biennial continue through May 8th.  

Suggested strategy: Go to The Hub as soon as possible.  $25 covers admission for 2, give it a couple hours, come out and grab something to eat and go back. Take the kids, there's a whole HB kids' workbook and they'll like the space, especially the TeamLab piece.  Get a program and plug into the talk and lecture series.

See Chou Jeong Hwa's amazing stalagmites at Honolulu Hale, don't miss Les Filter Feeders' fine resin exhortations in the hallway gallery on the Diamond Head side.  Over the next month take in the other locations: Foster Botanical Garden, Bishop Museum,  Prince Hotel Waikiki, the Arts at Marks Garage, Shangri La, Honolulu Museum of Art, and IBM building. 

A twenty foot tall siny pink pig with wings (by Choi Jeong Hwa) greets you walking up to the old Sports Authority these days, it’s now the Hub of the Honolulu Biennial and inside, the whole idea is to thrill you.  HB curator, Ngahiraka Mason, is guiding us.

Ken and Julia Yonetani (Japan/Australia). Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear nations (series). Uranium glass,antique chandelier frames, UV lights. Over thirty chandeliers have been made, the size of each represents the number of nuclear power plants in various countries. Four chandeliers appear in the HB show representing the USA, Taiwan, Japan, and China. The US chandelier pictured here is the largest and most opulent.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“All the artists are here.  And this room here, I think you’ll be stunned, so let’s go in.”

Ken and Julia Yonetani have darkened a room, and suspended from the ceiling, ornate antique chandeliers glow with glass beads made from depleted uranium.  Chandelier size represents the number of nuclear power stations in four given countries:  the US chandelier is huge, and beautiful. The smallest is Taiwan, then Japan, and larger at the other end, is China. 

Mason:  “A goal for me is to celebrate the amazing talent that is in Hawai‘i and to honor that talent and put in on the world stage with international artists.”  That differentiates the Honolulu Biennial from others with more purely fiscal goals.  Biennials are traditionally organized by weighty arts institutions, the government, or a hui of galleries.

“You can’t deny the weight the word “Biennial” has and carries.”

Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, with co-founders Koan Jeff Baysa and Katherine Ann Tuider, all believed Hawai‘i’s art deserves an international Biennial.

“It’s very much an industry term and it got a lot of people outside of here who were not paying attention, who our local, native Hawaiian, contemporary arts scene wasn’t on their radar, to kind of perk up.  We have many of them visiting us right now during the VIP and opening week.  This Biennial belongs to Hawai‘i.  This Biennial is everyone who has done a part and build this with us.”

At their best, Biennials transform all kinds of venues with art, and a new spirit seeps into the city.  Hawai‘i island artist Keith Tallet feels some of that.

Yuki Kihara (Samoa/Aotearoa New Zealand). A Study of a Samoan Savage (series). C-print on aluminum. Kihara’s series reflects on anthropometric studies of Polynesian men conducted in the 19th century. Kihara is fa’afafine, the third gender in Samoan culture.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“Seeing all the other artists' work from the Pacific, seeing their work from the Philippines, to Indonesia to Samoa to Tonga, it really is inspiring.  It’s like just an added layer that we need to get together and step it up.  and it’s an amazing place, here at the Hub.”

Several life sized boats fill the entry space, they’re piled high with the stuff of memories in a piece by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan of the Philippines.  Do not miss the interactive immersion nature video installation by TeamLab of Japan.  

TeamLab (Japan). Graffiti Nature. Interactive digital installation at The Hub, the former Sports Authority space on Ward Avenue. Fun for all ages.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“It’s another window for our family here to experience what contemporary art is.”

Sculptor Kāili Chun has pieces at the Waikīkī Prince Hotel and in Artists of Hawai‘i at the Honolulu Museum.

Kaili Chun (Hawai’i). Hulali I Ka La. Copper, wood, mixed media. This hanging sculpture with related wooden elements is a permanent installation at the Hawai’i Prince Hotel Waikiki. Like a school of hinana fish, some of the 850 copper pieces here were made by hotel employees. Chun is also a featured artist in Artists of Hawai’i at the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“We’re responding to this place at this time.  We use the materials and the visual language of our time and I think it’s really important to speak.”

There is a rich, international dialog about art that could benefit from Hawai‘i’s input.

Tallet: “It’s a very open space here in Hawai‘i for that niche, contemporary art.  I think it needs to be filled.  Filled and the whole community needs to be educated about this, and it’s not just these people that are crazy.  It’s another way of expression and in our culture we need that.”

Choi Jeong Hwaa (Korea). Gather Together. Recycled plastic, steel. These plastic buoys were collected from around the Hawaiian Islands with help from Sustainable Coastlines Hawai'i.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

This reminds me of how the Honolulu International Film Festival started out.  Audiences here got into it, got educated and a savvy film community emerged. 

Mason:  “I think we’re at a turning point.  I think turning points are activated by little incremental changes and a Biennial can be that incremental change.”   

“Absolutely hands down, visit Honolulu Hale, there are two major works there.  Choi Jeong Hwa from Korea and Filter Feeders from Hawai‘i island.  An amazing suite of paintings by the Filter Feeders in the Lane Gallery on the Diamond Head side of Honolulu Hale, and in the beautiful atrium, I hope Hawai‘i will be impressed by this work.  We worked with Sustainable Coastlines who gifted us buoys and whatever detritus that was gathered together that the artist felt he could make art with.  Someone actually said to me this is like a postmodern Stonehenge, made of plastic!”

Check it out, the Honolulu Hale atrium looks like a cathedral.  As usual, Hawai‘i could offer more than expected with its Biennial, not just fine art, but another way of doing things.

Honolulu Biennial Curator Ngahiraka Mason (Aotearoa New Zealand/Hawai'i) with Michelle Schwengel Regala's Water Column. Copper and aluminum wire, at The Hub on Ward Avenue.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Mason:  “This was started by two millennials and a baby boomer, with no institution, so what the heck?  What if there were cooperatively owned Biennials?  What if communities owned them, put them up?  We can change our minds, Noe, we can think through it differently.   We don’t have to mimic what happens in Europe.  We don’t.  This culture is not of that culture, it’s much more expanded, vibrant, and diverse, so why wouldn’t we take leadership of this type of thing?”

Mason contends, we don’t have to follow on the heels of what happens in Europe.  Hawai‘i  is much more vibrant, diverse, community oriented, and maybe more 21st century.  Why wouldn’t we be leaders in this type of thing?