The Architecture of Change: Exploring the Past Within the Present / Artists Hawkins Biggins and Scott Groeniger share a China connection, made explicit in their exhibition at the HPU Art Gallery at the Kaneohe campus. Both focus on the many associations that circulate around Chinese culture and each has a distinctly different but still local point of view. At a time when China is the elephant in the room–its renmenbi making a run for the global standard of currency, its ownership of massive U.S. debt, its intent to uncouple capitalism and democracy–we are still fascinated with things Chinese, in large part because they figure so centrally in the history of our own island community.
Photographer Biggins works closest to home, in Honolulu’s Chinatown, a district that, despite its gentrification, remains on an edge of culture, of urban politics. Biggins notes that “…while Chinatown in Honolulu has been altered, it remains a vibrant blend of the past and present, as many of the original landmark buildings have been preserved. My images in this exhibit seek to celebrate the charm of Chinatown as traditional Chinese culture blends with modernity to create ‘the architecture of change.’”
Biggins, who spent a year teaching in China, has been photographing in and around Chinatown since 2004. Her works, which focus on the district’s built environment, also have a refined, architectonic sense of composition. Largely absent of any sign of human presence, the building facades and details take on personas of their own. For Biggins at her best, consider “1904 Sumida Building,” which features a detail of the upper facade of the building–red standpipe, an air-conditioning unit that has leaked onto a window pane, a section of that window inexplicably painted with a little landscape, a dove delicately perched on a bit of roof overhang, perfectly aligned with the edge of the window frame–if the image were words, it would be a lovely but gritty sonnet to urban life, aging but immediate. Biggins’ “China Red Series” is also a delight, providing clues for a visual scavenger hunt that inspires one to traverse Chinatown in search of locales accented with that quintessential color. Biggins’ work puts a clean, sunlit face on a space that is also marked with the darker currents of sexuality and violence, perhaps a reminder of the slower cycles of change that shape the built as opposed to the human environment.
Scott Groeniger’s large-scale digital prints, mounted in scroll-like fashion, take advantage of the possibilities for combination within the medium to create visual metaphors for China’s cultural transformation, using “…fragments and pieces from the present and past, addressing a future of challenges and hope as China transitions into an international superpower.” Where Biggins looks at urban facades like faces in portraits, Groeniger, who has also spent time in China, treats those surfaces like public forums for ongoing conversations, visually layered with various forms of inscription. In “Forbidden Zone,” a delicate section of ornamental carved wood appears inset into a wall stenciled with a white emblem, bold against the red ground. In “Decommissioned Calligraphic,” a white-washed wall of brick-and-mortar is articulated by a pattern of large-scale characters, echoed by delicately incised characters, its dimensional surface anchored by an embedded nail, and a bit of paper stuffed into a gap in the mortar. Groeniger’s works suggest that city walls are like bulletin boards for ongoing discourse about the complex process of cultural transformation.