Breaking Ground and Moving Earth
As an architect, artist, academic and expert urban dweller, Sean Connelly leaves a lot of ground to cover in A Small Area of Land (Kakaako Earth Room), a site-specific, conceptual indoor megalithic sculpture erupting with a breadth of natural materials, Hawaiian history and galactic alignment. Imagine a local, smaller-scale Stonehenge and you’d be riding a comparable wave.
A recent New York City transplant, Connelly is still deeply rooted in Hawaii, where he was born, raised and educated (he’s earned both his B.A. in Environmental Urban Design and his Doctorate in Architecture from the University of Hawaii). This exhibit is an extension of his exploration into the Hawaiian watershed, what he believes to be a substantial technological achievement. A Small Area of Land opens at ii gallery in Kakaako on Friday, March 22.
HW: Is this your first solo exhibit in Honolulu?
Sean Connelly: Yes, I’ve never done anything like this before.
Explain the basic idea behind A Small Area of Land (Kaka’ako Earth Room).
The sculpture is a site-specific instillation that presents something familiar in a different context, as a way to invite others to consider a different frame of mind. I’ve taken materials that are very familiar to us–dirt and sand–and architecturally reconstructed them into a vertical object. The idea is that the sculpture reorients the viewer’s relationship to the ground, from a horizontal experience into a vertical one.
What drew you to this idea?
I’m concerned with the condition of Hawaii’s changing landscape, both natural and built, and political and cultural. I have a conflicting sense of paranoia and optimism for the future of our home that drives me to do the work that I do.
The mass of material you’re using–32,000 pounds of coral sand and volcanic dirt–is impressive. It also sounds pretty daunting. Is that the effect the piece is meant to have on the viewer?
Well, the remaking of landscape into an object in this case creates a moment when something familiar and comforting now feels foreign and overwhelming. The sculpture’s function is to trigger a range of different emotions and memories in different viewers from different places or backgrounds. My hope is that this engages people to call into question their relationships to land, its history and the future of development in Hawaii.
As a “site-specific installation,” how does it relate to ii gallery and the greater Kakaako area?
The sculpture is meant to forge a connection between geology, ecology and history in a way that relates to place as an esoteric condition. So I’ve designed a minimalist geometry that is sliced by the angle of the moon as it relates to the sun on a key event in the history of land in Hawaii. It was really an experiment in form making as a method of place making.
What key event are you referring to?
I want to tell you, but I’m supposed to keep that a secret until the opening of the show! But I will give you a hint and say that the title of the piece, A Small Area of Land, is the English translation of the word kuleana as defined in the Dictionary of Hawaiian Legal Land Terms.
Earlier, you mentioned “the future of our home.” Where do you see yourself in the scheme of it?
Change is constant and can’t be avoided. Perhaps the next best option to preventing change, or trying to preserve the past or present, is to help guide change in the most appropriate direction. But then the question becomes, well, what is the appropriate direction, and who will benefit?
Since helping to guide this change is part of what I’m passionate about, part of uncovering the appropriate direction, for me, is about understanding the driving force behind those changes, which I see as a historical process, and this almost always relates back to land.
And so, in response to this historical process, the sculpture, which turns land into an object, suggests that our modern relationship to land is that of a human to an object. We buy and sell it. We zone it, reengineer it, control it.
You don’t sound too enthusiastic about that.
I think this becomes destructive when it leads us to advance our technologies in a way that separates us from natural systems, like the watershed and its processes. For example, in Hawaii, our infrastructure is designed to change the hydrology of the watershed. Traditionally, Hawaiians design their infrastructure to assist it. This relates back to the differences in relationships to land, where traditionally it was a familial relationship, and now it is a financial one, an object.
So what are our relationships to land now in 2013?
Ironically, as we move ourselves further and further away from the natural world, we try harder and harder to bring it back, to recreate what we call a sense of place. Because as natural creatures, deep down in our basic instincts, we really miss it. To say “sense of place” is really funny, because it shows that there is a fundamental lack of place that is threatening whatever it is that people are trying to sense. And so, we open ourselves up to really tacky art and architecture, like sticking oversized kalo leaf decals onto the side of a box building and calling it “local.” Or putting a curve in a roof because it’s supposed to represent a wave.
That then leads into the aspect of form making as a method of place making, as the sculpture attempts to address what it could mean to create place in Hawaii, at least architecturally. I’m not saying this sculpture should become a building, but I think the sculpture begins to propose deeper and more sophisticated ways to relate our built environment to nuances of place here, both in the sense of ecology and biomimetics, and then the next generation of all that, which is geomimetics.
You’re originally from here, but moved to New York over a year ago. How has being away from Hawaii, living in such an urban environment, affected your perspective on land issues locally, and does that, if at all, inform the piece?
This is the best question I’ve gotten so far.
Living in an urban environment like New York has broadened my perspective and helped me grow as a person because I was able to gain access to a density of creativity that is very hard to gain access to in Hawaii, although that’s changing. So I was able to make friends with people who really opened my mind to new ideas and new interpretations of ideas that I was exploring prior to moving there, which were old for me, but new for them. It was a very refreshing exchange of information and knowledge.