About Looking #2 (b)

Tinfish Press began collaborating with visual artists in 1997. Through hand-crafted journal covers and centerfolds, and experimental book designs, visual art has since been an integral aspect of Tinfish's production. About Looking was initiated in 2007 to feature writings on art.


About Looking : Issue 2
on Michael Arcega

Some thoughts on Walnut Traverse V3 by Ruth Y. Hsu

Soon after entering Nu?uanu Gallery, my eyes were drawn to the simplicity of the wall to my left: white plaster with mostly square pieces of wood, some very small, attached here and there, across the entire seventeen feet wide and ten feet high surface. As I stood back to survey Michael Arcega’s installation, Walnut Traverse V3, the wood pieces seemed to stretch out across the vast, empty expanse of wall like islands, disconnected from each other, and randomly placed by a godly hand during a time so distant in the past that we represent only in myths or symbols like the kind found on tapa, ceremonial masks, or in religious rituals. As I drew closer to the wood pieces – of course, I would be attracted by land, landlubber that I was raised to be – I realized that each piece sported round holes, clustered together in ways that also reminded me of something else, the holes in bowling balls or the dark-colored circles found on coconuts.

In writing this commentary on Walnut Traverse V3, it was brought home to me again that knowledge is essentially a process of accumulation, like stacking building blocks, one on top of the other, or like a process of association, as we solder together, with electrical energy, the bits and bytes of data already acquired, floating among our grey matter, into pragmatic units of “meaning.” I write pragmatic because we produce and use “meaning” in order to make sense of our environment, composed partially of a present moment that motivates and permeates the memories we construct of the past. Knowledge is culturally and temporally circumscribed across a matrix of class, gender, racial and national identities. There is not any universal, objectively knowable knowledge out there for us to access at this evolutionary moment; what “I” know are indices of my emplacement within a specific socio-economic environment.

What might, for instance, Epeli Ha?oufa have “seen,” had he gone into Nu’uanu Gallery? One can assume, from his writings, that, unlike me, he would “see” the large plaster wall, the “ocean,” not as “empty” and hostile expanse to be vanquished, but as life itself, as dynamic material that connects the islands with the ocean into a mutually constitutive, or meaningful, whole. The human traveler, in such a worldview, is not apart from terra firma and mare, but s/he is an integral part of both, possessing indeed more water than earthly matter.

As I make sense of Walnut Traverse V3 by attempting to re-vision it within Ha’oufa’s cosmological paradigm, I am also drawn to knowledge imparted to me in my youth. I recall being told some of my very distant ancestors traversed the seas south of what is today China as easily as I tread concrete. Those sailors were at home on waves that communicated to them where food could be found, as well as winds and ocean currents that would take them from island to island in what eventually proved to be a futile search for the elixir of immortality. Those voyages remain among the Chinese as lore and as arcane “history.” And surely, the practical and philosophical knowledge gained from those voyages has become knitted into the fabric of naturalized cosmology in the region. This information, like Ha’oufa’s perspective, is not widely known in the west, which enshrines the idea that before Columbus and Vespucci the world had not any maritime adventurers.

As I approached the wall, I recall being told some of my very distant ancestors traversed the seas south of what is today China as easily as I tread concrete. Would it ever be possible to compile an atlas of our glacial divergence? Each generation must remap the earth, land, ocean, the skies, and epistemology.

From my historical, political, and cultural place, I touched the solid wall and the equally solid pieces of walnut: nothing fluid, about that contraption. Relieved, I poked fingers into the holes of the lowest piece of walnut, shook off my crocs and placed toes on the thin ledge of another piece of wood and tried to hoist myself up. Mentally, I had charted possible routes across the wall, gauged the distances between the wood pieces. I was determined to succeed. Yet, despite my planning and my desire to scale this installation, and so conquer and, in a sense, own it, my attempts were dismal failures. The gallery attendant, upon perceiving my crestfallen demeanor, helpfully reminded me that Arcega’s piece was part of “Futilitarianism.” A handful of visitors had successfully completed their treks across the wall (they doubtlessly possessed genetic data of very distant ancestors who had made it over the Bering Land Bridge, I thought glumly. Not fair!), but most visitors had not, the attendant broke into my thoughts with this piece of information. I glowered. Recently, inspired by Karen Tei Yamashita, a trickster author of considerable vision, I ‘gave up’ a sample of my DNA to the Genographic Project, belonging to the National Geographic Society. My Mitochondrial DNA belongs to Haplogroup D, I discovered. Our journey began some 60,000 years ago when “I”, or rather, countless ancestors began to leave the highlands of East Africa (same as all living humans, today), meandered across the Arabian/Persian Sea, then mucked about the Mediterranean and East Asia, before spreading into north-east Eurasia. Some groups of ancestors took their time moving farther north and east, across the tundra of Siberia, while the groups from which I eventually descended went south, into China, to South-East Asia, and where else is anyone’s guess. It had taken 150,000 to 200,000 years to get from East Africa to Asia, across places of remarkable beauty, but more was to come, as “I/we” hopped the Bering Land Bridge into the Americas.

Perhaps I was so put out because I had unwittingly, from habitual thought processes, translated Arcega’s wall into a metaphorical ascendancy to do with intellectual knowledge (my Achilles heel), and not just one of bodily movement across physical space. Moving from walnut to walnut is akin to possessing the contents of books, one book to the next. And so, I wonder at the profound manner in which the syntax of a dominant paradigm inhabits one’s psyche.

Arcega’s installation in Nu?uanu, like most of his other work, seeks to undo that deep grammar by revealing the unconscious, conceptual sub-strata of a worldview that compels one on a journey as valiant conquistadores (El Conquistadourkes 2005), or saviors of the world (Eternal Salivation 2006), or as the most accurate, scientific purveyor of reality (maps of Spam 2007). The latter piece is especially germane to Hawaii’s uncritical love affair and identification with luncheon meat (most of which is manufactured in Minnesota). Arcega invites viewers to experience viscerally and not simply intellectually the linguistic and visual double-takes staged in his installations. El Conquistadourkes, for example, cuts the marauding Spanish ‘conquerors’ down the proverbial peg or two and, by extension, is a critique of western historicizing as a colonial discourse. The installation consists of two armored and weaponless figures made from manila/Manila folders holding hands and looking somewhat whimsical and vulnerable. One is reminded that scribes, monks, and policy wonks wrote western colonialism into material possibility. Arcega re-visions this collective memory and de-constructs the colonizers’ logocentric self-aggrandizement.

Those of us who know intimately the insanity of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism “I conquer the world; I save the world; I map the world” would appreciate Arcega’s tongue-in-cheek, intricately woven, satires of this grammar of global domination and the dismal lack of self-reflexivity on the part of both colonizer and the colonized. For, indeed, colonial projects cannot succeed without the cooperation or complicity of the colonized.

Walnut Traverse V3 lays a trap of intelligent humor and beauty in order to illustrate the vanity (as in Samuel Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes”) and the dangerous self-delusion and narcissism made possible by custom and habit. When presented with a wall, one must scale it; when presented with a continent, one must conquer it. After all, is it not human to want to … ?

Failure, then, in this instance, is not a bad thing, if the experience leads us to delve deep into motivations, impulses, desires, and into our unexamined and naturalized cosmology. Not being able to traverse the edifice can inspire in the viewer and the climber a helpful re-visioning: one looks at this wall and its refusal to be easily conquered in a different light. For the installation’s power partially rests in its beauty and its simplicity: it holds out the promise of an easy trek along those well-wrought pieces of walnut, and satisfaction at the successful conclusion of that journey. Similarly, the ongoing success of the Manichean colonial and imperial projects derives from an ability to entrance those defined as the other with a promise of acceptance into the powerful elite.

However, I do not turn away from Walnut Traverse V3; it has not broken its promise, despite my failure to traverse its many possible routes. In a sense, it has allowed me to experience the autonomy to be found in delving deeply into and “knowing” oneself.

In conclusion, I note that when viewed from a spatial distance, Arcega’s installation carries a stark beauty. In dim lighting, strategically spaced along the ceiling, the effect is a sense of hush, of stillness, as if one is entering a peaceful chapel. Climbers photographed making their cautious way across the wall arouse the spectator: taut back and arm muscles, in motion or in stasis. In one photograph, a climber/adventurer is stretched out, facing the wall, a clothed and non-suffering Christ, or an accomplished ballet dancer suspended in mid-air, in full control of the moment and the next, fluidity in stasis. My t’ai chi teacher would call this accenting the roundness contained in the square and vice versa. I imagine the climber/adventurer could have chosen to step off or to continue or not even to begin this particular journey. Yet, each traveler must find her own purpose and reward; one is never completely motionless.

Michael Arcega’s website

Ruth Y. Hsu researches and writes about race, ethnicity, gender, and nation while teaching in the English Department at the University of Hawai?i at M?noa. She has lived in Hawai?i since 1992, after relocating from Los Angeles. She most recently contributed to The Statehood Project, a collection of vignettes and dramatic scenes that reflect diverse reflections on the 50th anniversary of this archipelago’s admission into the United States. She is working on several scholarly projects to do with the morphing discourse on identity.