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Gaye Chan




Gaye Chan
Kaili Chun
Sally Clark
Binh Danh
Ian Everard
James Fee
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Robin Kandel
John Morita
Katsushige Nakahashi
Masami Teraoka
Lynne Yamamoto

Gaye Chan’s work is typically displayed in a long unbroken line, resembling the historian’s task of constructing a coherent historical narrative.  Fragments of history and/or trace memories, in the form of found photographic negatives, photographs, or some other objects, are organized in a line to fabricate the sense of a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  The physical presence of the linear arrangement is suggestive of the act of writing history.


The very process by which Chan works also resembles the historian.  Whether an archive, library or an interview, a document or a testimonial account, this is the basic detritus that a historian uses to build a narrative.  Chan treats found photographs, or, as in Flagrante Delicto,1  found negatives from both amateur and professional photographers that span the 1940s to the 1970s, in a similar way.  These dislocated images—like obscure fragments stowed away in an archive—appear as miraculous pieces of evidence from a specific time and place.  While, on the one hand, the photographic process authenticates the scene, perhaps even verifying something of the time through telltale details (e.g., clothing, architecture), at the same time, these images lack a specific context and despite their evidentiary veracity (indicative of the medium itself) they remain as free-floating fragments around which narratives are constructed.  Moreover, Chan frequently situates the images in pairs.  Whether as a stereoscopic negative, reprinting the same negative, or coupling entirely different images, each is printed in its own unique way.  For example, from the Flagrante Delicto series Chan prints the doubled-image specter 1-3 from a stereoscopic negative differently; while the image on the left is predominantly cast in a sultry ocher hue, the image on the right is printed with a scorching yellow.  The discrepancy between “evidentiary veracity” and decontextualization, as well as the unique qualities attributed to each image—even when printed from the same negative—suggests the subjective artistry of historical discourse.  Like the Japanese folktale Rashomon, although presented with exactly the same archival fragment, radically different narratives might be drawn out.

In addition, this doubling, or mirror image, is extremely important for Chan. For her she sees this mirroring-effect as something like a Rorschach test, where we project meaning onto an image completely decontextualized, or emptied of its “original meaning.” Frequently the human forms in this work are abstracted, suspended outside any defining paradigms – gender, race, nationality – and as a consequence wrestled free from any specific “meaning,” each figure a blank surface on which we project, and reconstruct, our own fantasies, imagination, narratives. The ghostly forms then, figure as our own uncanny reflection (just as with Everard’s work) we discover, that the images themselves are not haunted by specters of the past, but rather it is we who haunt the image.

The discrepancies and alteration of colors in the paired prints challenge our assumptions about the historical process.  Despite the “accuracy” of the photographic process the shifts in color further emphasize the ease with which meanings might shift.  In addition, the veracity of the images heightens our awareness that forgetting is inevitable; it is in fact a significant feature of the human condition.  Confronted with these images we are compelled to ask, “Who are these people?” “What did they do?” “Why did they select to photograph this or that event?”  Analogously, how many of us have had the experience of looking through an old family album and, coming across some grainy black and white images without names or dates, thus, feeling a sense of disappointment because of our own inability to “connect” with our own kin?  Photographs without context are like an obscure document tucked away in an archive, which, for historians, depending upon their agenda and their particular project, they might never use and thus surrender it to oblivion.  Confronting the tenuous nature of historical discourse and its artistry highlights the immense amount of faith—perhaps disproportionately so—we place in historians and the historical discipline as the repository of our cultural memory.

Chan in her new work still focuses on the photographic medium, but she does so from a more conceptual perspective relying less on the actual photographic print.  Chan explores the Kodak Hula Show and how tourist photography of the “exotic Hawaiian body” maintains and reproduces the regime of colonial power.  But more than this, Chan wants to emphasize not just the disposition of colonial power, nor does she envision this work as necessarily limited to a mediation on the Kodak Hula Show, but rather a particularly poignant example of how photography functions in the generation of history and memory.  For 65 years the Kodak Hula Show, which began its run in 1937, showcased Hawaiian cultural traditions for the tourists coming to Waikiki.  The show was made possible, free of charge to the public, through Kodak’s sponsorship.  In 1999, though Kodak pulled its financial backing, the Hogan Family Foundation2 stepped in and sponsored the hula show for an additional three years.  In the final months the Hogan Family Foundation desperately looked for another sponsor to keep the show running, but none was found and the 65-year tradition came to an end.3

While, on the one hand, one might argue that this long-running show established something of a patronage-system financing an aspect of Hawaiian traditional culture, at the same time, however, as Elizabeth Buck notes, the Kodak Hula Show “frames Hawaiian culture for Western consumption, positioning Hawaiians and their music and dance as an exotic spectacle that can be captured on film and taken home.  It is a reconstruction of Hawaiian history and culture that mystifies the past and obscures the history of Western domination of Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture.”4  The Kodak Hula Show began with the introduction of the fictionalized character “King Kali,”5  and through the course of a performance a moderator would explain to the tourists the history of various dances, costumes, gestures, and at predetermined moments, dancers would form a tableaux giving the audience ample opportunity to take pictures (hopefully with Kodak film, of course).  The Kodak Hula Show offered something of a public service by educating visitors, providing a cursory history of hula (albeit highly abbreviated), but what the show also did at the same is illustrate the problematic discourse of history itself, not so much in what was presented during the show (which had its own set of problems), but rather, by what was omitted; for example, “why the referred to monarchy of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili‘uokalani (represented in the royal creation of the Kodak Hula Show – King Kali) no longer exists.”6

The Kodak Hula Show is a classic example of a contemporary manifestation of colonial practices, the exercising of colonial power not through state authority per se, but through “ordinary” people.  The exercising of this power largely materializes in the discourse of looking, the paradigm of the photographic pose, and the power dynamics of exhibition(ism).  The display of the Hawaiian body, for the pleasure of tourists, establishes an obvious dynamic of power in the sense that the Hawaiian body is placed in the passive position as “bearer of the look” and engaged by the active voyeuristic gaze of the tourists.  While dance always already embodies this dynamic—conventionally speaking performers of any kind are meant to be looked at—what perhaps sets the Kodak Hula Show apart is that it actively encourages an erotic engagement with the exotic Hawaiian body.  During the course of the Kodak Hula Show, as Buck notes, “older women, the tutu wahine, in their long mu‘umu‘u dance a funny, naughty hula, while the emcee alludes to the ancient hula ma‘i that symbolized in body movements the procreative powers of the chiefly ali‘i.  Thus, the Hawaiian celebration of the body in the ancient hula is reduced to sexual innuendoes for comic relief.”7  For Buck the celebration of human sexuality—which is embodied in certain hula dances—is hollowed out of cultural nuance, and subordinated for the pleasure of tourists.  Sexuality in dance is not inherently problematic, but perhaps what makes the Kodak Hula Show objectionable is not the sexual politics alone, but that sexuality is conjoined with colonial power engendered in the tourist’s gaze, which is fossilized in the form of the tourist photograph. And it is through the photographic regime – the fossilized pose – that memories and history are constructed; it is sometimes said, that we do not necessarily remember particular events, we only remember photographs of events.


The photographic pose, the cultural convention of the smiling static figure, or in the case of the Kodak Hula Show the tableaux that were struck explicitly for the purposes of tourists snapping photographs, emphasized the degree to which the performers were at the service of tourist throngs.  Buck cites that the open-air stands for the Kodak Hula Show sat 3,000 people, and it was believed that approximately one-third of them had cameras.  It has been estimated that during the course of a single Kodak Hula Show, as many as 12,000 photographs were taken.  “Only Disney World and Disneyland sell more film than the Kodak Hula Show.”8 And this seems utterly appropriate, because the Kodak Hula Show, for all its potential as an entry into Hawaiian culture, was little more than an exotic sideshow, not much different than the Disneyland Jungle ride, or the utopian sing-a-long “it’s a small world after all.”  The solicitation of the “Kodak moment” was worked into the program itself, after “King Kali’s” opening of the Kodak Hula Show the moderator would announce that he would return later so that the visitors could “pose for pictures with him.”What exactly was the purpose of the Kodak Hula Show, to showcase Hawaiian culture, or to sell Kodak film?  What killed the 65-year long show is not a shift in tourists’ interest, but the introduction of digital camera technology (recall Kodak pulled its funding in 1999 exactly when digital cameras were seizing the market).  Tourists, who choose to shoot the “Kodak moment” on a digital format, did not need to buy Kodak film, and as a consequence the Kodak Hula Show, which was designed to solicit the consumption of Kodak film, suddenly found itself outmoded.


Waikiki is not much different than any other urban center, and the Kodak Hula Show was what helped to set it apart.  For the most part this district has all but effaced any traces of its (traditional/native) Hawaiian history.  The Kodak Hula Show then functioned as an opportunity for tourists to witness the supposed last vestige of “authentic” Hawaiian culture in a city, which is relatively generic, hardly undifferentiated from any other urban center.  Set in the geography of Waikiki, the Kodak Hula Show tells a very specific version of history.  If we think of Waikiki as a natural history exhibition, the narrative that is created—through the erasure and omission of certain histories, or simply paved over—belies the colonial violence within its perimeter.  Set in Waikiki, the Kodak Hula Show, which explicitly omits Hawaiian resistance to colonial power and violent conflict, as an exhibition of “authentic” Hawaiian culture naturalizes the colonial enterprise, and reconstructs a vision of paradise on earth through the tourist’s camera.  It is through the tourist’s camera that the histories of Hawaii are made and individual memories are constructed.


While this particular work takes the Kodak Hula Show as exemplary of the rhetoric of the photographic image, Chan hopes that those who interact with her work, might begin to recognize that “any tourist site, birthday party, wedding, any preordained photo-op forecloses any opportunity to see or even recognize the real.”10 These preordained photographic opportunities – typically happy events – help to “authenticate” the experience, testimonials to the joy of marriage, a birthday, a vacation, etc. What is being “authenticated” in the tourist’s camera when photographing something like the Kodak Hula Show? What memories are being constructed via the photographic image? In the presence of Chan’s work, these are some of the questions that she hopes that we entertain.

See Chan’s website: http://www.gayechan.com/

Also see Chan’s collaborative project on the history of Waikiki at: http://www.downwindproductions.com


  1. “Flagrante delicto,” an adjective meaning, “In the very act; red-handed.” (s.v., The American Heritage Dictionary, cited in Flagrante Delicto Contemporary Museum pamphlet essay by Naomi Long).
  2. Ed and Lynn Hogan were the founders of Pleasant Holidays.
      Tim Ruel, “Waikiki hula show ends run,” Star Bulletin (September 26, 2002): http://starbulletin.com/2002/09/26/news/story1.html
  3. Elizabeth Buck, Paradise Remade: The Politics of Culture and History in Hawai‘i (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 1.
  4. Presumably this character is a composite of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili‘uokalani.
  5. Buck, 3.
  6. Buck, 2.
  7. Buck, 193 n. 4. Buck here is referencing the article: “After Fifty Years, Hula Show Still Clicks,” Honolulu Advertiser (March 7, 1987): A3.
  8. Buck, 1.
  9. Gaye Chan, e-mail message to the author, June 19, 2006.


click to view full-size image

specter

from specter 1- 3


storm 1 & 2


storm 1& 2
see detail

installation view 1
installation view 2



























































kodak

Kodak Hula Show, digital inkjet prints on acid-free fine art paper, aprox 5 x 2 foot on photo paper, 2006

diamond

Diamond Head Crater, digital inkjet prints on acid-free fine art paper, aprox 3 x 3.5 foot print on photo paper, 2006


diamond

Diamond Head, digital inkjet prints on acid-free fine art paper, aprox 2 x 4 foot print on photo paper, 2006



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