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Kaili Chun




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
The German word museal [museum-like] has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying.1 


Kaili Chun’s previous works not only embodied Adorno’s warning, but also illustrated the dilemma facing indigenous populations and the preservation of culture and history.  As a common practice, cultural artifacts are encased within glass, literally set apart from human agency, physically demarcating the space between the living and the dead.  For example, artifacts displayed in a natural history museum are typically perceived as relics of a culture that have been subsumed, eclipsed by Western “progress,” and separated from modern life.  Through context alone, fragments of a culture are exhibited as specimens, as a biopsy from a corpse.  The fragments, torn from their original context, are subjected to Western scientific discourse and categorized according to anthropologic disciplines.

Chun’s work E hana mua a pa‘a ke kahua mamua o ke a ‘o ana aku ia ha‘i (Build Yourself a Firm Foundation Before Teaching Others), 2003, a series of three pairs of slender cases made of koa wood and glass encase traditional items.  The cases, and their contents, illustrate the power dynamics associated with museum curatorial practices and anthropological discourses, but more than this, the voyeuristic and fetishistic fantasies constructed around artifacts are also illustrated.  Behind glass, items are on display for our pleasure, robbed of context and agency.  Artifacts such as human anatomy from pornographic films become fetish objects, a metonym for the whole.  We come to believe the fantasy that from fragments—through the discourse of science—a culture might be completely knowable.  Chun reiterates the slippage between the scientific and the voyeuristic gaze that exposes objects to a curious look.  The scientific/voyeuristic parallel “recapitulates the mind/body split epitomized by a scientific production of knowledge.  What Foucault called a scientia sexualis detaches itself from the body in order to understand, label, codify and cure the body and its sexuality.”2 In the case of natural history and the use of the anthropological subject, “curing the body” is not the purpose per se.  Rather it is more akin to an autopsy, to know the body and how it functioned and, more importantly, what brought about its demise. 

Chun’s work contests the positioning of Hawaiian culture in the foregoing terms.  The material and the craftsmanship involved in the construction of these pieces are evidence of Hawaii’s living history.  Prior to embarking on Build Yourself a Firm Foundation Before Teaching Others, Chun sought training in woodworking and became the apprentice of Wright Elemakule Bowman, Sr., a master craftsman, who is revered as one the creators of the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a.  Having apprenticed with Bowman, and now working in his home/workshop, Chun’s sculpture is living history.  History is very much alive in her hands.

Looking at Chun’s work we might assume that Hawaiian culture has been “boxed-in,” so to speak, but the material (koa) and her craftsmanship (especially as it relates to her training under Bowman) tends to undo some of the dilemmas raised earlier.  These works are situated according to Chun’s conceptual terms and her refined woodworking skills.  Above each case, secret compartments contain other pieces of traditional culture.  “As with any body of knowledge, there are limits to what one can know; Chun also alludes to kaona, the wisdom that one must earn the right to know, and that which ultimately remains unknown.”3

In Reconstructing Memories, Chun presents a series of concrete posts, representative of the young men of Hawaiian ancestry who were sent out to the most remote atolls during the Second World War to reaffirm Hawaiian/American sovereignty over these small parcels of land in the middle of the Pacific.4  By establishing dominion over this territory the Hawaiian outpost staked the territory as Hawaiian/American.  Their presence assured that the Japanese could not make a terra nullius claim to the land.        

Through the use of concrete, Chun suggests the degree to which culture was projected onto that territory.  This important issue gives rise to another question.  Whose culture was being projected onto that landscape?  Hawaiian, American, or both?  Given that Chun’s material is concrete, perhaps we might suggest that these young Hawaiian men were really operating as agents of the American military. 

In fact, there is, to one degree or another, an element of racism involved in the stationing of these young Hawaiians on these remote islands.  Consciously or not, the American military’s assumption was that Hawaiians, by virtue of their race, would “naturally” adapt to the harsh environment.  These islands offered virtually nothing in terms of protection from the elements, no trees, no shelter, and, with little provisions, it was assumed that these men could fend for themselves, living off the bounty of the ocean.  Indeed, these young men did survive, and they did so by drawing from traditional knowledge.  Irrespective of the American military’s motivation for stationing these Hawaiians in these remote locations, there was undoubtedly a sense of dutiful accomplishment that cannot (and should not) be taken away from them, nor berated.

The fact that Chun has chosen to work in concrete constitutes one of the intriguing things about her piece in Reconstructing Memories.  The connotations of the material itself are multilayered and complex.  While this is a departure from her previous work, which drew on her skills in Hawaiian traditions of crafting wood, the shift is germane to the content of the work.  In form, similarities can be made to her earlier work, the basic monolith structure.  In both cases these works pertain to establishing foundations, to locating/preserving a sense of Hawaiian culture/identity, and to a reliance on traditional culture for survival.                            

The medium of concrete itself is loaded within a complex web of connotative values.  Although concrete had been used in antiquity, it is during the Renaissance that architects and masons rediscovered what the ancients already knew, and the full potential of the material was put to use.  The implementation and use of concrete led to major advances in architectural structures and it is through the development and use of concrete that Western culture has laid down the foundation of civilization.  Concrete signifies civilization itself.  (The term also permeates our culture.  When we know that something is a “sure thing,” or definitive, we say that it is “concrete.”  To have an exact count of items is to have a “concrete number.”  A known fact, such as in a court case, might be referred to as “concrete evidence.”)  Here Chun’s use of concrete embodies many of the cultural connotations associated with this material.


  1. Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Webber (London: Nevel Spearman, 1967), 175.
  2. Bill Nichols, “The Ethnographer’s Tale,” in Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from VAR 1990-1994, Lucien Taylor, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 68.
  3. James Jensen and Allison Wong, The Contemporary Museum Biennial of Hawai’i Artists, catalogue, (Honolulu: The Contemporary Museum, 2003), 4.
  4. Similar events are taking place now.  The South Korean military has stationed a number of soldiers on a small island to assert its claim over it.  The island is little more than a mountain peak jutting out of the ocean.  Japan, nevertheless, disputes South Korea’s claim to the island arguing that the small island is a part of the Japanese island chain.

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before

E hana mua a pa’a ke kahua mamua o ke a ‘o ana aku ia ha’i
(Build yourself a firm foundation before teaching others)
2003
13x13x531/2 inches

































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