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Too much space for inexperienced art seekers

Does anyone ever have too much space?

I didn’t think so until I experienced a day at The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu. The current show was art by a very prestigious Japanese artist. He is internationally known for his installations of delicate carved and painted wooden plant life. These fragile pieces from wood are hand-painted and are exhibited in unexpected locations.

My family and I excitedly drove to the large beautiful building and sprang out of the car. On the word of a fellow traveler we knew we didn’t want to miss the exhibit. We were told by the lady at the desk who was collecting $10 from each person that this was an art show that was different from any other.

“Hold me back my beating heart!” I was ready to be surprised. And surprised, I was! Just imagine walking into an enormous empty room for an art exhibit. Every wall was spotless, not one nail hole, not one smudge, perfect walls smooth with soft white paint. Not even one piece of art!

As we entered the big room, my first impression was, “We missed the show. What happened?” We stood there wondering if we should proceed to the next room. The room was probably twenty feet cubed, nothing in the room but a security guard sitting on a stool, dressed in black pants and white shirt with a badge and gun. You can imagine how comical this experience became for my family, who under duress is doing this for Mother.

“What is the security guard guarding?,” someone piped up. The guard knew we needed help. He said, “Look on the floor.” We immediately looked at the old wooden floor and the artist in me said, “I got it, it is the light patterns from the giant window reflecting on the wood.” Wrong! The security guard then said, “Look by the wall.” We were searching everywhere and by then the guard got off the stool and pointed his finger to the hand-painted leaves coming out from between the wall and the floor. Sure enough they were about the size of a matchbook cover, each leaf no bigger than one inch in diameter.

All four of us got down on our knees to view the leaves. The family is rolling on the floor in laughter about now. We are all feeling a little ridiculous.

Enough fun, it was time to move on to another empty room the same size. Now we got it, we need to look in the corners and along the floor line. My daughter is looking at this large room that is housed in a 6,000 square-foot building, and she is saying, “The price of this empty space has got to be worth millions in the real estate market.

My thought was, “I wonder if any one asks for their $10 back?” My husband has vanished for the bathroom. He has figured it out, he’s not going to miss much.

My other daughter is rolling her eyes, feeling ripped off and saying,“You’ve got to be kidding”. A young couple has entered the room, and they acted very interested and quietly examined the little leaves with great respect while we cracked up. I said, “We are ruining the exhibit for them.” Another burst of laughter, and we left the room.

We continued through each of the six large rooms, and at the end of the last room, there was a flower about six inches by eight inches, strategically placed about twelve feet high on the far wall. I excitedly called to everyone, “Come see”. They came quickly and we all gathered around looking at the one flower. It seemed like a long time that we stood there. This was intended to be the finest moment of the show; we didn’t want to miss it.

The handout said that the show was very hard to hang and it took hours to decide where the collection should go. Mind you, the whole show can be put into a cigar box. More laughter, chuckle, chuckle! The family is enjoying their own cleverness by this time, it was no longer about the art show.

It was time to leave the house and walk around the grounds, which was full of sculptures, trees, and shrubs of every kind. We came back through the house to the art show and went through it again taking pictures of the empty rooms. We laughed at ourselves that we went through the show twice because we missed one of the rooms.

“I got it,” I said. “Outside in the open space is so full of things and the house is empty. The house is really the open space.”

My daughter said, “No Mother, it has nothing to do with outside.”

“Oh? I still don’t get it.”

I needed further instructions; I read further in the handout, “His manner of exhibiting his art in unexpected locations urges the viewer to rediscover the surrounding spaces and architectures which contain his works with fresh eyes and to experience heightened moments of encounter between the environment, the sculpted form, and the viewer. As works of installation art they are modest, effacing, and at times nearly invisible. Yet sculptures have an overwhelming presence that dominates their surroundings.”

I was curious as to how everyone else handled the show so I made my way back to the security guard. He said this was the hardest show he ever had to guard. It started with 56 little pieces now it is down to 43 pieces. Remember the show fits into a cigar box.

After the art show, back in the car, the family was prime for conversation. I was feeling really guilty laughing at another artist’s show. His work was exquisite and it was meant to be very serious. Will we ever forget this art show? Absolutely never! Did we experience the empty space? Painfully, yes! Did we learn something? Yes!

We came to the conclusion that we don’t know what we think we know about art and you can’t take the country out of us. Well, it was time to fly to another island and I am sure they were glad to see us go.


The final brushstroke: Art evokes a reaction. It shows you who you are. Warning: Don’t take family members to a high profile art show. They might not know how to act appropriately. Culture? What culture!

Readers’ comments

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Dear Betty:

I loved the article, “A Moment of Reality.”

I think you captured the essence of what Hawaii is all about. I never thought about the arts being the reason that we are all drawn to Hawaii, but this is very true of why the allure of Hawaii is so strong.  It reminds me of keeping my own traditions and passing them down to the next generation.  I think we have lost that in the hustle and bustle of life.  Throughout history, it is a proven fact that our arts and the traditions of life are what keep our civilizations strong and flourishing.

Ancient Babylon is one such example.  Thanks for the reminder of looking below the surface to find the essence of life.

An interested reader in California

Dear Betty:

“A Moment of Reality” was a very informative article.  I really enjoyed it. 

For three seasons I’ve been making Hawaiian Masks.  My brother is a paddler in the Hawaiian way with their type of canoes.  He and his team of senior paddlers won the gold medal in California this spring. They were the only group not to be Hawaiians that won a gold medal.  It was an international event in Folsom.  This got me going on a art form that was light to carry.  It was a wonderful journey and I have about 18 gourd masks.  I elaborated on them of course. They’ll be ready to display next spring.  I went to a farm and got the gourds and dried them all winter.  Then I begged, borrowed and traded for more. So I have a nice Hawaiian story to go with the masks. Thanks for the article.

S. L. C.

Fernley, Nev.

Artist quote

“You see what you know!” — Frank Stella.