Pearl Harbor finds new life in Jane Mi's art
Honolulu Biennial 2017 is a multi-site, contemporary visual arts festival running from March 8 – May 8 2017 at various sites within the city.
The Native American scholar Vine Deloria Jr. talks about how the history of an area is written in its place names. For artist, ocean engineer and waterwoman Jane Chang Mi, place, narrative and identity are crucial fulcrums for her artistic vision.
In her recently unveiled Honolulu Biennial installation at The Hub (located at Ward Village), The Eyes of the Gods, Mi traverses the complex and multi-faceted history of Pearl Harbor, once known as Pu‘uloa or “Long Hill.” For hundreds of years before the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Pu‘uloa was a place of significance to Hawaiians. It was once home to 27 distinct fishponds, most of which have now been covered over or destroyed.
“I don’t think I can point to a specific time that my path as an artist began, but there are moments that I can now look back on that I can point too,” says Mi. “And one thing that’s always been true is that my work has always, either directly or indirectly, involved the ocean. Often it’s at a subconscious level, but I’m essentially talking about our relationship with water.”
The installation is comprised of videos from the underwater archive of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument played out across two of walls in a corner of art space The Hub. Divers from the National Park Service videotaped themselves surveying the USS Arizona and the USS Utah, including interring the ashes of survivors who have passed. On December 7, 2016, Mi took part in their dive.
Using both analog recording and algorithmic techniques, Mi found and compiled images from the video recordings that contained only water and nothing else. Mi's drawings of the different fish species that once called home the complex ecosystem we call Pearl Harbor line the walls and the recorded images of water slowly wash over them in a cyclical loop.
Mi was inspired by artist and theorist Hito Steyerl’s use of footage from the Edward Snowden archive. Steyerl begins by displaying an image of analog noise. The image is labeled SECRET. “This picture condenses contemporary visuality as a whole, because this is actually what most contemporary data, images, words, sound or information looks like. We cannot see them. They are not accessible to human senses,” Steyerl explains. She gives other examples of what the image could represent, eventually telling the story of Amani Al-Nasasra, a woman in Gaza who was blinded during a drone strike. Steyerl suggests that the displayed image is a document of what the Al-Nasasra now sees on a day-to-day basis—shadows. Steyerl questions if we can unscramble the shadows that Al-Nasasra has been left with. Can we create an algorithm for her to regain her sight?
The alogorithmic technique Mi used to create The Eyes of the Gods is, perhaps ironically, similar to the face recognition and surveillance software utilized by agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Joint Intelligence Center of the Pacific (JICPAC). JICPAC is currently headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
“During my time with postcolonial studies, I became very interested in Deloria’s emphasis on the ways in which a geographical area becomes named,” explains Mi. “I became interested with that same idea within the context of the Pearl Harbor archives. I realized that I’ve never actually heard of anybody pulling pearls out of the harbor. When did the pearls exist there, and what was there before? When was it utilized, why was it utilized, what was it utilized for? These are the questions I had in my head as I began my research for the project.”
The fishponds that once dotted the three lochs that form Pearl Harbor are no longer there. The West Loch of Pearl Harbor was once the spawning ground of the ‘anae-holo (running or traveling mullet). Every fall, the fish would swim counter-clockwise around the entire island, returning to Pu‘uloa in spring. The running mullet are of specific importance on O‘ahu as their movements mark the beginning of the Makahiki season on the island.
Ancient Hawaiians named the estuary that feeds Pu‘uloa Wai Momi, the “River of Pearls.” Oysters once flourished in the harbor; shells were used as scrapers to make cloth and rope and also carved into fishhooks; and mother of pearl was valued for its iridescence and used in religious sculpture as the material to make the eyes of the gods.
The Europeans arrived in 1778 and their lust for pearls quickly became evident. King Kamehameha declared all of Pearl Harbor’s oysters his and prohibited oyster fishing upon pain of death. A European explorer wrote, “There are many divers employed here diving for the pearl oysters, and we saved them much trouble and labor by presenting the king with an oyster dredge.” By the end of the 19th century, the oysters had all but disappeared. The United States began leasing the harbor on January 20, 1887.
Today, trapped oil from the USS Arizona still leaks in random spurts that rise to the surface of the harbor. Survivors of the Japanese attack were the first to refer to these bubbling streams of oil as “Black Tears,” in reference to the loss of life that occurred on December 7, 1941. But the tears could just as symbolically be said to originate from the very eyes of the gods themselves in response to loss of another sort: the loss culture, of lifestyle and sustainability, of language and of self-determination that the Hawaiian people have endured since the 1893 overthrow.
Like so many places in Hawai‘i, the history of Pu‘uloa is complicated and tragic. But it’s also far from over. Mi’s artwork and thoughtful analysis of place and identity remind us of that, both through the use of a inherently ephemeral medium like video, and through the historical context she provides through her drawings, prints and photographs.