Sustainable machine

Text Kelsey Amos

Students of Hawaiian history know that March 7, 1848, was the last day that the Māhele Book was signed, clearing the way for private land ownership in the islands. But according to conceptual artist Sean Connelly, July 11, 1961, is a date that should be considered just as important in shaping how we live today.

This date, painted on the wall as part of Connelly's “Land Division" installation at the Honolulu Museum of Art, is the day the land use commission codified the three types of single land use districts that we still use today—urban, agriculture and conservation.

Connelly recognizes that there were good intentions behind the decision to zone land in this way, but the negative effects are twofold. First, conserving only upland forest means that we've diverted and redirected streams, destroying the connections between watershed ecosystems that used to stretch mauka to makai. And second, we've created a situation where even if we were growing most of our own food instead of importing it, the majority of the population lives in urban areas that are far from the agricultural land where food would be grown.

“If we could go back and do that again," says Connelly, “at the very least they should have zoned a buffer of land around every stream as conservation to keep a continuity between mountain and ocean."

What does this have to do with art? Everything, and also nothing. Unlike many conceptual artists, who use art to comment on art itself, Connelly makes it clear that he's here to talk about urban design.

In fact, “Land Division" might almost be described as part of a multimedia educational campaign that Connelly has been running to bring attention to watersheds and the ahupuaʻa system. You can watch his 2013 TEDx Maui talk or read his contribution to The Value of Hawaiʻi 2 to get a sense of the invasive assumptions Connelly has been busy uprooting like so many guava trees. He argues, rather convincingly, that ancient Hawaiians were an urban people, and that the ahupuaʻa, as a “man-made system of flows," is basically a living technology—a big, life-sized machine for sustaining humans.

Having dwelt on this idea for a little while, you might possibly start to wonder: Is an art installation a technology? Can we talk about “Land Division" as a machine—a man-made system of flows? If so, what is flowing, and what does the machine do?

As in any system, there are inputs and outputs. The most obvious input in the installation is the large wedge-shaped stack of guava wood cuttings that dominates the space. Ask Connelly why it's a wedge, and he'll launch into a whirlwind explanation about islands, radial symmetry, triangulation and fractals.

“Some refer to it as kind of like a monolith," he says, and goes on to explain that invasive species like guava destroy native forest ecologies that create and conserve moisture. Basically, invasive species dry out the watershed.

ʻEwa of the wedge are the aforementioned dates on the wall, and on the mauka wall a faint white decal of the streams and conservation lands of Oʻahu forms an eerie outline that seems to throb like the shadow of a heart. According to Connelly, this is “a map of Oʻahu that represents an alternate past or possible future of what conservation land might have looked like."

People come in. They flow through the space, mostly looking at the wedge, impressed by its girth, the startling way it leans back in the middle, and the familiar yet strange associations it arouses. They peer to see the light in the crevice that passes through the wedge. Something else—ideas, feelings, brainwaves—flows through the air. Then people leave.

At this point, it's too early to determine what the outputs are.

Undoubtedly, one desired output for Connelly is a “raising" of that tricky resource we call “awareness." But is that enough? Asked what he thinks will need to happen for Oʻahu to redesign itself around watersheds, Connelly says, “I think it would take rebuilding relationships to streams in Hawaiʻi, particularly in urban areas."


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

2017 S King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96826
Ikaika Hussey
Creative Director
Mae Ariola
Will Caron
Copy Editor
Karen Shishido
Assistant Editor
James Charisma