2002 – 2006 / chromogenice prints (some pin-pricked)
Essay by Naomi Long
flagrante delicto (fla-gran’te di-lik’to)–adv. In the very act; red-handed.
–from The American Heritage Dictionary
“[I]f something was to stay in the memory, it had to be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche from On the Genealogy of Morals
During the Middle Ages, to cut, pierce, brand or dismember the body served as a reminder, an aide-mémoire of transgressions committed by an individual. Pain flares from the center, radiates toward the edges of the frame, then fades into black, leaving behind a memory-trace. Artist Gaye Chan, using found negatives made by professional and amateur photographers from the 1940s to 1970s, renders visible Hawaii’s history without the guardrail of nostalgia. Damaged by moisture and time, Chan’s prints reveal streaks of light, clusters of fungi, focal distortions and cracks. The red infusion throughout connotes desire, violation, and consequence, while the color yellow suggests illumination, power, and atonement. In Flagrante Delicto, Chan engages in an impassioned examination of the master plans implemented decades ago that propelled Hawai`i toward non-sustaining agriculture and tourism.
Hung in a linear configuration, Flagrante Delicto comments on how memories and histories are created and revised each time we see visual narratives. Beginning with repeated images of children standing knee-deep in water, we perceive the instability and temporality of the human body, while the ocean seems to exist outside time, rippling toward shore in ceaseless rhythm. This image, printed from the only set of stereoscopic negatives Chan uses, is duplicated in varying ways—reversed, overlapped, slightly askew—which lead the viewer to question simultaneously the similarities and differences between them. Throughout the exhibition, the use of repetition conveys a droning sensation as in the five consecutive images of a hula dancer: “paradise” as mass-produced, relentlessly commodified. There is also a haunting quality that pervades, spectral presences that linger in the mind long after one leaves the museum.
Punctuating the sky is the imposition of a dream—the American Dream—upon the language, culture, and society of an indigenous people. This act of transgression is caught flagrante delicto and, by a trick of light, is recorded onto film, revealed years later as burning evidence. A street grid, a convoy of planes, a pair of hapless tourists carried above water in time for a snapshot. Through the filter of the present and the knowledge of what Captain James Cook’s “discovery” has meant for all who reside here, these prints betray the colonizing impulse of early travelers and explorers, provoking us to acknowledge and to mourn the consequences of these invasions.
A question: Have we become a culture of forgetting? For to forget is to comply with the selective erasures of social memory. Those who are absent and the acts committed against them, persist in the culture as ghosts: the repressed contents of history. “History” haunts us, and although the past appears cold and obsolete as a bone, at its hollow center burns a conflagration. What Chan seems to be doing is splitting the terra firma of the past to reveal an underlying furnace of actions and decisions that continue to give off heat and have repercussions on both the present and, potentially, the future.
Further along, we come to a series of photographs that resemble flaming islands afloat in a black sea. In one pair, a man photographs himself as a parade passes down Kalakaua Avenue. In another, a woman walks up a gangplank toward her expectations. In a kind of Rorschach moment, we as viewers are asked to interpret what we see before us. Our responses, then, become a litmus test of where we situate ourselves between the oppressor/oppressed. What role(s) do we play in this drama of reversals, this looking-glass world in which we live?
The exhibition continues with a gestural meditation on vadium vivum, another phrase for mortgage. In each print the deep red hue incarnates feelings of suspicion and alarm. Here and there, hot spots erupt from the fibers, illuminating key details of an illicit exchange: a kiss, a handshake, a paper document, a golden cup. Thousands of pin pricks rupture the surface, giving shape to hands engaged in attitudes of ritual or prayer. Drawn from negatives made in the 1970s by realty and insurance firms, these prints are then layered with imagery inspired by 16th to 18th century Christian paintings. A visual palimpsest, this series depicts transactions made between ordinary people and agents of power—realtors and creditors. Land, a generator of life, becomes understood as a symbol of security, thus making the transference of property sacred. But from Chan’s point of view, how do we pledge that which no one can own? Who pays the never ending debt?
Although linear in design, Chan’s visual narrative does not end when wall space runs out. Row after row of money flicker and burn, but never exhaust or reduce to ash. Through carefully orchestrated imagery, Chan renders the futility of amnesia. The photographs one finds hanging on the walls of hospitals, government buildings, and 24-hour diners, promote primarily two sentiments: a nostalgic yearning for simpler times, and a celebration of “progress” as defined by consumer culture. According to Chan, both confirm the inflexible ways in which linear time is commonly portrayed and understood, that past is past, dead and gone. In this light, Flagrante Delicto offers up an alternative timeline, one that is not framed by past/present or then/now, but rather as
present all at once.