Gaye Chan’s projects inspire others to act without shame, share without condition, and trust without apology.
Text by Sonny Ganaden
Images by John Hook
It is nearly impossible to overstate the influence Gaye Chan has had on the arts community in Hawai‘i. As chair of the Department of Art and Art History at University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, she has prodded countless students to pursue their ideas, identities, and conceptions of art. In her own work, she interrogates what it means to engage in dynamic communities, testing the boundaries of politics and the economy. She confronts what those in the art and academic worlds consider normative leadership styles. She throws the most interesting potlucks in Hawai‘i.
At one such potluck, dubbed the “Digger’s Dinner,” held in March 2014 at the Commons Gallery in the heart of UH Manoa, all of Chan’s recent experiments regarding art and community were tested. A proponent of rules in art, Chan laid out the requirements for participation: “Participants’ contributions must be primarily made from ingredients that they have either grown, hunted, fished, foraged, bartered, found, been gifted, or stolen. Digger’s Dinners are exercises in recreating the commons, where food and knowledge are freely shared.”
Most participants were game for embracing the rules of a potluck in an academic art gallery. But there was a big difference between this event and those often stuffy contemporary art shows: People were happy! The space was packed with current and former students, university people, decidedly non-university people, and members of the community who had either heard about the party on the radio, read about it in the paper, or were tagged in an Instagram post. Contributors stood in a long line to share about their recipes, as well as the myriad of clever ways for overcoming the rules. Some questions went unaddressed: Is this a potluck or an art show? Is this an attack on capitalism or a promotion of locally grown food? Is this an exhibition or an incitement to petty theft? Chan, the orchestrator, seemed happy with the ambiguity. “An elderly woman came up to me during the event and showed me the newspaper clipping from the arts section of the paper,” she remembers. “She told me, ‘This is the party I’ve been waiting for my whole life.’”
The idea for the Digger’s Dinner developed organically over the last several years of Chan’s artistic practice. Years prior, Chan and her partner, Nandita Sharma, a professor of sociology at UH Manoa, lived and worked out of a home in the Enchanted Lakes neighborhood of Kailua, where they began to call their communal art/sociology/anarchy experiments “Eating in Public.” In a strip of grass abutting a fenced-off lake designated to Enchanted Lake residents, they planted papaya trees. Weeks later, they engaged in a public, old-school style battle—complete with signage—in front of their trees. And the receivers of their arbor-loving ire? Reluctant groundskeepers employed by the largest private landowner in Hawai‘i, Kamehameha Schools. Eventually, the papaya trees were cut down and the fence extended out to the sidewalk—the public space now lessened by two feet. But not all was lost: Two weeks after the trees were felled, the neighborhood assisted in creating a communal garden near where the trees had stood. “Most of us are suburbanites and don’t know a thing about farming, so there were crazy ways of harvesting,” Chan says. “We eventually put signs up on how to take, what herbs are used for, even recipes.”
It feels fresh, but Chan is careful to explain that she is not engaged in neologism. She is continuing the work of those over the last several centuries who have challenged capitalism’s capacity to ensure equitable lives. Blending the anti-authoritarian and the academic, Chan cites 17th century commoners as her inspiration: serfs who were pushed off communal land at the outset of the private-property revolution, becoming farmers engaged in activist planting. As private-property owners divvied up plots and divested those without inheritance of their lands, public terrain became increasingly ornamental, disconnected from the necessities of food, water, building materials, and heating. Some of the displaced farmers formed the diggers, whose signature act was to plant edible foods on their recently expropriated lands. “We’re not exactly continuing the work of the diggers, we are the diggers,” Chan says. “We are continuing the same project: the return of our commons.”
For Chan, Eating in Public is only a portion of life in contemporary art. While on sabbatical during 2013 to develop her work and spend time with her ailing father, she took to Instagram. A lifetime of thinking about photography, content, and composition was at play immediately. Taking note of musician John Cage’s ideas regarding the boundaries of art, she devised a few of her own: no filters, nothing but pictures from her phone. Before long, a discarded orange peel on cracked asphalt became a metaphor for depression; a defaced political sign became a symbol for protest; countless other images showed life as it is in Hawai‘i and the places she travels. “I like to take photos of nothing,” she says blithely of the medium that perhaps has made her most famous. A closer inspection reveals that the images exist in sets: a series of fences, a series of fruits, a series of people covering their faces awkwardly, plenty of coincidences with which to test theories of art and community.
There is a danger in giving some definition to an individual who is so adept at defining her own work. As an ideating leader in a community of artists, it can be said that she is concerned with delimitation—the ways to transcend the boundaries created by political, economic, and aesthetic systems. In a TEDxHonolulu talk in 2013, Chan concluded with a rousing directive: “If you like our ideas, contact us. Better yet, don’t contact us. Take them and run as far, smart, and fast as you possibly can.”