Kaili Chun is a Kanaka Öiwi artist who lives in the Hawaiian city of Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, the place of her ancestors. Chun is close to her Hawaiian family and holds great respect for the knowledge and values she has inherited, including a strong sense of love and responsibility towards the environment in which she lives. Naturally beautiful, Honolulu has been heavily impacted by development, agriculture, aquaculture, militarism and tourism. Chun’s artistic practice responds to this through sculpture and large-scale installations that are often site-specific and involve community in creative dialogues around the significance of healthy land and waters, and how we may live with a greater awareness of our relationship to these vital sources of life.
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Commissioned for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10), Chun created an elegant installation, Uwē ka lani, Ola ka honua (When the heavens weep, the earth lives) 2021, comprising more than 350 stainless-steel cables that imagine rain as it appears when caught by sunlight slanting through the environment. Writing of the inspiration for Uwē ka lani, Ola ka honua, Chun shares:
Once, in a dream about rain, I saw vibrancy where there was an abundance of this life-giving element and desolation in its absence. For some, it is a simple description of the cycle between heaven and earth. But to Hawaiians, Uwē ka lani, Ola ka honua is so much more. Rain was always seen as a blessing from na Akua (gods). When rain falls, the rivers and streams are full of fresh drinkable water, the lo’i (taro patches) and various plots of food sources are full and thriving. When the earth is healthy, we too are healthy. This is our traditional belief: that water is not simply water, but that it is sacred. It is the water of life, ka wai a Kâne, and we are connected to it — body and soul.1
‘Uwē ka lani, Ola ka honua’ is an Ōlelo No’eau (Hawaiian proverb), which recognises the interconnectedness between all living things. Physically connecting the heavens to the earth, each strand of Chun’s installation holds within it a drop-like capsule of water collected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants from around Australia. Chun acknowledges and engages with the Traditional Owners of the lands on which her work is created and presented in order to establish a conversation around Indigenous knowledge and stewardship of land, sea and sky.
Explore the map and tap the pins for information about the vials and the water contained within them
The project involves individuals whose Country covers vast expanses of fresh and salt water alongside those whose water sources are — or have become — scarce. The work articulates not only the vast diversity of environments that exist across the many Indigenous nations of Australia, but also the deep ties that exist between this resource and the participants’ understandings of self and place. The sharing of traditional names and words about water enables audiences to also develop greater understandings of the deep scientific knowledge these participants have of these environments.
Kaili Chun ‘Uwē ka lani, Ola ka honua (When the heavens weep, the earth lives)’
In gentle conversation with the stories held within each capsule is a soundtrack developed by the artist in response to the different water environments she feels connected to in her own homeland. Playing across four speakers on the edges of the installation, the soundscape moves across and through the work in waves to be discovered and received by the audience as they move in and around the slanting cables. Chun states:
The underlying concept of this piece is the importance of water — whether wai (fresh), kai (ocean) or ua (rain) — and its embodiment of who we are as human beings — as connector or divider, healer or destroyer, purifier or putrefier. Our bodies are made with water and sustained by water, but unlike water we have the choice between unifying or separating, building ordemolishing, cleansing or soiling. Ours is a choice to serve ourfellow humans, steward our fragile environment and follow Ke Akua, our living God.2
Kaili Chun’s installation poetically reveals the deep respect its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants have for different sources of water, together with the vital importance of honouring the wisdom this connection and understanding have created.
Ruth McDougall is Curator, Pacific Art, QAGOMA
This is an edited extract from the QAGOMA publication The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art available in-store and online from the QAGOMA Store.
1 Kaili Chun, email to the author [artist statement], 10 November 2020.
‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) / Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane / 4 December 2021 to 25 April 2022.