A solo exhibition by Nicole Reber
July 24–30, 2014
Hawaii has held a special place in my heart for many years. It was the place where I spent my earliest family trips, my first exposure to a world outside my Southern Californian beach neighborhood. Although the cultures of Hawaii and beachside Southern California aren’t incredibly polarizing, the difference of life there made a lifelong impression on me. There was a mystery to Hawaii that I always wanted to discover. My dad had moved there in his late teens, and his sister followed later in her own life. Although I didn’t know much about what they had done during their time there, there was always an indication of a darkness when those experiences were brought up. My dad has moved there pretty young, and didn’t go to college, so I always had a sense that it provided his own alternative formative experience. His sister married and had two sons with a man named Bosco, whose handlebar mustache I vaguely remember at some of my young family holidays. They would eventually divorce while I was in elementary school, becoming the first broken family that I knew.
In the 5th grade, our hallmark assignment for the year was “the state project.” The pressure of this assignment loomed in the hallways, as we had heard echoes of “the state project” and how hard it was from every class that had come before us. Each student had to pick their favorite state and prepare an in-depth presentation about its statistics, economy, and cultural history. I had already visited Hawaii and instantly knew that I wanted to learn more about it. Working on the project was a way I could talk to my dad about his past, and try to uncover a sense of American pride to supplement the strong Polish heritage I had from my mother. I would end up visiting Hawaii several more times in elementary and middle school, including my first trip without my parents. Even at that age, Hawaii clearly represented freedom to me.
Fast forward a decade or so, to Cologne, Germany, 2012. A Brazilian student I met at Occupy Berlin brings me to a second hand English bookstore, where I buy my first copy of Paradise of the Pacific, alongside a National Geographic book of American road trips. I was backpacking alone through Germany, and a dose of the States was a welcome sight. I spent the next few weeks on the Deutsche Bahn, ripping up these magazines to the dismay of my fellow passengers. The smooth ride of the train meant that I could cut out my favorite images without worrying about slicing my hand open. The collages allowed me to be creative, while I felt disenfranchised from the English language and unable to write.
This set of collages ended up becoming a body of work entitled Writing a Book in Hawaii. Making these initial collages allowed me to deal with the shock of traveling alone, and explore how foreigners interpreted the American experience. The juxtaposition of the Hawaii vs the mainland experience was interesting, but I felt like Hawaii itself was a ripe enough subject to make work about. Making larger scale collages, only increased my interest in developing this series. As I continued this practice, I sought to make work that would be more dynamic than a flat surface the traditional collage provided. Of course, one of the first things we associate with Hawaii is the famous Aloha shirt, and the idea was born. I spent the better part of 2013-2014 buying old editions of Paradise of the Pacific on eBay, concentrating on the early statehood years of the late 1950′s/early 60′s. Having already had the experience with my German copy, I knew the paper quality from this time period was strong and saturated, providing a way to make delicate cuts despite the paper’s age.
Like the state project many years before, the work in Business Casual provided me a way to question American identity as well as my own personal history. As I shared the project with my family, my Dad surprised me in the mail with a leather bound album of family photos. As I sifted through the pages, I saw pictures of the USS Arizona still afloat in Pearl Harbor, Duke Kahanamoku on a deserted Waikiki, and even an Irving Penn style-studio portrait of a topless hula girl. These photos had been taken by my Great-granduncle while he was stationed in Honolulu in the early 1930′s, and were the last record of his life. Going through the pictures reaffirmed my connection to this place, and provided a crucial personal element to the project.
Working through hundreds of images, I developed themes for the paper collages that would eventually be printed on the shirts. Each shirt was to deal with a different aspect of Hawaii’s history, from tourism, to female sexuality, to cultural objectification, and war. As I read through several dozen issues of Paradise of the Pacific, I obsessively cut out every instance of the word Hawaii on its pages. Hawaii became my mantra, a stand in for infinite perceptions of perfection. Even the title of the magazine, Paradise, echoed back to the innocence of Eden, but like any Catholic schoolchild knows, all perfect places have a tinge of darkness.
The dark underbelly of this quintessential honeymoon destination began to juxtapose the midcentury images tagged with the ubiquitous “wish you were here’s.” I began to look back at my life and family, and sourced my own dark patches in the work. One of my favorite shirts from the show, features my estranged Uncle Bosco being arrested on an episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter. I vividly remember watching the episode as it premiered in middle school, with my brother and I on the couch making fun of this less perfect part of our family. We were jealous of our cousins, who we felt got more attention from our grandparents, so making fun of their father getting arrested on national television was our way of dealing with these emotions. Having our parents watch it with us echoed our sentiment, and that day we washed the dinner plates a little more proud and thankful of the family we had made. As an adult, I’m equally as interested in Dog the Bounty Hunter as a reality show that contemplates the state’s drug problems amidst the spectacle of cultural tourism. Rewatching the episode to make this shirt, I was surprised by how much Dog liked my uncle and it made me look back on my memories of this sly man with a little less shame. Dog’s blunt advice to Bosco to stay off meth is something that he repeatedly documents in his show, trying to expose the American public to the horror of this particular drug, long before it became the talking point of shows like Breaking Bad.
Pearl Harbor and the Twin Towers share space on another shirt, highlighting the effects of these tragedies on both my own generation and that of my Great-granduncle. I sourced his original photographs, and newspaper clippings that I found hidden behind some of them to create the design. Although one can look at the physical similarities between Hawaii and Manhattan (both are islands, major trade ports, and iconic tourist destinations), I was most interested in contemplating the changes that take place after a memorial is created. While I was making the collage for this shirt, I found it difficult to find postcards of the Twin Towers in places outside Ground Zero. Because 9/11 is still such a raw incident for myself and most other Americans, I couldn’t believe that many of the Canal St postcard vendors have stopped selling postcards with the Twin Towers, only to be replaced with the Freedom Tower. The difficulty I had finding these postcards made me relate to Pearl Harbor in an entirely new light. A generation has already been born that didn’t have to witness the towers fall, and it is up to the survivors to make sure that its resonance is passed on. Pearl Harbor is a place that holds this raw emotion for my forefathers, for someone who was a part of my own family, and until then I ignorantly dismissed it as a guilty destination in between the tropical itinerary most people take during their time in Honolulu. The shirt as an object is loaded as both these places as the final resting place for many people. The Statue of Liberty, another iconic New York postcard landmark, also finds its way onto this shirt. I thought deeply about the word “souvenir” itself taken from the French word “to remember.” It’s hard to disassociate this word from overpriced t-shirts and keychains that are peddled at tourist destinations around the world. Putting the postcard, the cheapest form of souvenir, on a shirt that deals with such a loaded subject, implies the commercialization of tragedy, as well as the human tendency to renew these painful spaces. One particular postcard on the shirt, finds the Statue of Liberty, itself a gift from the French people, standing in the shadows of the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers loom above it, with the now diminutive Statue of Liberty reduced to a whisper level “remember” while the sheer size of the towers instantly conjure up a brazen “Never Forget.”
The tone difference between the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers in this postcard, echoes the way I see Hawaiian shirts in opposition to their fame as casual beach wear. While some people may find these clothes as little more than a beach cover up, I want to point out the cultural tourism that they developed from. There is something inherently subversive in wearing such a cultural item that is so enveloped with kitsch. Likewise, the characters in the patterns seem to be gazing everywhere, echoing the wide eyed wonder that travel engages. Remembering that Hawaii was once the seat of an independent monarchy, with its own language and religion, each piece in the show aims to regard our 50th state as more than just “Aloha.”