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Oct 25, 2018

The Optimist: Solomon Enos

Perhaps you've seen the bright yellow creative installment on the ground floor of the IBM Building depicting the goddess Keaomelemele.

Maybe you've driven by the expressive hand signing one letter at a time along the construction wall that, until recently, surrounded Thomas Square. Solomon Enos painstakingly hand painted each hand—137 characters to be exact—in American Sign Language against an indigo backdrop to share a message of compassion and hope. This message is indicative of Solomon Enos's worldview, which is also fueled by optimism, and what he calls elastic thinking. A contemporary artist pushing the boundary of art and technology, Enos is rooted to Hawai'i through his heritage and his creative ability to digest traditional Hawaiian cultural values to nourish a healthy conversation about the future of our perceived reality and the human race. Recently, we caught up with Enos to discuss his multifaceted approach to creating thought-invoking art that simultaneously speaks to culture, heritage, and progression.

Your father is an artist and cultural practitioner. How did he influence your perspective and, eventually, your work?

My father had a bachelor degree in fine arts and he had all of his art books. We were based in Wai'anae since the 1950s, and he had gone to school to teach art. When he came back to community, he realized the community needed a community organizer more than an art teacher. I inherited desire, really all the best conditions, the technique, basically studying the masters from a young age, pouring through his big encyclopedias of art. From an early age I was really well exposed and encouraged, and I've had nothing but positive reinforcement since. And along with the technique was also a message. What I saw was transformation in the community—people got an opportunity through culture to reboot their operating system. Computers are very accessible as a metaphor. People can totally get their operating system jammed up and really need a reboot or an update to the latest operating system. There is a way to return to the sense of tranquility and purpose and that's the role of culture. Culture is a very specific way of engaging and reconnecting with the spirit of a place. And any place can make that connection, anywhere. It can serve to benefit that place and we're also taking care of our self. You become the environment. If things can go in downward spiral, it can also go in an upward spiral, too.

Whether you're sculpturing, painting or developing some amalgam of the two, you're known for creating contemporary art infused with what you call poly-fantastic narratives. What have you been working on lately?

I came across a saying that is really clever—there's no such thing as art, there's only artists. It's still sinking in. I don't know quite what that means, but I love the idea. A short time ago I started thinking of myself as a concept and stopped being an organism. I'm a warm idea that walks around and makes noise. I'm a method artist, but then I'm becoming a method human, in a meta way. All of it goes back to idea that all of our perceptions and attitudes can be augmented really easily. I just returned from Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. I did a series of murals using a tilt brush and augmented reality as part of a Google artist-in-residence program. I'm still buzzing from that experience. It's going to be tied into work that will be happening in Honolulu, creating an augmented reality layer, for everyone, wherever they are. We need that context everywhere. We need to understand that every street we're on, or every valley we're in has amazing stories. It could be just text floating on the ground, or ghost-like images of goddesses rising up out of the mountain. It's a win for everyone—for the people who live there or visit the valley—to have digital kūpuna walk and talk story with you. There's a way to do it sans kitsch. Nature does AR. Rainbows are augmented reality. They are superimposed illusionary images we see everyday. You can use augmented reality to do real urban planning, where everyone can come in and visualize what a new park or community garden would like and see how people can engage with the system.

What's happening at the intersection of technology and art?

There's going to be a really exciting shift in the way that human beings engage with reality and there is a huge role for art and storytelling that reinforces hope and all the good things that make us human. And there's a really good chance we are going to become a smarter and kinder species because we can adapt this new technology to bring our morality in line with our motivations.

Has there been a recent surge in popularity in contemporary art in the past five or six years in Hawaii? If so, what has driven the increase and why now?

There's the perfect confluence of madness going on in world and the desire to return to something human, something real, something that makes sense. There's something really tactile or tangible about a painting or a sculpture, something people can reconnect with. People want to make stuff now. There's a return to the human, in terms of values, and it's happening on the global scale, but there is also a digital fry. People are getting burned out. It's eye sugar, eye candy, and you're eyes will rot. So we go back to the old. Just because we can make things saturated with visual content doesn't mean we should. As much emphasis should be put into better stories—the emphasis needs to be on nutrition, not just the sweet, yummy stuff. As an artist we can be nutritious and delicious, especially if it's satirical.

Many people except Hawaii art to be depictions of tropical foliage, waterfalls, coastlines and native birds. Do you ever tackle that type of art or have you always gravitated toward the imaginative unknown of future cultures?

There are basically two tracks. When I do have commissions to do representational native plants, I relish every opportunity to engage in the conversation. You will create something if you're passionate about telling a story. The how is not as important as the what. What story do you have to contribute to the global conversation and can that story bring healing or be helpful. I set that standard for myself and I try to encourage it in others. The other track is the idea of cultural laboratory being science fiction and fantasy. There are aspects of one's culture being unclear, but there's a need to continue the conversation. For example, if I want to create fantasy world with a population on an island that lives in harmony with one another, there's precedent for that in Hawai'i and throughout the South Pacific. The role of fantasy and science fiction is to say, we don't have all the information in the real world, so let's test things out in a fantasy setting. All my sci-fi is allegoric. If not allegorical, it's not useful to me. To me, science fiction is a splint to align a broken bone. If there's something broken about reality or our understanding of a thing, you can re-align it using an artificial thing. If something's not working in the real world, let's make a fantasy world where things do work and take from that world spare parts and apply it back to the real world. In a fantasy setting, let's dream big using elastic thinking.

What's the importance of bringing accessible, contemporary art into the public sphere in an urban environment like Ward Village or Honolulu? Can public art define, shape, or influence a community or culture?

Art gives these spaces a visual blooming and a theme. As the community grows, it grows in the right direction. It helps promote the idea and need to build a bigger pie in the art community by offering free samples everywhere, like Costco. It makes you hungry for that product. If you like art on the outside, bring it home and populate the inside of all these new high rises with more art. It goes hand in hand with making a bigger pie for everyone, instead of artists fighting for smaller pieces of pie. If anyone is looking for a kind of art, or artist, or style, they will find it in Honolulu. I'm one of a thousands people doing great stuff. We have critical mass capacity on any kind of art project for any need. We are on par with any other major metropolis. But we need the galleries and the community support. We need to tell the local community that instead of rushing out to buy Playstation, buy a painting. Take that same money and buy original art. You won't throw it away in one or two years and you'll get more out of it than buying the latest waste of time.

Tell us about your work at the IBM building and being involved with the Honolulu Biennial in 2017 and again in 2019. Are you playing a part in the upcoming 2019 Honolulu biennial?

The large yellow piece at the IBM Building is an analog augmented reality sculpture because as you walk around it and look through it, the vista you see is a ghost image of that part of O'ahu and the south coast one thousand years ago. As you move around the structure, the order of the landmarks are reversed, because you're looking at them through basically a pillar of amber. There's an image of Keaomelemele, the Hawaiian goddess who chanted open the Ahupua'a Nu'uanu, which Kaka'ako is part of. It's the idea that this entire part of island was sung into existence. The theme is that there's already a song that's been playing for a long time here, and when people come here, we want people to jump in on this song. If we can all sing along to the existing song, then we can harmonize with our environment. During the 2017 Honolulu Biennial, I did the piece around Thomas Square for the construction wall with the sign language. I was a supporter and that opportunity opened up and it got tied into the Biennial because it was such a big, prominent piece. That became my installation. It was more like an outrigger of a canoe, one of the many outriggers that helped to support a really successful show in 2017. For 2019, I'm going to be exhibiting a big body of work I 've been working on a long time.

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