Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Hawaiian crooner Don Ho’s easy-listening hit Tiny Bubbles (1966) lulled mainlanders into a fantasy world of tropical leisure. Assisted by the advent of affordable air travel, and the soundtrack of tunes like Ho’s, Hawaii became a popular and accessible arcadia. On the occasion of his show Aloha to the World at the Don Ho Terrace, artist Christopher K. Ho, who as a child was often mistaken for a relative of the middlebrow musician, has rechristened the Bronx Museum’s outdoor exhibition space the ‘Don Ho Terrace’. In doing so, Ho inaugurates a site in which he reimagines aspects of a now-demolished hotel, the Miramar at Waikiki, located in the beachfront neighbourhood where the famed singer once held court.
An 11.5m banner cascades down the museum’s exterior, unfurling a pixelated and skewed image of the Miramar, a place where the artist stayed in his youth while shuttling between Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Built in 1961, the Honolulu hotel functioned as an object of globalisation par excellence, imbued with the type of cultural hybridity that white nationalists decry today. The Honkee owner of a Hawaiian hotel commissioned an Italian craftsman to furnish the building’s facade with a ceramic mosaic of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, a composition lifted from the Gobi Desert caves of Dunhuang, China. The distorted image of the Bodhisattva and the hotel’s Chinese-style eaves demonstrate how the business wilfully performed culture decades ago to lure American clients in search of an exotic (but not too exotic) paradise. By reproducing the facade as a retractable banner, Ho introduces another veneer of simulation to this story, framing the hotel – and by extension his own work – as a type of postmodern export art that self-stereotypes for marketability. A sense of artificiality and the performance of culture is amplified through the addition of faux-granite-and-coral speakers that pipe the sounds of an erhu.
Inside the museum Ho has placed a grey acrylic vitrine, seemingly stained with the smoke of the hotel’s long-departed guests, and angled to mirror the boxwood hedge in his outdoor installation. Here, the artist has arranged a plethora of Don Ho and Miramar memorabilia for our contemplation, displaying the singer’s vinyl alongside hotel menus, an ashtray with a lone cigarette, swizzle sticks and a bamboo mug, among other kitschy bric-a-brac. These curated readymades function as a time capsule of sorts, cultivating the experience of nostalgia central to Aloha to the World at the Don Ho Terrace. The exhibition alludes to and yearns for globalisation’s early years, a time of ascendant multiculturalism in America, when borders first confessed that they were imagined.
By resurrecting elements of the Miramar from decades past, and reconstituting them in the present, Ho succeeds in drawing parallels between a hotel of yesteryear and art institutions today, framing them as liminal contact zones where disparate cultures converge. Yet, hotels and museums also function as destinations of leisure and privilege, and, in the twenty-first century, as cultural funding dries up and economic inequality swells, art’s institutions increasingly parrot the operations and priorities of commercial enterprises through austerity measures and revenue creation. Ho generously offers up a gift that eludes capital: a conceptual space through which to encounter the world.
Christopher K. Ho: Aloha to the World at the Don Ho Terrace at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, through 6 January
From the December 2018 issue of ArtReview