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Underwater understanding: A multimedia art installation increases ocean awareness

January 30, 2014 - 9:48pm

Lying on gallery MELD’s floor, a handful of people gazed up at dolphins and humpback whales swimming in the ocean.

The innocence, beauty and intelligence of the marine mammals are revealed in “Ocean,” an experiential art installation combining sculpture, sound and film to deepen visitors’ understanding of how essential the ocean is to life. The collaboration between internationally renowned artists Thais Mazur of Kona, Susan Alexjander of Portland, Ore., and Lisa Denning of Hawi, opened Wednesday at this contemporary art gallery, located at 74-5617 Pawai Place, Bay G, in Kailua-Kona, near the Kona Brewing Co. restaurant. The free exhibit is open to the public from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, through Feb. 14.

“Ocean” features Mazur’s room-sized sculpture, comprised of huge pieces of cloth stretched in multilayered parabolic shapes resembling sails. In this airy, yet confined and darkened space, it’s not unusual to see attendees’ hands occasionally reach out to connect with the images projected on the white sails.

The rules and rigors of everyday reality drift away in this environment. Haunting sounds, chosen by Alexjander, seem to breathe. Alexjander spent six months collecting sound samples. She then weaved the sounds of various creatures — such as whales, dolphins, shrimp, seals and walruses — with inner-earth sounds and a spinning pulsar for her “dreamscape” soundtrack, “Coming on the Backs of Whales.”

Here, the gallery’s solid walls appear to dissolve and disappear, transforming the space into a soothing, mystical spectacle. There’s a slow-paced simplicity to the carefully selected, awe-inspiring imagery by Denning that’s cycled over again. Denning has spent 15 years traveling to oceans, filming and photographing wild whales and dolphins. Those seen in “Ocean” are from waters off the Big Island, Bahamas and Dominican Republic.

At any time, viewers can enter and leave the tent-like structure as they please. When “Ocean” debuted four years ago in Mendocino, Calif., people would sometimes lie on their backs for hours, watching, engaging and feeling a part of the experience. The exhibit was seen then by hundreds of people, several of whom were repeat visitors.

By emerging people in this “sensory-rich, loving space” instead of a static one, Denning hopes the experience is felt in their bodies, especially their hearts, and inspires them to want to take action. She said “Ocean” further illuminates the idea that we’re all connected.

Mazur, the artistic director, said the exhibit helps viewers reimagine the ocean and “redream” how to help it.

“It aims to be a catalyst for solving our critical projects — not just to rework them, but to transcend them,” she said. “For this transcendence to activate, we need a new view vision; a new myth. Many of us long to move beyond our own personal, limited perceptions of the world to find a story that speaks to our deepest longings for balance and planetary community. The language for this story is a dynamic creative force, revitalizing the very essence of life itself.”

“Ocean” is part of the recently launched Zuvuya, an international science and art project dedicated to increasing awareness of the ocean’s importance to life and to inspire action toward protecting and sustaining it for future generations. Zuvuya is the Mayan word for “the circuit by which everything returns to its source, connecting memory to the future as well as the past,” Mazur said.

The project will eventually feature educational presentations and displays that share various perspectives, relationships, songs and research pertaining to the ocean. There will also be community leaders and scientists talking about initiatives and stewardship opportunities for protecting ocean health in their region.

Mazur got the idea for Zuvuya after talking with Michael Stocker, Ocean Research Conservation founder, about how to make people aware of the devastation and growing issues pertaining to the ocean, but in a way that’s meaningful and allows for a personal, deeper-level connection. Zuvuya creates conversations. Any actions that follow are left to the audience’s discretion, Mazur said.

There is an effort to raise $5,000 in support of Zuvuya. As of Thursday afternoon, $1,375 had been donated on the project’s indiegogo crowdfunding site.

The plan is to take Zuvuya on a six-month tour to various Pacific Rim cities, including Lima, Peru; Auckland, New Zealand; Sydney and Mexico City. The project was launched in Hawaii and will end here because it’s the piko of the ring of fire, Mazur said.

Gallery MELD owner Kawika Duncan said hosting “Ocean” was just one way to engage his two passions simultaneously: nature conservancy and artistic expression. It was also perfect timing because those attending this weekend’s Kona Surf Film Festival may also be interested in checking out this free exhibit and supporting Zuvuya. “Ocean” allows families to have a unique underwater experience they can share together, he added.

Every month, Duncan has at least one unique event at his gallery. He believes the arts can make an effective contribution to creating a strong, cohesive, vibrant community. Duncan opened gallery MELD last summer with the hopes of keeping the arts alive in Kona. He’s determined to make “an amazingly modern artistic center” and a unique gathering place for people to comment, reflect, influence, interpret, inspire and bond.

Those wishing to learn more about “Ocean” or Zuvuya can attend a special evening with the artists at 7 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call gallery MELD at 326-4108 or visit