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Hula commentary doesn't hold sway

May 26, 2003|Jennifer Fisher | Special to The Times

Those who came to see Carol McDowell's installation and performance "Howle: An Evening of Private Hulas" were encouraged to toss rotting red peppers, don leis, drink Hawaiian Punch and wait for a turn to go behind a gauzy white curtain for the main event.

They arrived in twos and threes between the announced hours of 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., entering a partitioned room at the Wedge Studio, in the dilapidated Women's Building on a desolate block of North Spring Street in Chinatown.

On the wall were 35 square pieces of spiked plywood that were the targets for the pepper tossing. Most of the floor was covered by 35 white plaster squares that had pepper-shaped indentations in them and uncooked rice strewn over them. A few people said how much fun it was to throw the peppers. They chatted with friends and sometimes watched McDowell's shadow as she danced behind the curtain for one person at a time.

The minutes-long solos only vaguely referred to actual hula, consisting of waving arms and slight sways, alternating with shuddering movements and occasional chanting of the words "fear" and "hate." Two boom boxes weakly projected pop and Hawaiian tunes. Dressed in a bikini, grass skirt, high heels and platinum blond wig, McDowell conjured up the image of a shell-shocked club dancer.

Eventually, it seemed that a statement about the recent war in Iraq was intended. Images of newspapers projected behind McDowell had Middle Eastern headlines, and a few slogans were drawn on wall-mounted newspapers ("United we stand" -- was that against something?).

Several people declined the "private dancer" opportunity, perhaps because, without a clear point, it looked like a compromising position. With no directions posted and little happening, one audience member asked if she could throw the peppers at the dancer (actually, no). With eyes twinkling, she left, mock-apologizing for even suggesting such a rebellious act.

An unnamed pinstripe-suited host offered some explanations, saying, for instance, that the very blurry printed images attached to some peppers were of the "crazy, horrible images" of "what we did over there." Other clues? McDowell grew up in Hawaii, a "haole," or white person, so the misspelling in her title might mean "a white Hawaiian howling." About what, exactly, remained unclear.

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