"endless rain, flora, honey, neo-nationalism" by Danni Shen

Added on by Lilly Hern-Fondation.

This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Mo Kong: Making A Stationary Rain On The North Pacific Ocean, curated by Steffani Jemison, on view at CUE Art Foundation from May 30 - July 10, 2019. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.

Mo Kong,  Making A Stationary Rain On The North Pacific Ocean (Ants and World) , 2017. Lollipops with earth print, ants, glue, 4 x 8 inches.

Mo Kong, Making A Stationary Rain On The North Pacific Ocean (Ants and World), 2017. Lollipops with earth print, ants, glue, 4 x 8 inches.

“在北太平洋制造一场梅雨” (zai bei tai ping yang zhi zao yi chang mei yu, or, when translated into English, making a stationary rain on the North Pacific Ocean) was the phrase that came to mind for Mo Kong as the artist embarked on a research trajectory addressing relationships between migration, ecology, land use, climate change, human rights, trade wars, censorship, and the geo-politics of neo-nationalism and colonialism. Set within a Cold War period prophesized for a proximate future, Making A Stationary Rain On The North Pacific Ocean composes a weather report on the human condition, ever in the making.

In this exhibition, weather becomes an allegory for the current political climate between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. Employing the methodology of a translator, Kong assembles multiple perspectives into new content and context. The contention over climate change thus becomes one entry point into Making A Stationary Rain On The North Pacific Ocean, to represent not only colliding political landscapes but also the personal traumas of immigration as a Chinese national living in the United States. Simultaneously activating place and space, Kong’s immersive, site-specific installation reconfigures typologies of objects and established systems of knowledge. Innumerable relationships manifest within a closed, symbolic ecosystem that—below the surface—is resoundingly political and undulating. Rain becomes a poetic reading for the Cold War: one constructed by unnatural human interventions and competing global superpowers, rather than by natural weather patterns and planetary movements. The seemingly never-ending rain is borne where cold and warm fronts of equal strength meet one another in a stalemate.

Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer concurrently encounters and navigates a gridded landscape segmented by painter’s tape. Here, the gallery plane operates as “place,” delineated by latitude and longitude in blue (80° E - 180° - 80°W 20°S - 0° - 90°N). Beyond the gravity of the floor, sculptural forms of varied shapes and materiality hover as political signifiers as well as markers in “space.” Various silicon-preserved and dehydrated tropical fruits, pollen-shaped glass works, living grass sculptures, battle fish, a mini-fridge of popsicles laced with newspaper confetti, hand-blown glass vessels of viscous honey, dioramic landscapes of stone, foam, salt, coal, and sand, are among the plethora of materials utilized. Also included are snail-covered scent diffusers that disperse two subtle notes based on a back and forth dialogue between the two countries. Chinese tangerine is paired with anise and licorice, while American sweet orange is imbued with spearmint. While both citrus fragrances are of the same family, they are native to different localities. Each hybrid tincture created by the artist also infuses local herbs, flowers, and trees from numerous other locales. Scent and flora accordingly depict a damp and cooling United States against a dry and warming China. The hot and cold centers of the world are further represented by two sculptural poles which “function” together as a weather station that symbolically measures the intensity of these two global superpowers in this fictional landscape, where geographical changes become manifest. During different times of the day, an audio track plays weather forecasts where each country blames the other for the endless rain.

While Kong’s practice reflects a long-standing interest in the natural sciences of geology, biology, and botany, the investigative journalist-turned-artist ultimately regards the research process as suffused with deeply personal, psychological positions within complex events. One such event includes the U.S. decision under Trump to exit from the Paris Agreement in 2020. After China vowed to take the lead on global environmental action, the 2017 conversation on climate change also became an arms race in technology that blurred the lines between economic development and neo-colonialism. Through journalistic inquiry that ranges from scientific and historical to media-based, the artist abstracts such information out of context and creates new juxtapositions for more expansive readings. Though objective lines are drawn here in the fictional 3D map, all lines are subjectively mapped and up for relative interpretation. For the artist, such installations thus become a kind of game, where the viewer actively looks for clues –some obvious, some subtle, some factual, some entirely fake news.

A central clue to Making A Stationary Rain On The North Pacific Ocean is Kong’s continuing research on the international honey trade. The artist collaborated with the Brown University biology laboratories, Rhode Island School of Design Natural Lab, and Shangxi Agricultural University to recover pollen from five different honey samples from across the United States and China. After first examining various “American Honey” and "Made by American Bees” labels found on honey produced in the U.S., Kong began dipping into research drawing from a 2012 paper published by Shangxi Agricultural University that traced the origins of honey by testing pollen types. After comparing the recovered images from three labs, Kong observed that the exclusively Chinese Fagopyrum esculentum (Polygonaceae) was contained in “American” honey and embarked on a visual case study merging the history of honey bees, honey, and pollen with the history of human migration.

As the artist informed me, the now endangered honey bee originated on the continent of Africa, but after two migration shifts arrived in central Asia and southern Europe. The first bee species introduced to the North American continent occurred in 1622 via European colonists. The “American bee” is therefore only a class of species that arrived in the United States along with colonial culture, and “American” honey contains correspondingly diverse pollen. Since then, the species Apis mellifera (the Italian bee) became the most commercially successful bee.  Meanwhile, as a result of the China-U.S. trade war, honey smuggling remains a notorious enterprise. Chinese companies export honey to the U.S. relabeled as “Indonesian” or “Korean” in order to avoid bans and high taxes implemented on such products. For the artist, Making A Stationary Rain On The North Pacific Ocean is also a tongue-in-cheek, fictional account of an Asian bee purported to be an Italian bee to legally get into the United States.

Mo Kong,  “Dream” Guid , 2018. Acrylic tubes, handrail brackets, hand blown glass, rubber, ceramic , honey, shredded government documents, pollen, beeswax, handmade lens, drawings, 2 x 165 inches.

Mo Kong, “Dream” Guid, 2018. Acrylic tubes, handrail brackets, hand blown glass, rubber, ceramic , honey, shredded government documents, pollen, beeswax, handmade lens, drawings, 2 x 165 inches.

Within the artist’s assemblage, documents and news clippings relating to immigration, climate change, and the Paris Agreement are physically fused with honey samples in hand-blown glass vessels. A glass handrail and various globular vitrines are shelved in front of a wallpaper installation featuring magnified microscopic images of honey pollen. Rendered, clipped phrases such as “stop wandering and go home” and “tears flow while walking” also provide perhaps the most autobiographical reflection of the artist’s encounters as a Chinese immigrant to the United States. As Kong mused in his studio, “there is another layer of neo-nationalism in the U.S. at this point. When we travel into a new environment, it is always a matter of how much time we need to be accepted, or how much our culture needs to be altered. This is a very complex situation or system. There is no easy answer. And countries are constantly opening up and closing. Right now, we are seeing them close — not just the United States and Europe, but all over the world. I see it as a natural cycle. We still need to be a bit optimistic about the future.” Reflecting on the rise of right-wing, anti-globalization xenophobia among other sentiments, Kong uses honey pollen as a metaphor gesturing toward personal experiences of cultural dislocation under the current neo-nationalist climate: invisible yet vital, pollen grains make their way depending on various conditions and barriers. Likewise, social classifications such as ethnicity, race, and nationality have little or no biological significance in humans, yet determine the possibilities for migration to where one calls home. Like a grain of pollen, Kong has set down roots despite the perils and odds.

Working as a journalist while making socio-political art in China required the artist to learn to protect his identity. Self-censoring has led to the artist’s process of filtering information–clues and hidden evidence–in such a way that viewers are able to draw connections between disparate points of reference. Under the camouflage of scientific research, the work’s political subject comes in and out of focus. After studying art in graduate school, Kong came to the conclusion that objectivity and absolute truth vary in relation to experience and knowledge structures—in other words, there is no objectivity or absolute truth. In the studio, when I asked the artist what “good journalism” is, he replied easily: “good journalism gives people choices.” And good journalism has always been an integral part of Kong’s practice in that nothing operates as a black and white answer, medium, or perspective. According to the artist, the integrity of structure and judgment only increases with the expansion of perspectives offered. “I don’t believe media is objective, everything is perspective. Our reality is based on a set of concentric circles. Each outer circle we discover may flip the ‘truth’ upside down and complicate the ways in which we see. We never know which circle we are in and if there is another outer circle that exists.”

And out in the North Pacific Ocean falls an endless rain.

This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. 

Danni Shen is an independent curator and writer. Most recently she was the Curatorial Associate at SPRING/BREAK Art Show in LA and NYC, and previously worked as a Curatorial Assistant at Empty Gallery, a black-cube space dedicated to time-based, non-object-oriented, interdisciplinary practices physically located in Hong Kong. She is based in New York, where she was also the Curatorial Fellow at Wave Hill and Curator-in-Residence at Residency Unlimited. She is a contributor to various publications including BOMB Magazine, Hyperallergic, Rhizome, SCREEN界面, and has written catalogue essays for artists Jillian Mayer, Wonjung Choi and Rina Banerjee, among others. 

Mentor Sara Reisman is the Artistic Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, whose mission is focused on art and social justice in New York City. Recently curated exhibitions for the foundation include Mobility and Its Discontents, Between History and the Body, and When Artists Speak Truth, all three presented on The 8th Floor. From 2008 until 2014, Reisman was the director of New York City’s Percent for Art program where she managed more than 100 permanent public art commissions for city funded architectural projects, including artworks by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mary Mattingly, Tattfoo Tan, and Ohad Meromi, among others for civic sites like libraries, public schools, correctional facilities, streetscapes and parks. She was the 2011 critic-in-residence at Art Omi, and a 2013 Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow, awarded by the Foundation for a Civil Society.