By THOMAS MOODY
“I definitely think way more than I do,” Mo Kong laughs as we near the end of our hourlong conversation, discussing his art, the politics that surround and imbue it, and his method of concealing his own sentiments about these politics in order for his work to provide a multitude of perspectives. “I don’t want my work to give an objective answer,” he tells me.
It is a conversation that has rushed by in his Long Island City studio. Mo Kong is an artist utterly absorbed in his art, and his level of preoccupation — the amount of research and information behind every thought and gesture in his work — is just as absorbing in turn.
With two installations in this year’s Queens International, Kong occupies a unique and compelling position in the current moment. His deeply researched, investigated and scientific approach to his work straddles the line between journalism and art. In an era in which we are discovering daily the value of journalism, and the ease of its manipulation, Kong’s bearing in both worlds positions him in an important and enviable venue. His approach also allows him to address topics as complex and substantial as the history of land use, climate change, migration patterns and international political relations with a wealth of authority and jurisdiction uncommon in an artist so young.
“I am really interested in the idea of neo-nationalism at the moment” he says. “I see it as a natural cycle: Countries open up; then they close in….At the moment we are seeing them close — not just the United States, but all over the world.”
Kong was born in 1989 in Jinzhong, China, an area known for its coal mining. He moved to the United States six years ago, where he received a master’s in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Before turning his mind to art, Kong pursued investigative journalism. Finding the avenues of expression for journalists in China limited, he began to communicate his concerns and research discoveries through a less-overt medium.
“The switch to art was a detour of my career, I think,” he tells me. “A lot of the things [in journalism] are out of your control. A lot of what you want to say, you can’t say it….A lot of the information you want to pass to the audience you cannot do as a journalist. And I found art gave me an easier way of dealing with that.”
Kong’s work, however, never expresses those concerns directly; rather, the works are coded with metaphorical narratives, a technique he developed by necessity.
“The constant awareness of censorship helped me encode my work as scientific research and environmental issues.”
His piece Making a Stationary Rain on the North Pacific Ocean (to be shown at the CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea in May 2019) depicts the weather patterns of the North Pacific Ocean, where cold and warm fronts of equal strength often meet each other, producing a long-lasting, stationary rain — an analogy for the current economic and political climate between China and the United States. “Science is the ‘big, dumb object’ in my work,” Kong laughs, referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the MacGuffin technique in his films: a plot device that introduces something as vitally important to the narrative early on, only for it to fade into irrelevance as the story progresses. “Underneath the surface,” Kong continues, “is the political.”
What the artist means is that the longer you look at his work, the more you see.
Kong never lost his investigatorial spirit, and applies the tenets of good journalism — thorough research, collating of multiple perspectives — to his artwork. Much of his early work deals with the slow-dying industry of his hometown and the complications that its vanishing has caused both the state and local townspeople. For works such as I’m in Death but Can’t Reach the Dark, Kong went about interviewing miners and their families in order to produce a more-informed understanding of the issues he is addressing. The method is key to Kong’s approach: the deeper his knowledge of a particular subject, the deeper he can bury that knowledge inside the work. This allows him to make more-assured utterances, while at the same time providing him with an invaluable veil under which to smuggle the deeper, metaphorical concerns of the work.
I’m in Death but Can’t Reach the Dark, a sculpture installation accompanied by a performance, finds its inspiration in the mining accident in Shanxi, China, in 2009. In order to suppress the true scale of the disaster, victims’ names were removed from the government’s report. Kong saw this as stripping miners of their identity. For the piece, Kong laid out marked boxes filled with black and golden coal. On the inside of each box, the victim’s information was handwritten, but illegibly so. Spiraled cords connect the boxes to lightbulbs. The boxes represent both the miners themselves and the activity of mining. Devastatingly, one box’s absence is outlined in coal dust.
The work in large part deals with the increasingly salient issue of censorship. Kong views this censorship not solely through the lens of his Chinese upbringing; censorship, according to the artist, is universal.
“Censorship exists worldwide in every nation. It is like a national anthem, sharing the same concept but playing out in different lyrics, melodies and languages. Censorship is diverse and creative. It is the derivative of power and the reason ‘relative freedom’ [as opposed to absolute freedom] exists.”
As Kong’s work has developed, he has become more interested in the ways in which his themes can be introduced into his work through metaphor and method. Often, a gesture of Kong’s art — one that at first glance seems quite far removed from the undeclared concern of the work — can encapsulate that concern.
“I’m interested in censorship as a method, rather than talking about it as content directly in the work,” he tells me. “I think that is far more interesting.” A feature of this method is self-censorship: “I think we reveal as much about ourselves by what we hide as by what we show.” This self-censorship often finds its way into Kong’s work as the artist concealing himself within his own art, but has evolved to include other aspects of his approach.
Take, for example, Kong’s current pieces in this year’s Queens International Volumes. The only artist to be exhibited in both the museum show and the extension of Volumes into the Queens Library, Kong’s two works — Sticky Lines, Soft Shock and Black Cloud, Thin Ice — deal with the migratory patterns of bees. The “American honey bee” is not actually American at all; most honey bees in America are Italian. “The term ‘American bees,’” writes Kong in his statement on the Queens International website, “rebrands the bees with a nationality.”
For the project, Kong delved deep into the history of honey and bees. Inspired by a 2012 paper published by the Shanxi Agricultural University in China, which focused on tracing the origins of honey by testing the pollen types in honey samples, Kong began working with the RISD Nature Lab, the Brown University biology lab and Best Bees — a beekeeping company in Boston — to test the DNA of five honey samples. “It turns out that some pollen samples overlap between China and America,” Kong continues in his statement on the website. “U.S. honey is often mixed with honeys from all over the world. ‘American honey made by American bees’ is just a neo-Nationalist selling point.”
Underneath the science of honey are coded political, environmental and personal metaphors. “The honey is just a container,” Kong tells me. “It carries with it information, its history and other stories.”
One of these stories is that of immigration and identity. Aside from the use of the declining number of bees to symbolize our wayward industrial farming methods, Kong’s piece poses the deeper question of who we are; how and why we are labeled by others; and, in turn, how we identify ourselves. The work addresses Chinese immigration into this country, both direct and the more-nuanced phenomenon of indirect immigration — that is, the case of Chinese people who first gain citizenship in countries such as Malaysia or Singapore and then immigrate to America.
“Chinese honey is taxed by the U.S.A. three times its actual price, so Chinese companies export it to other Southeast Asian countries, who repackage it and export it on to America,” Kong explains. “It is called honey smuggling. I think it’s a good metaphor for immigration.”
And, as ever, entangled into immigration is the notion of belonging, the cultural boundaries that are developed and observed by both the immigrant and the native population.
“Even second generation [of immigrants] see that there is a boundary — that we identify as ‘that’s your group’ or ‘that’s your group’ — and it makes me wonder how long can we be accepted by another cultural environment? That’s what I was looking to ask for in the work. But maybe there is no answer,” Kong laughs. “I don’t think there is an answer.”
After living in the United States for the past six years, the last three of those in New York, Kong increasingly identifies as Asian-American: “Month by month, I feel as if I feel my identity changing — not only as I look forward, but also backwards, as I look back into the culture; the more I read and discover about the history of the culture.”
While Kong’s work may speak to the uncertainty of belonging and the ever-shifting landscape of identity, he can rest assured that, for the time being at least, he and his extraordinary talent have found a welcoming home in Queens.