“A new rhythm is what humankind needs.”
—Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Breathing: Chaos and Poetry”
“For it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless—about to be birthed, but already felt.”
—Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”
Snow was beginning to melt outside of 65Grand the day Mie Kongo’s solo show opened. Compared to the storm that blanketed the city weeks before, it felt like spring in late February—the perfect kind of day to see an exhibition entitled “Correspondence,” after a year where that was the only way to stay in touch.
The show consists of mixed media sculptures, assemblages composed of both found and handmade materials. Upon entry, the viewer is met with the works hung parallel to the front door of the gallery. To the left is “Door,” the only named sculpture in the exhibition, and to the right stands a large, gently sweeping and precarious sculpture, assembled from two wooden frames, porcelain bricks, felt, copper and acrylic paint.
Observing this untitled sculpture, I consider this correspondence, the interplay between material, that is so tenuously balanced—much like this moment. Throughout this year in quarantine, our lives have been like this, so dependent on our correspondence—a letter, email or text—for a sense of connection. Here, these two wooden rectangles join just at the corner, with one hinging from and bisecting the wall and the other sitting on the ground, perpendicular to its hanging partner. Their intersection is slight yet critical, alluding to a hand, a touch, a kind of grounding. Within the top frame sits multiple slip-casted bricks. They are stacked to mirror the swoop of the felt strip that hangs from the top corner of the frame to the other, like a wool parabola.
Walking from “Door” to this untitled assemblage and crossing over to see its other side, a glimmer of yellow glaze becomes apparent on a sliver of one of the porcelain bricks sitting within the wooden frame. Like the crocuses that begin to bloom this time of year, this yellow emerges from the matte snow of its porcelain neighbors. The lower, smaller frame holds less weight; there are no bricks, only the felted parabola, imitating the frame above. While one corner carries the larger frame, the other corner is adorned with an acrylic painted copper cap. This cream-colored accessory is bent and curved on the side, mirroring the felted parabola. It is much shorter than a similar adornment that sits on the corner of the upper frame. On top of the sculpture, a long curved copper cap points toward the two frames’ slender point of connection, while similarly echoing the shape of the draping wool strip that sits within its wooden frame.
When asked about the origins of the show’s title, the artist graciously sends me a picture of a page of lines highlighted in bright blue from Richard Wolheim’s “Art and Its Objects.” In this paragraph, Wolheim shares two kinds of works of art: one that is “a secretion of an inner state,” which he refers to as “a natural expression,” and the other “is simply a piece of the environment which we appropriate on account of the way it reiterates something in us,” what he calls a “correspondence.” With these words on my mind, I view Kongo’s sculptures as both secretion and correspondence, or perhaps more precisely, a correspondence between different mediums, bodies and their secretions.
What prompted Kongo to revisit this book was the January anniversary of the passing of her mentor, the ceramic artist Tony Hepburn. Recalling that he had recommended this book, she revisited it and flipped open to this passage on art as an expression. This coincidental act was the unifying thread for her latest work. The extruded clay forms found in several works are quite literally secretions; the glistening metallic glaze on the extruded form in “Untitled” is an intentional expression of the artist. They are contrasted by the metallic sheen of the found aluminum and copper pieces appearing in other sculptures across the room.
These expressive objects are collected by the artist and rearranged to suggest an “inner state,” or “natural expression,” as Wolheim may have called it. Together, they embody the time and condition of its making. Wolheim writes, “we think of an object as expressive of a certain condition, because when we are in that condition, it seems to us to match, or correspond with, what we experience inwardly: and perhaps when the condition passes, the object is also good for reminding us of it in some special poignant way, or for reviving it for us.” Such as this physical book brought to memory her mentor, Kongo’s arrangements also reveal the conditions under which it was made: during mandated self-isolation. The precarious frames, relying on one another, mirror this moment when we must acknowledge our own fragility and our innate desire to connect.
During the height of what was perhaps the third (or fourth or fifth) wave of this pandemic, with city guidelines tightening then loosening then repeating again, there is a sense of déjà vu reflected back into the gallery. There is a pattern of repeating forms—porcelain slip-casted bricks and draping wool felt—reiterated throughout. Colors too, like cobalt blue, punctuate and repeat in certain pieces, including the sculpture on the floor, as well as in “Door,” creating a certain rhythm. In “Door,” a dramatic blue felted tail hangs low from a sandwich of an extruded ceramic form, a porcelain brick, and a piece of wood, with the numbers 2, 1, 4, 6, and half a 9 etched into its side in black marker. These numbers hint at a past life.
There is a poetic sensibility in these works, in the way that pre-existing components are pooled together to form relationships with one another—some of symmetry and others of dissonance, both that nevertheless initiate a kind of correspondence. The arrangement of pieces feels casual (lacking glue and simply leaning against the wall or one another), while simultaneously appearing very tight and intentional, with the desire to draw the viewer to notice the pattern, or meter, throughout the room. There is a kind of a rhyme in the color and forms that repeat, but never quite the same way twice, as they often come in different sizes, hues and materials. The individual components, like the stresses in a line of a poem, are critical to the work as a whole. Collectively, they find a new rhythm, one that has not existed before, that has carried the artist through quarantine. Just as the pandemic has revealed the many failures of rapid capitalist production, Mie Kongo’s “Correspondence” offers another rhythm, an attentiveness to the relationships, material and metaphysical, that sustain us. (Jennifer Chen-su Huang)
“Mie Kongo: Correspondence,” 65Grand, 3252 West North, through April 3.