In an effort to be more present, I have decided to temporarily forgo my beloved headphones when commuting around the city. This allows me to pay attention to the details of sounds, sights, and smells on my walk to 65GRAND, where I am to see Correspondence. I hear a bird chirping at a specific frequency steadily on repeat. I notice the cracks of the sidewalk line up with every third step I take. I see a consistent line of cars in my peripheral. All of this repeats over and over and over until I am at the door of the gallery. Upon entering, I am surrounded by six sculptures by Mie Kongo. Smooth porcelain blocks, soft winks of felt, dignified bouts of aluminum, and measured cuts of wood fill the room. Though each sculpture takes distinctly different final forms, they feel connected, as if they are parts of one whole. I excitedly discuss the work with the artist herself.
Ally Fouts: Can you provide me with some background on your practice, including where your interest in ceramics and sculpture comes from?
Mie Kongo: “When I was studying Art History, I took a ceramics class, and though it may be clichéd to say, I fell in love with clay. Before I went to graduate school, I was running a production pottery business with my husband, Charles Jahn. He had been running the business for more than 10 years, and I joined him in 2001. I really enjoyed working as a production potter, but after five years, we became burnt out and we wanted to do something different. I applied to graduate schools and I got into Cranbrook Academy of Art, so we decided to shut down the business. I began making ceramic sculpture as my own work, and then at Cranbrook, I met my mentor, Tony Hepburn. He really opened up my eyes in many different ways.”
“I learned so much about clay and how to handle clay throughout my years of working as a production potter. I also was able to learn about important ceramics processes such as firing a gas kiln, making molds, mixing glazes, etc. I still love making pottery in my spare time and also enjoy collecting other people’s pottery. All the activities for making pottery are enthralling – wedging clay, throwing and trimming on a wheel, glazing and firing, etc. But I had a hard time finding my own voice in pottery-making. So I started making sculptural vessels and soon my work had evolved to become sculpture completely. At some point, I realize that what I like and what I can do are not always the same.”
AF: The sheer volume of objects created for each piece within this exhibition is notable. Do you feel that your background in pottery production prepared you to work in a specific way within your artistic practice as well?
MK: “Yes, I’m very comfortable with repetition, making multiples, and doing mass production. My method of working is needing just one but making five and choosing the best one. When we were making production pottery, when the order was 30 pieces, we always made 20% more because 20% out of the final firing were often ‘seconds.’ So that experience has stayed with me.”
AF: What were you specifically making while at the pottery production company?
MK: “Simple porcelain tableware with the color blue and this distinct patterning called “chattering.” It’s a traditional pattern-making technique on clay originated from Korea and Japan hundreds of years ago. Chattering is done by a thin metal tool that has one end that is bent and has a sharp edge like a knife. When a semi-dry pot is spun on the wheel, the tool vibrates and jumps on the surface of clay, and nicks off the clay. It starts from the center of the piece and makes the continuous mark in concentric circle to the outer edge of the piece. As for the variety of forms, I believe that there used to be close to 15 different forms, from ice cream and cereal bowls to dinner and salad plates, as well as service platters, etc.”
AF: What prompted the jump from working with solely ceramics to incorporating more media?
MK: “At first, I was making sculptures just with the porcelain blocks, but I hit a wall quite quickly. After making a few bodies of work with just the porcelain blocks, I began searching for ways to move forward. Then there was kind of an accidental finding — when I saw my porcelain blocks sitting on a triangle shape of construction pink foam, leaning against a wooden picture frame, and being piled up on the old wooden stool that I found in the alley in my previous small messy studio, I felt like I found the possibilities. I was also searching for ways to scale up my work, and I knew that I would need an aid/support of other materials to achieve that.”
AF: With that frame of reference, I begin to think of these sculptures as snapshots of specific areas within your studio. Are each of the elements completed and attached before entering the gallery space, or do you play with their positioning after they are in the gallery space?
MK: “No, they are all finished/finalized in my studio. I first build a work with mock-ups and the seconds of porcelain blocks (porcelain blocks with flaws or considered rejects). When the piece is finalized, I start making the real, or actual, components. Then, the next step is to figure out how to secure each component. For example, when I want to secure the porcelain block on the wood piece, I often use wooden rods that go into the porcelain block to secure it. Then, I slip-cast the porcelain block specifically for the work and make holes on the specific location before firing. I want to generate a casual atmosphere, yet, I always try to reach the point that I am convinced that this has to be this way, not any other way, and details are much thought-out. I always keep the Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor’s quote in mind, “Details, when they are successful, are not mere decoration. They do not distract or entertain. They lead to an understanding of the whole of which they are an inherent part.” I believe that making good work means making good decisions. I am a bit older now and I’ve come to be able to trust my own intuition more; I’ve learned to enjoy the negotiation between the parts and the whole. I love the moment when my least favorite piece becomes my most favorite work by taking a break from the work and making a change after some period of time.”
AF: Two of the sculptures rest upon wooden pedestals. Do you consider the pedestals as part of the piece as a whole, or are they a separate element?
MK: “I would say separate. For the floor piece, I actually prefer that piece without the pedestal, but I was concerned about the piece being thin and tall, and so I decided to make the platform. For the large pedestal, I am quite happy with the way it worked out with the piece on top. I knew that I’d wanted to display the piece on a wide horizontal surface. I wanted the horizontality of the piece to be emphasized. I was looking for a design that I could use the least amount of wood for the height of the table, but still be quite stable. When I was consulting my furniture maker friend, Daniel Nachtrab, on a design for the pedestal, he showed me a small coffee table that he built for his wife, and I liked it because of the high apron (the wooden panel that connects the surface and legs of a table) seemed to emphasize the horizontality. So I copied the design but changed the proportions. It is a pedestal in the gallery space, but I call it a table, since I modeled it after my friend’s coffee table.”
AF: What led to the decision to title the exhibition Correspondence?
MK: “’Correspondence’ was the word that came to my mind again and again when I was thinking about the title for the show. Years ago, I noticed that having shapes that correspond to each other within a work seemed to make sense to me. I wondered if this served as a kind of “formal rhyming.” Last year when I was working on this group of work, I made decisions consciously about this activity. Multiple forms correspond in different materials, colors, size, proportions, etc. Sometimes they are obvious, but sometimes they are discreet. Then, I started wondering why poets and songwriters rhyme. So I googled “why do poets rhyme?” I learned that rhyming was supposed to aid the memory for recitation and provide a sense of predictable pleasure. ‘Formal rhyming’ makes sense to me because it allows all the components to come together and perhaps provides pleasure.”
“There is also another story. I’d like to first talk about Tony Hepburn, my graduate school mentor who left a profound influence on my artistic practice. Tony was a mentor who listened and asked great questions but never offered answers. He constantly provided us with materials to read and see, such as New York Times articles, magazine articles, and lists of books to read. Tony always engaged us with thinking and searching.”
“Tony passed away in January six years ago, and I was thinking about him this year around the anniversary of his passing and picked up a book that he recommended to me while I was a student at Cranbrook. It’s ‘Art and its Objects’ by Richard Wollheim, and this is not an easy read for me, but I go back to it again and again. I randomly opened the book and started reading a chapter and it happened to be about “natural expression and correspondence.” Wollheim says that there are two notions for the expression of artwork. The first one is that the work expresses emotions like someone is crying. The latter one is more like what is expressed through the artwork to a particular audience. The work does not have any origin in what was expressed to the audience when it was being made, but there was a coincidental correspondence between the artwork and the audience – something impactful happened to be expressed to the audience. This notion of correspondence delighted me because when the ‘correspondence’ happened to the audience, I imagine that that would be a very meaningful event in one’s life.”
“When I was a grad student, I was interested in notions of randomness, chance and coincidence, and I used to talk about these topics with Tony. At that time, I was searching for literature to read about the concepts of randomness, chance and coincidence, and I came across this book/catalog called, You’ll Never Know: Drawing and Random Interference. One of the essays in the book was “How to cure a bad case of chance” by James Flint, and this essay has impacted me to a great extent, and I still think about it. In it, Flint writes, “Occasionally, however, a coincidence with the power to bump us from our normal routine will take place. The greater the bump, the greater the meaning and the greater – and more remarkable – the coincidence.” I remember sharing this with Tony, and he agreed with joy. I still remember the smile.”
AF: That is a transformative way to think about the repetition within these sculptures. I noticed the porcelain blocks repeating throughout each piece, and now considering this rhythm as a visual manifestation of rhyming, I am able to understand why this show has a presence of comfort. The repeating shapes, materials, and color offer a form of punctuation to the viewer, and encourages the viewer to look for this repetition. I notice you like to pair contrasting media next to one another. Where does this interest come from?
MK: “Many of the materials that I use are often viewed as contrasting, but I am inclined to think that they are similar. They are cousins — because porcelain, stoneware, earthenware, glaze, wood, metal, wool felt, glass, stone, plaster, cotton fabric are all natural and geological materials; they share the same elements. Acrylic, plastic, and foams are more modern, man-made and non-traditional materials and so they speak a different language. I think of them as contrasting materials to the natural materials, and there is interesting negotiation between them. But if I found out what they are made of and how they were made, I might not think of them as so contrasting.”
AF: The sculptures are thoughtful and measured, and I am wondering what your planning process for them looks like. Do you work from sketches?
MK: “I make rough sketches, like ideation sketches or paper-napkin drawing types. They are often abstract images. I draw in the 3D modeling software, Rhino for scale, proportion and form studies. I take numerous casual photos and use Photoshop when I want to apply and see different colors in the particular shape/object. But I never plan the whole sculpture from the beginning because it has never resulted well for me. If I follow the drawing exactly to make a work, that’s really not good because I can get tunnel vision just to finish it, and I become blinded to many other possibilities. Also, in any type of drawing, material realism is just not there — drawings cannot translate the material quality. Computer rendering has advanced and it’s helpful, but there are a lot of things that you wouldn’t know unless you see and feel the actual material.”
AF: Where do you want to go next with these sculptures? Any specific materials you want to explore or ideas you want to investigate in the near future?
MK: “Learning about new materials always excites me, and new discoveries give me numerous ideas and possibilities. Now I am looking at sheet glass as a new material. A while ago, I contacted a specialized glass/window manufacturer in Chicago, and I will make a visit soon. I am also interested in working with concrete and plaster to cast solid components. I have lists of glaze recipes that I want to test. I hope to conduct many experiments this summer. After having worked on the group of work for Correspondence, I’ve started thinking about how my work could extend physically to envelop more spaces. For example, I have been envisioning how one of the pieces in Correspondence, which is composed of two wooden frames, wool felt, and porcelain blocks, could grow with more wooden frames going left and right until the structure would look almost like a jungle gym. I am also interested in seeing how I could utilize my components to activate a specific space. I could say that the consideration of space is another new component that I want to see and think about in a new way, to investigate possibilities to respond to specific spaces.”
AF: There is a level of restraint present that is often hard for sculptors. Each decision feels thoughtfully measured and considered. Were you a sculptor from the jump of your artistic career or did you develop into one?
MK: “I am definitely someone that developed into one. I started as a potter, and then I made sculptural vessels. After that, I omitted the functionality and transitioned to making ceramics sculptures. Now, I suppose I make sculptures. There’s a gradual evolution and progression in my art practice from the start of it to now. At first, I thought of myself as an object maker, but when I was at Cranbrook, I became more concerned with the space both inside and outside of the object, how the audience interacts with my work, and how I want the work to correlate with the space.”
AF: I am happy you mentioned that. Looking at these pieces, there is a surprising level of two-dimensionality from the combo of forms you work with and high-level of measured restraint. The amount of labor that went into this body of work is tremendous. Do you think creating this body of work during the pandemic impacted the resulting show?
MK: “Because of the pandemic, I didn’t travel to visit my family in Japan during the last summer or winter breaks as I normally would do. It is strange to say “thanks to the pandemic,” but it is true that I have had plenty of time to solve problems within each work. Also, focusing on the work helped me alleviate the anxiety from the pandemic. I am a hermit to begin with, and I was laughing with my artist neighbor that even during quarantine, we, artists, continue to do what we do in the studio fortunately, and are not significantly suffering from the quarantine.”
AF: I am delighted to hear something positive came from the pandemic. It’s interesting to think about what this show might have looked like if the pandemic never happened.
MK: “It’s hard to say… but one thing for sure is that I would not have had six backup pieces. I have more artworks than usual in my studio since last year. Strangely enough, I am attached to those works because I have lived with them for a longer time than I normally do.”
AF: In a way, these sculptures kind of become your pseudo-family for the season.