BL&D Artist Profile: Hong Hong
Quenton Narcisse - Author
In order for Hartford – re: Connecticut in general – to have its renaissance that it has so long beckoned for, art and its subsequent support must play an integral part. For the inaugural interview of BxLxD’s Artist Profile series, visual artist Hong Hong and I sat down at Tisane’s, a local coffee shop in Hartford, and talked about her portfolio, the captions behind them, and why drains and Mylar are so important to her art.
So how was your day?
It was good! I spent it calling a lot of people because I’m looking for a studio space in Hartford, but I’m looking for something super industrial. Usually artists are like, ‘I want hardwood floors and a light and my paintings at 45 degree angle’. And I’m like, ‘I [just] need drainage on the floor and like a cement floor’.
What was the studio you were using in your pictures?
Oh, that’s from grad school. Yeah so, my grad school had a paper-making studio and everything was super easy. We had like five drains on the floor but here in Connecticut, I guess it’s kinda taboo to have drains on the floor [be]cause the EPA or the environmental people don’t like it. So it’s been pretty hard, yeah.
Where have you been looking studio-wise?
Oh my god [laughs]. [I] started at 30 Arbor Street and The Dirt Salon, but they’ve recently moved into these industrial warehouses that I’ve never heard of. And I’ve been talking to real estate agents and they’re like, ‘Do you want a thousand square feet?’, and I’m just like, ‘No! I just need four hundred!’
How much are those typically?
I think it depends on location. God, I have so many numbers in my head. It’s like 50 cents per square foot on a monthly basis. [Looking up at the lights] Wow, I love these lights. They’re like belly dancers. Can’t you see them swaying?
Like snakes coming out of the basket.
So have you always been into art?
Yeah! Actually, when I was born, I was very premature and I had this thing where my wrists couldn’t bend. So, I was like a little T-Rex. And my grandma’s a doctor, so she started making me draw just as a therapy kinda thing. I’ve been drawing since I was like two or one. And slowly because of drawing, my hands got better. And I wasn’t T-Rex anymore. She used to tie these boards on my hands to straighten them out, so I’d always have wooden boards attached to my hands and I’d walk around like this [straightens out arms]. [Laughs]
That wasn’t stressful or traumatic for you?
I have no memories of it because I was a baby. I was really young.
When did you fully recover from that?
Well, I think my grandma did such a good job that I don’t have any memory of not being able to use my wrists. She did great. That’s when I started drawing.
My parents were very busy so we had this apartment with white walls and they just let me draw on the walls. So I covered the whole house. It was like a timeline because when I was really short, the lower drawings were the first drawings. And as you go up on the wall, they got progressively better.
What was the turning point for you? Like when you said to yourself, “This is what I really want to do for the rest of my life”?
I think there were a couple. My background is in painting, so I used to do a lot of portraits because identity is very important to me. So I just painted a bunch of portraits and it was very realistic. And then at some point, someone threw out this ginormous canvas. It was like 8 feet by 11 feet, and I was like, ‘No one is gonna take it?!? I’m gonna take it!’ [Laughs] Because I’m a vulture. So, I took it and I was like, ‘What do I do?’.
I have been doing pretty standard portraits simply because you’re limited by a lot of things you don’t think about. Like the canvas they sell at the bookstore is only 60 inches by 18 inches, but it doesn’t even click. So I got this canvas, and I started putting a bunch of pins on it and doing abstract work where things were floating. I’ve made two works in my life that I’m happy with and that’s one of them.
After that, I began to get more and more abstract, and the size stayed very similar. It was always larger than the body. And then I went to grad school [and thought], “I’m sick of painting!” I’m sick of fumes and I’m high all the time. Like, from the fumes. And then, I really didn’t know what I was doing in grad school. I went to grad school because my parents became permanent residents. I turned 21 before a certain part of that situation so they kicked me out. So it was either I had to go to grad school or be deported back to China.
No, the government! [My parents] would never do that! So, I had to go to grad school and thank God someone took me in. I didn’t want to paint and learned to make paper and I fell in love with paper-making. The paper I make is 8 feet by 11 feet. I started making it on a very small scale in a very similar way to painting. Then I was like, ‘I wanna make it big’ and then everyone was like, ‘How are you gonna make it big?’ like, ‘I’m just gonna do it’ because I did the same thing with painting. I actually researched how to make papermaking mould and deckles, and then I constructed my own.
It’s kinda like a giant mat that I put together outside. I have buckets, I have hoses, I have water guns – what I’m essentially doing is laying down a mat with layers of fibers because you don’t know what it’s going to look like. Then I use water as a gestural tool. So it’s kind of like I’m painting with water. It’s essentially a water fight with art. Like what Jackson Pollack did but with water, ya know? And it was a lot of fun, and I really like doing it. And then I let it dry in the sun, and sometimes I make my work when it’s raining so that there’s another element. Then, I’ll peel it and lift it up with someone else. I’ll slowly peel it from this sheer that I lay it out on.
So let me get this correct. You have the paper and the sheer sits on top?
The sheer is what the paper sits on. I have different layers: I have a hardware cloth, a fiberglass mat and a sheer that’s made of what bridal veils are made out of. And then I kinda clamp that down and the fiber sits on that veil and becomes attached to it. Because that’s what fiber likes to do. Fiber likes to be friends with fiber. So that’s why when I lift it, the whole thing lifts up and then I can peel it, using gravity to my advantage. So it’s a really active process. It’s a lot of fun. That’s why I’m looking for a studio space so I can start doing that again. It’s not something that you do in your apartment. [laughs].
What’s the significance behind the names you pick? You have names like “Paradise” and “Day-Rain” and other interesting titles.
I also wanted to be a writer. I took a bunch of creative writing classes and was like, “I’m gonna do so much with creative writing” and it just didn’t end up working out. So, I have all of these sentences – I just like to write words down. And if there’s something that I’m trying to achieve in my work, I use it.
That’s cool because I went to school for creative writing, and that’s a smart way of doing it instead of thinking of something random off the top of your head.
I have a folder full of words dedicated to that. So really, that’s the significance behind it. A lot of my work has to do with – I know we’re getting deeper into it – spirituality. And I’m really interested in the idea of rituals and how through repetition, something that’s very accessible like a hair and bone, can become something that’s very mythical and powerful and life-changing. [I’m] interested in that significance and transformation. So, with words like “Paradise” or “All Night Dream Sowing”, it kind of has that mystical quality.
What was the process behind the Day-Rain video?
I think one day, I was just looking at the reflection of the silver tin box I have in my living room. And I was like, “Wow, the lights are hitting them in such a cool way!” [laughs]. And then I was like, “I want to make something that’s silver”. This is a really dumb story, but then I ordered like 100,000 silver push pins from Amazon. And it was only like 20 bucks! I was going to find the cheapest silver thing that I could find [laughs]. And then I threaded them through a bunch of thread, and I hung them up. They looked like party decorations [but] I didn’t want that, so I was talking to one of my mentors and he was like, “Maybe you should stay away from that, and go for something sturdier like Mylar”, which you can actually manipulate.
I wanted to create something that looked like a mirage. I wanted to create something that moved, that had movement and kind of straddled – I hate that word – between presence and absence. You know, because of the reflection, it eventually allows it to camouflage itself when it’s not moving into the environment. I was looking for material to do that, so I ended up buying – I always do this, I’m either not in or all in. So I end up buying, like, a 150 feet of Mylar [laughs]. See, this is why I have to work so much! To support this crazy habit of buying expensive things in large qualities. Not even good things!
So then I was like, “What am I going to do with this?”. I started playing around with it in my apartment and I really liked the round shape, so I hand cut and rolled everything and sealed it. Then I threaded parachute cord through it and hung it up in panels. Because, again, I was thinking about the idea of portals. I was thinking about time travel. So I said, “If I could travel through time and I could make my own portal, what would that look like?” [laughs]. So I made that. ‘Cause I would want to walk through that. They always make time travel look so scary. It’s like this dark hole and things are stretched, and there’s like pizzas and everything floating around in it and I wouldn’t want to step into that. So I just wanted to make something that was interesting and beautiful.
That’s a hell of story. Those are a lot of ideas. When I was watching the video, nothing was really happening but it was soothing.
Yeah, it’s kind of like being hugged on your eyeballs or something. I’m going to do another installation of it hopefully the second week of April. Somewhere in a field where I’m going to find. So, that’s what I’m working on right now. Finding a field. But yes, I think about spirituality and transformation. And I like to use materials that everyone knows about. Mylar is used in greenhouses because it’s very protective. People have specific visions as to what these materials should do and also look like. So, I’m interested in, sort of, reinventing or reconstructing that part of your brain. Because we have filing cabinets in our heads. This goes there, that’s goes there [and] I’m going to shut it and I’m never going to open it again. So I’m interested in work that makes you go, “Oh, this is Mylar!”. Things can be what they aren’t all the time. Because I just do a lot of staring in my studio – I stare a lot.
But I like to do a lot of installation work. Basically, I like making things that make it really hard for me as an artist because if you’re a painter, it’s a lot easier. Painting is like the Queen of art. Installation, fiber art – basically anything that’s craft-based is basically [shunned]. You know, the fine art world is very “Oh, pish-posh.” [Craft] is like fine art’s ugly stepsister. So, I make it hard for myself.
But that’s why you like to do it.