Megan Craig’s exhibition essay for Dark Segment, October 2018
Shining Some Glory: Hong Hong’s Dark Segment
Whoever you are, go out into the evening, leaving your
room, of which you know every bit, your house is the last
before the Infinite, whoever you are.
Two days after visiting with Hong Hong in the midst of her solo show, Dark Segment, currently on view at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT, I found myself on an airplane at dusk on the way to a conference. As the flight took off and dipped to the left I could see out the window a perfectly framed Hong work. The horizon was marked by deep grey-blue clouds and bands of cream, yellow, and orange, all of it stacked like hands pressing against the earth. Above the clouds, the sky remained an eggshell blue, turning at some indistinct threshold into a gauzy peach haze. I watched the bank of inky clouds meet the luminous sky in a ragged edge that seemed lined with a single undulating ribbon of gold.
You can’t help think of the sky when you see Dark Segment. The works, made flat on the ground, image the vault above. The title of the show references the blue ridge that marks the end or beginning of the divide between night and day, a divide called the terminator. I was watching the dark segment through my window, a blue so thick with gravity it felt less like air and more like stones lying over a grave, pressing out the sun’s last light.
In Hong’s work, blues of various intensities also press and pull. Sometimes they are holes or wells; sometimes they are starry skies. It is difficult to know whether you are standing below the works, looking up, or standing above them, looking down. An edge of blue sliding under a large rectangular sheet of pink could be the dark segment on its side, pushing a warm, sherbet glow toward the corner of the room. In letting the dark blue slide under, leaving just enough gap between the two sheets of paper to create a delicate shadow where they pass, Hong Hong shows us that gravity is not always or only a downward, equally distributed force. Instead, gravity pools and masses unpredictably in moments where her works meet, overlap, evade, or hover against one another. Something is always behind trying to hide or to emerge.
Perhaps the most universal force that Dark Segment materializes is the pull of the outside. All of the work begins and ends there, given over to the elements and to the risks of exposure. Viewers are invited to witness the temporary taming of these papers tacked to the walls, but over the course of the show Hong will drag them outside, leaving them like whales to bleach in the sun before assembling them anew in compositions that mimic the poetic pulse of haikus and capture the day’s fading light in the midst of its disappearance, color draining from bones, draining from the page.
There is something open and broad in Hong’s gesture of pouring and pulling, dyeing and pounding these monumental pieces of paper. Nothing delicate or prim, they seem pliant and rugged, more like skins than pulp. Large and weighty enough to succumb to their own mass, the works on the walls fold and tear in places, droop in others. Despite their heft, they retain – miraculously – the precarity of paper: its translucence, its susceptibility to moisture, heat, and touch. In a way, paper is the model medium for folding, wrapping, and recording imprints, but it is ill-suited for building or other practices of insulation, unfit for clothing or homes. The house or the home stands somewhere in the middle of Hong’s thinking as something left behind. She follows Rilke’s invitation to seek the infinite by going out into the evening, leaving the comfort and safety of every room. Her work takes shape outdoors and it records and captures the variability of weather, light, and time. Brought inside, her sheets initially lie rolled and stacked in a heap. As she pulls them apart they gravitate toward one another by an enigmatic magnetism, forming amorphous alien beings. Some seem to hover on paddles extended for landing, others protrude with tongues licking the walls. All of them explode the traditional rectilinearity of the frame as they wander and stretch, eke and pool, altering and softening geometric space. Holes and shreds serve as reminders of their humble, material means as well as their essential, ecstatic homelessness.
A tension between strength and vulnerability lies at the heart of Hong’s work and practice. The physical act of making paper requires beating and pounding fibers to a pulp, a dynamic, muscular activity that yields the simultaneously tough and tender sheet. Poured into a massive frame, the pulp settles in a meshwork of tangled threads. Atop the gelatinous substrate, the artist delicately places things (a leaf, a piece of fabric), which leave impressions captured in the drying sheet like memories imprinted on a waxy soul. In the process, she poses an existential question about how to capture memory traces in a medium that is destined to dry and deteriorate. She dramatizes the building up and breaking down of memory over time by showing us the process accelerated and augmented by bouts of extreme exposure. So much of the art world remains geared toward the preservation of work, but Hong, in the tradition of feminist performance work like that of Ana Mendieta, makes the work in order to facilitate its demise. She does this tenderly, ritualistically, taking the papers outside as if releasing them to return to the elemental from whence they came.
And yet there is nothing morbid in the work. If anything, it is infused with a Nietzschean joy at the prospect of some eternal return. On the walls in the gallery the temporary constellations of papers meet at edges blunt and smooth, jagged and frayed. Sometimes the seams are barely visible; sometimes the juncture is stark. In every case, the papers, like individual souls, exude their idiosyncratic densities without thereby succumbing to any final form or definitive name.
I could not help thinking of the word “glory” when I first saw Dark Segment. In Hebrew, the word for glory is kavod, and its root means “heavy.” Glory is not something light, but like the papers themselves, an armature or shield that occasionally falls over things, lending them new, protective weight. It’s the weight of the dark segment rising or falling in the sky that makes the dawning or fading light appear that much brighter. It’s the weight of these papers that makes them feel so much like flesh composed of earth and sky. Hong’s works tinge the space with an atmosphere that defies simple resolution. The air feels simultaneously warm and cool, calibrated exactly to dismantle the demarcation between pink and blue. One has to sit with them over time to feel the pace of the gradients and witness their changing lights. As Anne Carson writes: “There is something you should know and the right way to know it is by a cherrying of your mind.” You cannot know this work by an act of reflective judgment. It demands a different intimacy – a willingness to be present, to be exiled, and to be stained. Rather than seeing the exhibit, one would do better to inhale it or let it seep into the pores of your skin, which is, after all, the papery threshold between inside and outside, just barely holding one together, already touched by the sky.
-Megan Craig, New Haven, 2018
Interview with May Babcock for Paperslurry, September 2018
Interview with Zachary Keeting and Chris Joy of Gorky’s Granddaughter, June 2018
Jacquelyn Gleisner’s Art21 Magazine article, Making Paper: on Hong Hong’s Performative Process, September 2017