Katarina Wong is an artist and curator whose interests range from cross-cultural pollination to Buddhist perception of interdependence, expressed through a myriad of media such as sculptural ceramics and works on paper. She shares with Art Spiel her background, ideas,and process.
AS: You are coming to art from an intriguing academic background: MFA from the University of Maryland, a Master of Theological Studies in Buddhism from the Harvard Divinity School, and a BA in Classics from St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD. Tell me a bit about your background, and what brought you to art.
Katarina Wong: In my case, all roads lead to Rome. I’m a staunch believer in the liberal arts and went to St. John’s College, a small school with two campuses, one in Santa Fe, NM, and the other in Annapolis. I spent time at both studying a rigorous program of Western classics in literature, philosophy, math, science, Ancient Greek, French, and music. Except for a couple of electives, all students at St. John’s take the same classes, which are all discussion-based. While that might seem stifling, I would have been overwhelmed trying to navigate majors and electives at other universities. Instead, I loved the freedom of immersing myself in ideas and conversations that would shape how I thought, processed information, and looked at the world. The irony was that there were no fine arts classes! I ended up taking extracurricular painting, drawing, and ceramics classes because I knew I would eventually become an artist.
I did my MFA at the University of Maryland at College Park. I entered the program as a printmaker but quickly began making site-specific installations. I was lucky to be in a program that allowed that kind of fluidity of practice. A few years after receiving my MFA, I became interested in the problem of how to talk about the process of making art. For me, language and artmaking are different cognitive functions, so describing the artmaking process always seemed like a translation issue.
I happened to be reading a lot of contemporary Buddhist writing at the time and realized Buddhism had already addressed the issue of using language to describe a non-language-based process, i.e., the enlightenment experience. When I got accepted in the Master of Theological Studies program at the Harvard Divinity School, I decided to learn more about Buddhism, both how it influenced (and was changed by) the cultures it encountered as it moved from India into China and Japan, into Tibet, and down into Southeast Asia, specifically as reflected in the texts and practices. It was a life-changing two years of study, and led me down new creative paths.
AS: I am drawn to your site-specific “Fingerprint” project. You say that your aim is to link the ideas of “personal migration, identity, and the Buddhist concept of interdependence.” You started from collecting molds of friends’ fingertips. Can you elaborate?
Katarina Wong: The Fingerprint Project was a direct result of my studies at Harvard. I was fascinated with the concept of interdependent origination. In very broad terms, it’s a theory of interdependence, that all of us are interconnected, that our existence relies on one another, that even the world as experience it is a co-creative act involving everyone. I love this idea. But I also wondered if this were true, or rather, in what ways , if any, did I experience this as true?
I realized that I feel evidence of interdependence most in my relationships, especially with friends I’ve known for a long time. We all have those people in our lives — people with whom we can pick up a conversation exactly where we left off, no matter how many years have passed. I saw this as a way we hold pieces of each others’ memories, identities, and lives. Talking about those memories and experiences is a way of co-creating the line of time that carries us from the past into the present.
For the Fingerprint Project series of installations, I wanted to create something that literally depended on as many people as possibly, friends and strangers alike. I made casts of their fingerprints, that unique identifier, and cast them in wax, mounted them on pins, and placed them on the wall in patterns that suggest flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarms of animals or people.
AS: You seem to be preoccupied in your work with the intersection between cultures – let’s take your recent “Take Away” series for example. It’s a series of encaustic cement tiles, where you combine in some pieces traditional Cuban tile patterns with the disposability of Chinese food carry-out containers. What can you tell me about the genesis of this project?
Katarina Wong: I am the first generation in my family to be born in the U.S. My father came from China and my mother from Cuba. I can’t avoid being interested in the intersection of all three cultures because I am the location of that intersection. As a result, sometimes I don’t feel quite Cuban or Chinese-enough, and I often question what it means to be American (but I think many people currently have that same question, though for different reasons).
For “Take Away,” I was thinking about how there are things that seem disposable but are actually iconic, and others that should be iconic but have become disposable, depending on one’s perspective. Chinese take-out contains fall into the first category, for me. That shape is immediately recognizable and utterly functional, and has been in use for decades.
Cement tiles (also called encaustic cement tiles) are ubiquitous in Cuba. Brought from Spain, they became popular at the turn of the 20th century and look like elaborate rugs but are much more practical in a climate where textile floor coverings aren’t ideal. For those who come from outside of Cuba, they are a nostalgic signifier of a lost time. Many Cubans, though, are currently choosing to replace these tiles with with glossy, inexpensive ceramic tiles made in China.
In this series I wanted to use the disposable containers in an unexpected way. By splaying them open, the flattened shape reminded me of decorative tiles. The pattern I’m using is one from our apartment in Cuba. Traditional cement tiles have about a 100-year lifespan before the patterns are worn away by daily activity. I wanted to pull the pattern off the tiles, if you will, and give them a new life in a different context.
By juxtaposing one signifier on another, questions arise. Which signifier is more important, or does this juxtaposition create a third way of approaching cultures? I don’t know the answers, but I’m pretty interested in where the questions might lead.
AS: “Monsters” from 2010 seems to underlie a very different sensibility, as you say, it contemplates “the cacophony of emotions that arise out of grief and death.” Can you share what is the impetus for this earlier project?
Katarina Wong: That’s a sad one. My father had a stroke on the evening of July 4, 2009, and died the next morning. We had spoken on the phone a few hours before, so lovely in its mundaneness. His stroke was so unexpected, so shocking. I felt as if that night I went to sleep in one reality and woke up in a nightmare.
After his death, I couldn’t make any artwork for weeks, then those weeks became months. When I finally began working in the studio again, the color drained from my new work. Before my father died, I had been making large, colorful paintings of explosions. They felt joyous. His death was marked an end to that work, like a curtain at the end of a scene. I was starting over in many ways.
All I wanted was the comfort of the deep black ink my father and I had so painstakingly learned to use, sitting side by side, twenty years prior when we studied traditional Chinese painting techniques under a Chinese master painter who was so old, he made my 60-year-old father look like a kid.
After my father’s death, I pulled out my bamboo brushes and started to splash the ink on paper, then I migrated to clayboard. I let my subconscious take over. Those splotches suggested images, and painting became a kind of DIY Rorschach. I was never a representational painter, so I was surprised to see images of animals, body parts, figures spilling out, all merging and emerging into one another. These pieces reflected what I was feeling then – anger, joy, frustration, love, anguish, grief, humor all roiling together, ready to explode in some uncontrollable way.
AS: You seem to move freely between sculpture and painting. What is your approach to each and what do you think is the relationship between them in your work?
Katarina Wong: I move between media depending on where the ideas lead me. Some ideas need to be realized in one medium and not another, but each has its own temperament, and I enjoy working within those constraints. For example, working with porcelain requires me to work quickly since it’s not particularly forgiving, but then I have to wait — wait for the bisque, the glaze firing, then maybe another firing — to see if I’m even on the right track. Working with ink, on the other hand, allows me to work as quickly or as slowly as I like, although it is also not forgiving. Sometimes, if I spend too much time immersed in one medium, I start to miss working in others, that way you’d miss the company of an old friend.
AS: It seems to me that your work is typically characterized by linking associative concepts. Let’s take the connectivity between your fascination with the Victoria lily plant, the notion of Buddhist enlightenment, and what you describe as “serendipitous crack” in the firing process of ceramics. Can you share your thoughts about that associative process?
Katarina Wong: My work is a combination of what’s on my mind, what’s happening in my hands, and also what’s out of my hands, metaphorically speaking. Everytime I start a piece, no matter how clear the idea may be in my head, I still have to deal with physical material — the medium and also my own physical abilities. Each has its own unique possibilities and limitations. When my physical self meets the material, the process starts to feel more like an iterative collaboration filled with unexpected twists and turns.
With the Victoria Lotus Leaf pieces, I fell in love with that Victoria Amazonica species of waterlily. I love their monstrous size and their flat-bottomed form. The lotus is often used as a metaphor in Buddhism for enlightenment, how it emerges from the muck of our minds (samsara), but it was the leaf that interested me: the leaf balances perfectly between the realms of samsara and enlightenment.
One never knows what the kiln gods will do. The firing process sometimes creates lucky breaks, pun intended. When some of the initial pieces emerged with cracks in them, I first thought of the kintsugi process of mending broken ceramics with precious metals like gold or silver, but I liked my pieces’ broken-ness. I decided to highlight the cracks instead, a kind of reverse kintsugi, if you will. Glazed with gold or white gold, they called to mind Leonard Cohen’s line “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” which was inspired by Rumi’s “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
AS: You have an impressive curatorial experience. What brought you to curation and how do you see the relationship between curatorial practice and making art?
Katarina Wong: Thank you! I started curating selfishly – it was a way of understanding what was happening in my own studio. I was curious to see how other artists were playing with the ideas of emptiness, slowness, reading vs misreading, for example. Over time, I became an in-house curator for a large communications agency where I curated exhibitions that focused on the intersection of art, digital/tech, and communication. It was an excellent opportunity to think outside my comfort zone and to expand my network of artists. I love how curating reframes and provides different creative context for artwork. It’s like starting a conversation between pieces of art.
AS: Do art history or other art forms play important roles in your work; if so, what are you looking at?
Katarina Wong: I look at everything! Art, for me, is one of the best expressions of what it means to be human. I loved the recent Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery.
In January, I was in Santa Fe where I visited the Museum of International Folk Art, one of my favorite museums. It includes “Multiple Visions: A Common Bond,” an over-the-top collection of more than 10,000 pieces of folk and souvenir art. They were also showing the terrific Crafting Memory: The Art of Community in Peru exhibition, which places Peruvian artists in the context of political and social change. I also enjoyed the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim. The Rubin Museum in Chelsea is also another all-round favorite, a real gem. I’m looking forward to going back to Cuba in April for the Havana Biennial. There’s always so much energy and great work there that’s often hard to experience elsewhere.
I’ve also been reading a lot of memoir to see how authors construct the narratives of their lives. I’m loving Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us, her story of coming to the U.S. illegally as a child from Mexico. I’m also doing a lot of writing. I find that process helps me clarify or distill ideas. It’s a different way of working on similar things that come up in the studio.
AS: Where do you see your studio work developing these days?
Katarina Wong: Last fall was a real R&D phase in the ceramic studio. I was eager to see how I could translate the paper “Take Away” pieces into porcelain, and it took me several months of underglaze tests to figure out. The idea of expressing a unique vision from appropriating — no, mashing up — my cultural heritages is one I’m very much interested in. I’m continuing to work on both the paper and the porcelain versions of the “Take Away” series, and I’ve been invited to make prints in Havana at Liang Dominguez Fong’s print studio, so I hope to be able to continue exploring cultural mash ups there in the next year. In any case, it’s an idea that’s still very rich for me and there’s so much work to do!