Year of Uncertainty: Artist Mo Kong and the Queens Museum Embark on an Experiment

Like many arts institutions, the Queens Museum has pondered how it can do more for its community. “We were asking ourselves how could we create a relevant model of a museum that is situated and informed by where we are and who our constituents and stakeholders are,” said Sally Tallant, the museum’s executive director. “So we thought, OK, let’s think about what we have: space, resources, and a brilliant team. How can we make available some of that to the wider community?” Part of the answer to that question is the Year of Uncertainty (YoU), a new program that aims to bring together a series of innovative programming with local Queens communities presently viewable in the form of an enigmatic and stimulating exhibition by the artist Mo Kong.

For YoU, the Queens Museum invited six artists and nine community partners to realize a variety of projects around the themes of “Care,” “Justice,” “Play,” and “the Future,” and Kong’s contribution is now entering the second phase of their exhibition, which explores entanglements between climate change, global trade, and xenophobia. Kong’s presentation is being revealed in parts and is currently, until January 2, in the second of three total phases. (The third phase will open in January.)

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Corporate Culture Wall (2021) and Whiteboard (2021), which are set at the back windows of the Queens Museum, introduce us to Kong’s creation New Yorkool, an imaginary Asian-immigrant-owned brand that consults on American survival techniques during major ecological collapse with benign, consumer-oriented solutions. Whiteboard features a white board with two intersecting lines, a red one representing the rising frequency and volume of international trade and a blue one tracking the amount of natural disasters world wide over the years. On the glass enclosing the whiteboard is an etching of New Yorkool’s recommendations inspired by an immigrant mindset prepared for quick adaptation to economic and environmental stress.

Personal Ark probes the future and the past with an alchemical hand that engages intersections between climate change, xenophobia, and international trade across multiple sculptures that tap into smell. “I looked into how the olfactory has been used to racialize people,” Kong said, citing a study of smell in New York City that consistently voted Chinatown as smelling dirty and unsanitary. “What smells like a public health threat?”

The work also addresses smell that has been stolen, as in case of ylang ylang, a plant native to India and the Philippines that has been used in Chanel No. 5 and many other perfumes without any kind of compensation. Kong’s sculptures, made of heat-reactive metals, house smaller glass sculptures filled with scented oils, fermented plants, and live shrimp, tapping into Kong’s fascination with closed systems–the Earth among them. In Kong’s studio in the Queens Museum, a complicated set of tubes is actively bubbling on a bunsen burner, quietly extracting more oils while plans for the next phase of sculptures. “I dabble in chemistry,” the artist said.

Kong’s work is subtle and complex—and certainly expansive. “They came with a clear idea but had the opportunity to really experiment in the studio and try different materials,” Tallant, the Queens Museum director, said of Kong’s residency so far. “I’d go into the studio and there was seaweed everywhere. Mo is someone who has really, really taken advantage of their time here.”


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