Art and Politics: An Interview With Chinese Artist Mo Kong

Written by Ruth Green
The growth of the Chinese economy is directly connected with the rise of contemporary Chinese art. China’s social evolution, political command, and control and environmental transformation have attracted worldwide attention. In this context, a group of Chinese artists has appeared on the international art world’s radar. Perhaps all art is political, in that art reflects society, and, in turn, influences social progression. The artist Mo Kong is engaged in a subtle revelation of Chinese political, social, and environmental machinations. The following is a conversation with Mo Kong about his art and life.

Work by Mo Kong, Charcoal, Coal, Coal dust from Shanxi China, Sulfur, and Paper glue, Courtesy of the artist

You introduce yourself as a political artist. What do you mean by this?
My work is always deeply impacted by the social events. It is highly engaged with live situations through the detailed description of certain social events in order to build emotional connections with the audience. The body of my work uses visual language to tell the heartbreaking and emotional stories, but beyond the humanity and memorial is the critique of the overpowering government. My work is political but does not have to involve activism. It takes on a very personal social and political direction, and the materials I work with lend themselves to the nature of each subject itself.
Which of your artworks reflect this definition?
I was a journalist and an activist before I started doing art. This did not just influence my working process, but also motivated me to redefine the “truth” or “news report”. Investigations, interviews, evidence, and languages are concrete materials in my sculptures and installations. Perhaps, there is no “truth”; “truth” is not one simple answer for me, it is a process of collecting perspectives. Most of my works are related to the land use and coal mining. I have been told different stories by the miners, the government, and the developers. The complexity behind the social issues is my definition of political, and politics are never simple.

Golden Mountain, Mo Kong, 2015, Courtesy the artist

When did your artwork enter your life?
I actually started doing art at grad school, but I’ve always known I wanted to do political art; I want to be a small voice for my generation. I worked as an assistant fashion editor back then, but the living situation, the highly stressed lifestyle, and the numbness of my peers pushed me out. I wanted to speak out; I wanted to tell every single story I knew. I wanted to be heard. Art was my only choice.
Many of my works transmute intimate domestic objects into subtly changed vessels freighted with memories and narratives paradoxically conjuring up that which is tragically absent. Through the action of smearing, covering and censoring, the conflicts between an overpowering government and its citizens are unveiled. Borrowing forms from chemistry and geology, I project the social practice on the geographic changes, comparing the imperfect social system to the artificial geography wounds. Overlapping the emotional trauma with the broken landscape, I analyze the emotions secretly under the silent cover.

Mo Kong standing in front of his work, Courtesy the artist

And when did the political enter your life?
Born and raised in China, I am always aware of the limitation of free speech, which helped to determine the way I express my feelings (which is more towards being obscure and reserved).
Similar to other countries, democracy does exist in China, however, the social issues have been divided by type A: “Allowed to discuss in the public” and type B: “Keep your mouth shut in public”. Most of my art practices are focused on type B, but they have to be presented under type A— such as environmental problems, which is one of the reasons I overlap the geology and journalism systems, using the geologic dark spots to hide the social issues.
China and freedom of opinion. Can we say that contemporary Chinese art is contributing to the growth of that freedom in your country?
It will be and it always will be. Since the 1980’s contemporary Chinese artists have been using the arts as a form to express their minds, to improve the systems.
The environment is a world issue, but it seems more present in Eastern than Westerns Artists. Could you explain why?
I can’t represent the Eastern artists, and I believe many Western artists are working on the environment issues. I only can talk about this phenomenon from my personal experience. I grew up in a heavily polluted town in China, and I care about the environment because my life, my family, and my friends are affected by the pollution. There are thousands of towns like this in China. This reality always impacted my mind.
Do you see other differences between Eastern and Western artists?
The biggest difference between Eastern and Western artists is the expression of the works, and that’s also the biggest struggle for me to make works in NYC. Western artists tend to expressionism, wild, passionate, direct and colorful. Eastern artists tend to minimalism. I feel the similarity with the minimalism movement in the 60’s and 70’s which reserve, control and geometry.

Work by Mo Kong, Charcoal, Paper, Coal, Coal dust from Shanxi China,Golden Coal, Beeswax, Resin, 2014, Courtesy the artist

Not only politics and environment but also death (in terms of the end of things), is a subject strongly present in your art…
Death and funeral ceremony are very important elements in my works, not just because it is the consequence of the politics and environment, but  also because it is the reason I started making art. How you deal with death reflects how you face living. The first time I realized the connection of humanity and politics is because of the death of my friend’s father who was a victim of a mining accident, Chinese politics, and environmental pollution. I enjoy the process of resolving grief and trauma. Influenced by  German art and literature, I felt that a memorial is a better way to deal with my personal traumas, so I am trying to remind people of social issues by remembering the past. The deaths in my work are actually lost identities;  they are the unspoken witnesses of the government censorship, and they deserve respect, and their family deserves justice. No life should be ignored.
Projects for the future?
I will have several group shows later this year, I am also preparing for my second solo show at Room Service Gallery, New York.  I am very excited about it. The new project is using the  investigative methodology of journalism to extract the keywords from the “official statement”/ narrative (interviews/field trip) as well as utilizing internet research of social tragedies caused by undermining and environmental pollution with the goal of rearranging these disordered tags and incomplete words with a hidden storyline while mixing them with the local materials, audios and videos to build a three-dimensional diagram. Through the cover of the earth and science study, I want to reveal the government censorship, corruption, people’s living situation and social issues.
Furthermore, I am planning to open an art residency with HYDRA Art Project in Chengdu, China next year. We are fascinated by the idea of inviting contemporary artists from all over the world to see modern day China, and to learn the rich history and culture with the hope of changing any stereotype of contemporary Chinese art. I also have some artist residencies to attend next year, so I may need to travel between the US and Europe next year.

A portrait of Mo Kong, Courtesy the artist


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