MICHAEL WONG’S SCULPTURAL DRAWINGS
AND INSTALLATIONS offer
dizzying mix of symbols from as many cultural traditions as you’d find
represented in any urban Minneapolis neighborhood. In his recently installed mural
Thrower the cosmic architect of Buddhist tradition, Pan Gu, hurls his
transformational thunderbolts and offers of good fortune upon the world.
Friends, Hidden Enemies is populated with a collection of semi-godly
creatures from both the Asian New Year and Mexican Day of the Dead traditions
joined together to mark time’s ineluctable passage.
Kong and the Chinese god of longevity meet up for a birthday party
complete with Coke, hotdogs, and cupcakes.
Wong is well acquainted with the precarious half-in/half-out feeling faced by
the children and grandchildren of immigrants. “As I grew older and had to deal
with people’s questions (like ‘Why don’t you speak Chinese?’), it became more
important to me to find out what traditions I come from.”
“I’m suspended between identities of ethnic heritage and what it means to
identify as an American,” he explains, “occupying that transitional space
between East and West.”
Wong’s grandmother moved here from China in the late 1930s, the beginning of a
particularly tumultuous time in the country’s history, and she never looked
back—she stopped speaking Chinese altogether in favor of her new country’s
tongue, she largely abandoned the religious traditions of her youth, and threw
herself wholly into her new life as an American. Wong has a diffuse cultural
connection to his Asian roots, but the particulars of Chinese language,
mythology, and tradition have been largely lost to his family—leaving him in
the unlikely role of student of his own family’s ancestral traditions.
Wong began his artistic life as a professionally trained cellist* but he
abandoned that path early on. “I didn’t like the ephemerality of performance.
You work so hard to prepare a piece, but there was no permanence to
performance. When I was done playing it felt like my work was gone, over. I
wanted to find a way to do something that would last—something with a little
more staying power.”
“I really love the timeless universality of mythology, whatever tradition it comes
from,” Wong enthuses. “I appreciate the moral compass these allegorical images
offer the viewer. I think a lot of work today references pop culture,
almost like it’s a new religion, and I’m more interested in paring down my
work to constants, the things that really matter.”
Wong’s mythic figures are distinctly ferocious, even in blessing they’re more
often than not
and a bit menacing. “I think if your imagery is too tame, no one will
look,” he shrugs. “If it shocks, or if it inspires fear or even distaste,
people may turn away from it, but it will reach them.”
“I don’t think my work is just ferocious, though,” he argues.
“There’s humor there too… exaggeration. I guess I want my work to amuse and
mystify the viewer without condescending.”
Wong’s currently a graduate student at the University of Minnesota Art Department's sculpture
program, and he recently showed his distinctive work in Beijing. To his relief, his artistic efforts were warmly received. “I was a little nervous about showing there—these people have been steeped in the traditions and
imagery for thousands of years,” he says. “I didn’t know how they’d feel about
my use of it in my work.”
Even though he began with small, self-contained sculptural drawings, the trajectory of Wong’s work is going toward larger and larger scale pieces. His drawings already incorporate movement and lighting; complex scenes are set in shallow relief and offer theatrical flourishes and depth in three-dimensional space. Now, he’s got his eye on vignettes with historic scope.
At artist Sue Coe’s recommendation he’s working on an ambitious large-scale
series of murals depicting the tangled history of Chinese immigrants in
America. “I’m interested in the history of China opening its doors to trade
and subsequently being subsumed by both its desires to expand and by the
colonial greed of the West. I want to follow the influence of opium’s
introduction to China, and American railroad’s lure of Chinese laborers
through false promises of untold wealth and misleading work contracts. I think it's important to really shed light on that uglier part of our history in art. We need to be willing to tell the whole truth about the heritage of Asian immigration to America.”
“Basically I want to cast the net wider than my personal experience for subject matter and
context. I want to reclaim and reinterpret these traditional stories of the
Japanese and Chinese American experience.”
About the artist: Michael Wong is a student in the University
of Minnesota’s sculpture program. He’s shown work in galleries around the
country and internationally. Most recently, he was invited by the nonprofit
Public Artworks to install
enlarged mural of Comet Thrower in the Stinson Building in
*Correction (7/12): The original version of this article indicated, in error, that Wong began his artistic career as a pianist when, in fact, he was a cellist.
access+ENGAGE Issue 19.1: Art al Fresco
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Artist Michael Wong on mnartists.org
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