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ON Hong Hong: A Conversation with an Artist on Finding Her Own Coordinates

Winter 2017
Winter 2017
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Susan Mackin Dolan   was born in a small papermill town in Maine and received an MFA in printmaking and papermaking from the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 1984 she helped build the first papermaking studio in south Texas at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio and was the founding chairperson. An artist and educator for over 35 years, her work has been exhibited internationally and is in many important collections. At the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Friends of Dard Hunter in Santa Fe, I met Hong Hong in the courtyard of the New Mexico History Museum, where she demonstrated how to set up a modular mould system to create large-scale, kozo paper measuring more than 96 square feet. Hong Hong was born in Hefei, China and moved to North Dakota with her family at age nine. She earned a BFA from the State University of New York, Potsdam in 2011 and an MFA from University of Georgia, Athens in 2014.  

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susan mackin dolan (smd): What is your history working with paper? hong hong (hh): I was initially drawn to paper because it is a material that holds our stories and myths. For this reason, paper seemed to be very human to me. My first experiences involved using it as a substrate for processes such as painting or drawing. In graduate school, I saw sculptural abaca projects and was immediately drawn to them because of their translucency and form. I was lucky enough to have studied both Eastern and Western papermaking at University of Georgia, where there was a great wet studio and an even greater teacher, Eileen Wallace. susan mackin dolan (smd): How does paper fit into your art practice? hh: I am an interdisciplinary artist who works in sculpture, installation, and performance, where papermaking is simply one means of inquiry. However, learning to make paper is the single most formative experience I have had as an artist. It reminds me to pay attention, to persist, and to leave preconceptions at the door of my studio. My relationship with form, material, process, and even concept had been linear. After making paper, this perspective shifted. How much of our perceptual process is conditioned? In some ways, the aesthetics that we observe are the aesthetics that we choose to build for ourselves. As children, we spend great amounts of time trying to see each thing for what we did not think it was. But, as adults, we spend most of our time trying to use each thing to gain something we do not have. Somewhere during this process, paper becomes 8. x 11 inches and you buy it from Staples because you need to print out your r.sum.. In my practice and in my work, I try to remain a child, and I attempt to investigate things for what they could be. To me, it's not the object itself that's beautiful; the wonder lives in what the object is yet not. That is, rather than the vase, I want to see the shape of the water that the vase holds. smd: Could you elaborate on how the themes of Evidence and Forensics relate to your exploration of paper as a record of its surroundings and as an artifact of its creation? hh: My studio practice is a physical and philosophical engagement with the concept of time. I look at the passage of time as an experience of change from multiple perspectives. The perspective of a person expecting to live a single life, or the perspective of a location that has changed from the bottom of a sea to a desert. The perspective of an event, such as a murmuration of birds that lasts a few seconds, or the perspective of a process that only exists long enough to reach its own completion, such as papermaking. Nearly every aspect of our world is simply a manifestation of time. The things that I can observe and the things that I can only imagine, become repetitions that are everlasting and ever-changing. It is within this contradiction that I explore and create different projects. I let go of much control when I pour large-scale paper outside. Each 12 x 8-foot sheet sometimes sits at a location for days at a time. It records two-dimensionally changes in its surroundings, such as the effects of gravity, weather, and the viscosity of water. It continually reflects these fluctuations and illustrates the cumulative interactions between them. The work transforms infinitely, from wet to dry, as its environment changes. Boundaries between site and object blur. In a way, each sheet of paper is a photographic still, or a script of unfolding events and processes that only exist temporarily. They capture something that is ultimately unknowable about one's experience of a place and of a particular moment in time. I view site-specific, large-scale papermaking as a performative act, where each project is an artifact of labor and time. For example, as I work I can feel the heaviness in my arms and the roughness of the ground biting into my knees. I begin to pay attention to the experience of time from the perspective of my own physical body. The paper is impacted by the passage of time in a similar manner. I hand color kozo with fiber-reactive dyes, which fade from contact with sunlight. As each sheet of paper dries outdoors and as it inhabits various exhibition spaces, they slowly desaturate. Eventually, the faded paper is reused and recycled in future pieces. At that moment, it ceases to exist as it once was. I am fascinated by forms that dwell in a perpetual state of becoming and disappearance. My practice is motivated by aesthetic experiences that have their own life spans. Within this context, each gesture, each movement, and each iteration of the work become abstract temporal measurements, similar to a breath, the swing of a pendulum, or the position of the moon in the night sky. smd: How did you end up inventing this large-scale pour technique? hh: As a graduate student at University of Georgia, I dreamt that one day I would drive across the country and make paper in deserts and on top of glaciers. What can happen, and what becomes possible when one is on the road with no access to a hydraulic press or a Hollander beater? I wanted to create a viable means of large-scale paper production, where one isn't limited by stationary equipment. With the help of my partner, I built the first modular mould in 2014 and the second one in 2016. The technique grew organically as I learned how to use the modular mould and began to understand the scale at which I worked and the different environments in which I worked. Making paper inside a studio is a vastly different experience from pouring paper outdoors on a 12 by 8-foot surface. My sensibility as a painter came into play, along with my interest in site-specific performance. The method is a memory or a library of previous gestures and movements, which re-calibrates every time I make paper. In short, the technique I use is an amalgamation of what came before it. smd: Tell us about your recent solo show of large-scale paper pieces at Five Points Gallery in Torrington, Connecticut. hh: Waiting to Catch the Sun is a collection of paperworks I made be tween 2014 and 2017, using the modular mould and the large-scale pour technique. The title of each piece in this exhibition corresponds to the longitude and latitude of the site where the paper was constructed. The palette references the sea and the sky, as well as the horizon line where they meet. The horizon is an interesting place. What, after all, is a horizon? Where does the horizon exist? Does the sea lap the sky? Maybe it only does in our dreams. One can argue that the horizon is simultaneously present and absent. It is a constant, and yet, with every passing moment, it changes. I am interested in the natural expanses that we yearn for, as well as the human desire to migrate to them, experience them, map them, and with our best efforts, record them. Through the sky, through the sea, through the stars, and through land, we seek and find our own coordinates.