Mie Kongo

I have been exploring diversity in materials by using porcelain, stoneware, earthenware, glazes, 100% wool felt, silk & cotton, wood, plastic/3d printed objects, Plexiglas, rendering foam, latex & acrylic paint, found furniture, etc. Each building element, derived from logic or chance, is assembled into geometric abstract compositions that recall the early stages of an architectural model or primordial architectonic structures. What I am interested in the ideation stage of models is their potentiality; it can be something and anything.

While I investigate sculptural relationships of volume, surface, balance and tension, I contemplate the notions of natural balance, the unification of opposites and the interdependence of all things. What I look for is coincidences/bumps between the elements that create meaningful impact or relations, and I wait for the moment when the work appears to have become a self- contained unit of meaning that is open to multiple interpretations.

End of the rainbow (Untitled),  2018. Porcelain, wood, wool felt, bronze, 8 x 11 x 2 inches

End of the rainbow (Untitled), 2018. Porcelain, wood, wool felt, bronze, 8 x 11 x 2 inches

Interview with Mie Kongo

Questions by Andreana Donahue

Hi Mie. What are your most important memories of being exposed to art or art-making while growing up in the outskirts of Tokyo? Are there other makers in your family?

My father is a Buddhist priest and I grew up in the Buddhist temple. (Living quarter is located right next to the temple in the same property.) I lived there until I was 21 years old and my parents still live in the temple. I grew up seeing traditional architecture and landscape, traditional and historic objects, and religious objects and paintings and so on. I have a mother who used to be a high school sewing teacher. I had an aunt who was a knitting teacher and another aunt who was a calligraphy teacher. Both aunts used to live very close to us. All those women has/had exceptional hand skills and they are very influential to me.

Why were you initially attracted to working with clay? Was the prevalence of ceramics for domestic and ceremonial use in Japan a prominent factor in this?
It’s true that ceramics are everywhere in Japan and highly regarded. I always liked ceramics. While I was studying Art History as undergrad, I took a ceramics class as an elective and that was the very beginning. Sounds cliché, but honestly, I simply fell in love with clay.

You’ve been based in Chicago for many years. What are the benefits of living and working in this community as an artist?
Inspirations and influences. There are many artists, great artists in Chicago. There are always good shows happening in town at galleries and museums. In Chicago, there are many artists-run/alternative galleries and I think that they highly contribute to the art scene here.

Do you have favorite collections, archives, or resources for source material that you have access to in Chicago?
Not that I can think of..

Can you talk about some artists and designers who have influenced your work?
Sol Lewitt, who inspired me to work with system and order, and randomness and chance. Richard Rezac, whose aesthetic and philosophy of life and work that I admire so much of.  Gabriel Orozco, whose sense of humor and uniqueness of his work that I admire of, and I was also inspired by how he perceives beauty in banal.

How do you generate ideas when you’re starting new work? Can you talk about your overall creative process?
I usually have a material, a method, found objects or something that I am interested in at the moment. For example, it was metal last year. I learned how to cut the sheet metal, bend and polish, etc. I made many components with sheet metals such as copper, bronze and brass without having specific plan of how to use them in my work first. Then, I sort of treat the object as a starting/focal point to make a work off of. It’s like, adding more components to the focal object to build a piece. I also have a (hidden) theme each time I develop a group of work. Last one was “arch.”

Can you tell us about your current studio? What is your routine like on a typical day?
About a year ago, I moved my studio to the basement of my house, and it has been great. I can work anytime I want and as long as I want. I go down there first thing in the morning to see what I did the night before with a cup of coffee in my hand and I am still in pj and robe. Also, I can go back to work after dinner like 8pm and work until I get really tired and go to bed. I don’t really have routine right now. This semester I am teaching a Glaze chemistry class and I have a lot of prep work for the class. I usually divide my day like, I spend morning in the studio and afternoon on my laptop for school stuff, then, go back to studio after dinner for a few hours or something like that.

In addition to ceramics, your work incorporates other media such as wood, plexiglass, wool felt, rendering foam, and 3D printed objects. What is the significance of the materials you choose?
Significance of different materials is to have opposites, new and old, natural and synthetic, digital and analog, hard and soft, etc. But I want to assemble all the components in a way that at first glance, you don’t really notice the contrast. Combining different materials together to create a new relationship and meaning as a whole has been my main interest. 

When someone asks me this question, I explain my intention using examples of Kanji/Chinese character. Kanji is made of multiple components. Kanjis are pictorial – they are derived from what things look like. When there is only one character of tree, it means tree. But when three characters of tree are put together, it means a forest. When a character of person is combined with a character of tree, it means “rest.”

You create small-scale, abstract sculptures by placing many small objects into a unified arrangement. How do logic and chance function in the planning stage of your process? Once you decide on a configuration, do you see it as permanently fixed for the piece’s lifespan or are you open to reconfiguring components in the future?
The logic that I use in my work is the dimension of the porcelain blocks. They are usually 2” or 4” wide and 4”, 6” or 8” long. I stick with the dimension. When I use other materials like wood, plexiglass, I cut them to match to my porcelain blocks. But when I use objects that I found by chance, I accept and incorporate them as is, I want to respond to the object.

Once I decided that the piece is finished, it’s permanent. But sometimes it takes long time to become permanent or completed. For example, I assembled a piece and kept it on the wall and keep changing parts for a few months. A few months later, more components have been added, or a few things have been eliminated/replaced, and it has become a completely different piece. But I became much happier with how it turned out, and I can finally say that it’s finished. This happens often to pieces that I am not-so-sure initially. It sometimes takes long time, but I really like the moment when my least favorite piece become my most favorite piece.

Work from your ongoing Unknown Game Series has been exhibited at various spaces, including 4th Ward Project Space and Devening Projects. Can you talk about the inspirations behind this series and how it has evolved over time?
Years ago, I came across the magazine article of SANAA, Japanese architect duo, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryuei Nishizawa. It was about one of their projects, New Museum in New York City.  There was a picture of their very early model for the museum and it looked like just a clunky stacked copy-paper boxes. I learned that those early models are called “concept models” and I started looking at other people’s concept models and I was fascinated by them. I am interested in concept models, but what I am really interested in is their potentiality; it can be something and anything. Just by shift in scale, it could be a toy, it could be an abstract sculpture, it could be furniture, it could be a real building.

Initially I was making small sculptures only with porcelain blocks, then, soon I hit the wall. My previous studio was much smaller and always messy. One day when I saw my porcelain blocks sitting on a broken piece of pink foam or painted wood, or old broken furniture, I got a hint.

Freeing myself from limiting to clay/ceramics and being open to other new materials really helped me develop the group of work. I feel like I am learning new language and it has been really exciting. When I worked with metal, I felt like I know nothing, and I felt insecure but excited simultaneously. I like challenges and new discoveries. New discoveries usually tell me where to go next.

You say that “to play” and “be playful” are serious activities for you. Can you elaborate on this and the element of play in your work?
I am inspired by the philosophy of “Kindergarten” by Friedrich Froebel. Froebel believes play as a primary way of learning for young children. “The aim of these plays(games) is to exercise and develop the child’s power of independent movement. They are journeys of discovery. They are plays which enrich the child with perceptions and experiences.” (I took these sentences from this website.)

I have a tendency to be and think way too serious about my work sometimes and I try to remind myself to be more playful and relaxed, and most importantly enjoy what I do in the studio. Making art work is a serious activity but I try to be playful and act like playing with my components to build something and discover something new like children do.

Occasionally a sculpture might be placed on a piece of furniture (a chair or stool for instance). Can you talk about this decision and your general approach to installing exhibitions?
I think combining a real size object/chair and model sized architecture, it could bring out the visual confusion to the work. The chair is usually inside of the architecture, but the architecture is sitting on top of/inside of the chair. Porcelain is traditionally and historically used for table ware, but it is used in a form of architecture sitting on the dinning chair. It is my attempt to complicate domesticity.

You have extensive experience as a production potter, utilizing industrial equipment and processes. Does your sculptural work have any connection to this background?
No. But the knowledge and skills that I had gained through production pottery making probably reflect on my work indirectly.

You talk about drawing upon muscle memory for the repetitive actions necessary in mass production. Do you find yourself using this in your studio practice? If not, how is the physical process of working with clay different?
I don’t use a wheel to mass produce objects any more. But I make all the molds and use slip-casting method to mass produce porcelain objects. Casting the same quality objects requires repetitive action with care and attention as well. For example, mixing the same viscosity of porcelain slip each time, timing of casting to create same thickness of the wall each time, how and when to flip molds to drain the excess slip out, when to flip the pieces to dry evenly, etc. I try my best to make each porcelain block as same quality as possible.

How does the use of technology like 3D modeling software and CNC routers relate to your desire to marry industry and the handmade?
Rapid prototyping process and ability to design more complex forms. With advanced technology, I can design something on laptop, and I can see the physical model the next day. If I was chiseling a plaster mass, it would take exceedingly longer. With Rhino, I can design a form which would be very difficult and/or time-consuming to make with hands, and I can simply 3d print or CNC the prototype the next day. 

You’ve been a professor in the Department of Ceramics at SAIC for the past ten years. How has your position as an educator guided your career as an artist (or vice versa)? How do you maintain a consistent studio routine while you’re teaching?
Teaching makes me a better person and a better artist. Studio practice can be a lonely activity and it is important for me to be in the community and to interact with students and colleagues to stay stimulated. During semesters, my attention to my art work is divided. During summer and winter breaks, I can give more undivided attention to my work.  

Since 2014 you’ve been teaching an interdisciplinary Ceramics + Architecture course, the main focus of which is to re-invent bricks and tiles with advanced digital technology. For this, you conducted a lot of research on historic and contemporary brick buildings. How has this influenced your current body of work?
I went to EKWC (European Keramic work center) in Holland to do a 3-month residency in 2011. At the center, I was introduced to CAD CAM. (computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing) I came back to Chicago and took classes to learn 3d modeling software, Rhino and CNC milling machine. I spent a few years just exploring the possibilities with advanced technology and I produced small porcelain objects such as vases and boxes. After a few years, I missed the action of building. I wanted to go back to the action of building and that was when I was conducting the research for ceramics + architecture class. I was simply inspired by brick buildings that were built with simple rectangle bricks. I also learned that there are many different kinds of bricks, decorative bricks that have unique profile shapes. But the individual unique shapes are usually hidden because they are supposed to make different shapes when aggregated. That kind of discoveries really inspired me to start the body of work since 2014.

Who are some contemporary artists also working with clay that you’re excited about?
I love and collect contemporary Japanese ceramics, especially table wares. I am drawn to the pottery that the beauty of the materials was brought out to shine; the pottery is about materials, not so much about personal expression or embellishment.

What have you been reading, listening to, or watching recently?
I have been reading ceramics history books and glaze books!

What are you working on right now? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, residencies, lectures, or other news you’d like to share?
I have a solo show coming up in May at Experimental Sounds Studio in Chicago. I will have a show in their art gallery space and Norman W. Long will be having a solo performance in the sound studio next to the gallery. Norman is a sound artist and composer in Chicago. He often conducts sound walks and listens to and collects all the sounds in the environment. Then, he synthesizes what he has collected to make his own sound piece. In a way, we work in the similar manner - we collect and assemble to make work. Norman has been commissioned to create a sound work in response to my practice. This show “Without Within” is curated by Ruth Hodgins of Roman Susan Gallery in Chicago.

To find out more about Mie and her work check out her website.