Lament (detail), ceramic installation by Eva Kwong.


RIAN BROWN-ORSO:  I love your sculpture because it gives me this visceral reaction. The Immortal Peaches are luscious creatures, candy-like…they’re like poisonous mushrooms or frogs. You want to touch them and put them in your mouth, but you know they’re dangerous.

EVA KWONG:  The fact that you want to touch it is what drew me to working with clay: that three-dimensionality, and the tactility of the surface. Much of that is based on my interest in nature. I worked as an undergrad at the Nature Lab [at Rhode Island School of Design]. That shaped how I see the shapes, colors, forms and structures of nature. It also made me realize we’re all part of nature. We’re all the same, but not the same. And we’re all connected to each other.

I was very close to my maternal grandmother, and much of who I am is deeply influenced by her. Even my interest in making things comes from her, because she taught me the wonder of transformation. When my four siblings and I would fight, she would sit us down and make something for us, impromptu—like make a boat out of nearby newspapers. The Immortal Peach series were a tribute to my grandmother. It also celebrates the softness and sensuality of the female body.

Lament started when I went to my grandfather’s funeral, and realized I hardly knew him. I thought, what’s his life story? He was not communicative, and didn’t know us very well, either, which made me consider the kinds of losses we all encounter.

It actually took me eight years to make it, and then it came to me that it would take the form of teardrops, because sometimes, we cry spontaneously. We have these deep feelings within us—loss and grief, as well as that sense of hope and growth that comes with rain and water, and the cycle of life. Yes, we lose people, but we also have the next generation who take us into the future. Bellamy Printz helped me re-title Lament to Growth and Regeneration, Remembrance and Healing.

RBO:  A lot of your pieces are these clusters/arrays of multiples. Some of them move from small to big, like frozen animations—like a snapshot of something that is moving. What’s your relationship with motion?

EK:  My interest is always to give my work a sense of liveliness and motion—within the piece, or in the installations, whether it’s through color or composition.

RBO:  The word animation is to resurrect, or to make something move that is inanimate. So, there’s something spiritual about the idea of animation. And clay is a fluid material; it’s mud and is in constant transition.

EK:  Right. It’s a living material. Clay is interesting to me because it transforms all the time, just like we do. It dries out. It gets wet. It gets hard. It gets soft. But the challenge always is to make the finished piece retain a sense of liveliness.

RBO:  One of your pieces is the blue, cyclical piece called Energy Vibrations and Noetic Energy. What is “noetic”?

EK:  It’s a sense of the spiritual, of the abstract—something that is more mental or psychological. It’s not necessarily physical.

RBO:  It’s not based in the corporeal.

EK:  It’s connected to it because we experience the world through our physical body. But it’s something that we can’t see, but feel, when it’s expressed in film, music, writing, a poem, art, or a conversation. I’m interested in liminal spaces, that we know exist but that are hard to pinpoint exactly.

RBO:  So, you are not from Ohio and neither am I. How does living here matter to you?

EK:  I’ve lived here longer than anyplace else. My children grew up here. Ohio is fairly easy to live in, as it doesn’t intrude into my life that much. I require a good library and an interesting, artistic community that I can interact with. A place where I can do my own work.

I was born in Hong Kong and moved to New York when I was a teenager. Hong Kong is very homogeneous. In New York I was thrown into a totally different, diverse community. I went to public schools where I encountered all kinds of people: many immigrants themselves, or second-generation immigrants.

I think this impacted the way I look at the world. I saw that we all had the same struggles.

A lot of my work deals with looking at our commonality as people, versus the differences.

RBO:  You wrote, “one in many and the many in one.”

EK:  Right. That’s the core of my belief in my artwork: the One of Many and the Many of One. That sense of humanity. We’re all in it together. We all have to deal with the same problems of life and we all want to live, love and be able to survive.

Dig Tac still from The Foreigner’s Home by Rian Brown Orso


EK:  How did your life experience impact your work?

RBO:  My parents are sculptors. I grew up around huge, monumental, physical objects being constructed. But my mode is completely ephemeral and can be carried in mind and memory. I come from a family in which our church was the creative process.

I started out painting, and was always frustrated because in the end it was fixed; it always looked like I needed to make it move. But the leap from painting to film is big, because film is a big apparatus. It’s married to this evil brother called technology that requires money, and grants, and equipment. The whole journey is complex and layered. My recent work is committed to engaging, contaminating, or colliding painting and film.

It came out of some experimenting that I didn’t share with anybody. I was a mad scientist in the back saying, “No one’s going to ever see this because it’s so messy, raw, and so dumb: painting on film frames.” But now it’s become central to the way I think about film as both digital and tactile.

EK:  I love the painterly quality and how it changes the image. You still see the original film images, but you also have these other layers.

RBO:  The last show at the Sculpture Center in Cleveland I called Palimpsest, expressing the duality of a surface, and adding an action on top of it.

We have this extraordinary confidence in the filmed, index image. In fact, it’s also an illusion. The “handed” brushstroke is asking, “Is it true? Is it present? Is it real?” It’s meditative because it’s 24 paintings for one second of time. So you get this extraordinary micro-movement, where you see time broken down into fragments that are barely visible to the eye.

EK:  What does abstraction mean to you?

RBO:  In film, abstraction is often marginalized. Film is usually about characters and narrative. But there’s a tradition of abstraction in experimental film, like Stan Brakhage and other experimental filmmakers I studied, and now teach. Maybe I’m drawn to that kind of work because it is closer to painting. Death of the Moth is an abstract response to the war waged against Iraq. It’s a metaphor for loss—a perpetual state of falling from grace—rather than an image I can pinpoint.

EK:  As a woman and mother, I was also interested in The Presence of Water.

RBO:  It’s—in my mind—the only film I ever made, and everything after is irrelevant. I don’t mean that my other work is fake. But that film was born out of something so raw, real, and primal that I felt like I had done something that made visible that liminal space of becoming someone else, which is what happens when you have a child. For me it was a profound experience of loss of self, and a birth of new self. When I made it, I was so naive that I took risks that now, I would doubt.

I took the raw material to graduate school at UCSD to my gnarly, misogynist, and famous filmmaker professors who said, “There’s no way you can make a film about your pregnancy. You’re too close to it, no one will care, it is too personal, and you have no critical distance.”

So I determined to take what was raw, and cook it. And fight for it. I didn’t think it was only personal; I felt it was universal. Everybody in this world came through some mother and mine was the perspective of the woman, not from the outside.

EK:  Quite a few things in the film resonated with me, including what you said about men.

RBO:  I think you’re referring to the line where I say my husband is not ever going to share blood and oxygen with the child. It’s a harsh way of looking at the loneliness of men, that they don’t ever have that experience. My husband is one who’s about as close as one can get to being empathetic to the experience, but in the end, he will never have shared blood and oxygen.

EK:  This film, and The Foreigner’s Home—these are vital to the conversation today. Who’s the foreigner? Who’s not? We’re all foreigners on this planet, right?

RBO:  I was a foreigner in the film Presence of Water. I was a stranger to myself in a strange land. A transforming body makes you feel like a foreigner. So there’s a personal depiction of foreignness, but then there’s this tragic, ongoing power structure that dictates who is on the outside—by building walls, and creating laws. Ohio has heightened my acute awareness of the United States as a battleground. I’m much more aware of which power structures determine who gets what—who has means and who doesn’t.

EK:  This is true in academia. I’ve taught here for a long time, in many schools. In my professional life, and in academia, certainly, I’ve encountered tremendous discrimination.

RBO:  Toni Morrison says, “Am I a foreigner in my own home?”

EK:  Correct. For example, I taught at my ex-school for longer than many other people and they considered me a foreigner, yet they were newcomers. My family worked on the US railroads and then in the gold mines. They moved back to China because they weren’t allowed to stay. Sometimes people say to me, “How long has your family been here?” I think it’s a question that maybe we should rethink because it further divides us.

RBO:  Yes. It’s dangerous. But it goes back to the role that art can play for me: How can I continue making work that asks tough questions and stays a little bit dangerous? Because I don’t know what else I can do.

EK:  Right. There are a lot of changes that need to happen in this country. When my family moved to New York we had a tremendous sense of hope, a sense of possibility and education. I think that’s why the arts are so important, because they allow us to connect to each other as people, regardless of the categories that are imposed upon us.

RBO:  Absolutely. In The Foreigner’s Home I think that’s what Morrison is trying to say: the artists are the answer. They are the uniters, they break down the barriers, and it’s our role to bridge the divides through making.