Interdependence & Emergence: Eva Kwong at ARTneo

Eva Kwong, Morphology of Microbes, 2023

Eva Kwong has been captivated by the invisible proliferation of microbes since she was five years old. About once a month, her mother would disinfect Eva and her four siblings by popping them into a bathtub full of Dettol (a disinfectant with international popularity) where they would play all afternoon.

“My mother thought this was a miracle product—the kitchen, the toilet, the kids—and when I asked her why we were taking a bath in it, where were the germs, she said, ‘Oh, they are invisible!’ That answer attracted my imagination and has been in my mind for decades.”

Kwong’s interest in microbes—bacteria, diatoms, cells—rests in their interrelationships and concepts of same and not the same. She notes that humans share most of the same genetic information but are not identical. “Since childhood, I’ve had an affinity for imagined germs. The more I find out about them, the more intriguing they are to me. They’ve been on this earth longer than us and they are part of us. We are embedded in them and they are embedded in us, evolving symbiotically. We are made out of component parts, just like my sculpture is.”

Eva Kwong, Iceberg / Embedded Microbes, 2023.

Kwong is a sculptor working primarily in ceramics since the 1970s, with awards and fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and the McKnight Foundation, among others. She has taught extensively as a visiting artist across the country, from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, to Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her installations have appeared in hospitals, airports, and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In February 2023, Kwong was in residence for five weeks at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado, where she worked with 3D printing. “I’ve given myself an assignment every year since I finished grad school in the ′70s to grow and to push myself: and that is to learn one new thing. 3D printing is technically challenging for me—I tend to be more intuitive—and having to learn a new process and materials is very beneficial to me.”

Kwong learned to work with PLA, polylactic acid, a common material used in desktop 3D printing. It’s a biopolymer made from biodegradable waste from corn, sugarcane, and sugar beets which is easy to use, inexpensive, readily available, and renewable. During printing, it gives off a sweet smell.

Kwong had tried out 3D printers during a one-week residency in 2021; this go-round, she had time to develop ideas and use the printer to create complex forms. She often tracked her progress by taking screen shots of the computer drawings, to record the steps needed to design each piece separately and then combine them to create one form.

And while the medium was new, her subject was her old friend, the microbe. “Bacteria are so old; they’ve been around longer than us. For EM 3, I combined a rock shape with a microbe shape, something which I’ve thought about for many years, to combine microbes with bits of the geographic landscape. It looks like a T-Rex biting a ball and made me chuckle.”

EM 4 is more complicated, with more elements pushing through the several surface planes. As Kwong worked on this series, she discovered surprises almost every day. “I work mostly intuitively, and as I work, I discover things by asking, ‘Can I do this? Can I enlarge this, can I distort this, can I flip it over?’”

New surprises were balanced by Kwong’s constant love of the ball shape with protrusions and texture. She’s been fascinated with the pin pattern on a curved surface and has made hundreds, maybe thousands, of such shapes since the 1980s. While investigating the abilities of the 3D printer, another artist at Anderson suggested using Autodesk Meshmixer (versus Rhino) to test out the patterning on the surface of the bumps before combining with the larger shape of the piece. It worked. “And part of the working process is that as you work, you discover new work.”

But some surprises didn’t work out. Kwong laughs, saying that she kept all her 3D failures—and her “mistakes” just about filled the boxes that the PLA material came in. “We need to rethink our attitude toward failure. Experiment may be a better term for it. I have a higher tolerance for failure than most people. It’s an advantage. Students are afraid to try new things because it won’t come out [right]. That’s a self-limiting behavior.”

Like her love of microbes, Kwong’s artistic resiliency has its roots in childhood. She and her siblings were close in age, and summertime would sometimes get kind of rowdy. To maintain order, her grandmother sat all the kids around the dining room table and encouraged them to try to make things from newspaper, like a dog. When their dog constructions didn’t work out, her grandmother would suggest making a boat. When that fell apart, she’d tell them to try again tomorrow. “The lesson was to not get mad if something didn’t work out, just redo it. I know if I redo it, something will come out of it. In the studio, I sometimes redo something hundreds of times, because I know that something eventually will come out.”

Kwong’s work attracted ARTneo’s attention during the 2022 CAN Triennial, when the organization chose her for the CAN Triennial Exhibition Prize. “Her work looks like a funky little virus or bacteria as seen through an electron microscope,” says one of ARTneo’s board vice presidents, Jon Logan. “I really appreciate the organic nature of her work. It’s not little bowls and pots; her work is there for the sake of being an object to be observed.”

For her show at ARTneo, Kwong’s new work looks at interdependence and emergence. It features work produced while at Anderson, and may include work created during a residency at Stanford this May (this story was published before that residency occurred). The show’s title, Emergence, came after Kwong asked herself “do I even know what the definition of emergence is?” which led her to discover a whole new world of emergence, from the dictionary definition to readings in philosophy, religion, and writings on the natural world.

“I am intrigued by all kinds of things. Discovering one thing always leads to another for me, and I don’t always know where that will lead me to.”

Kwong describes her upcoming show as a party with old and new friends: different configurations of familiar shapes, old themes rendered in a new medium. “I think of them as a metaphor for all of us. We are all unique but share the same genetic materials, feelings, and desires. It’s a way to talk about myself and us.”

ARTneo is located at 1305 West 80th Street, Suite 016, Cleveland, Ohio 44102. Hours are 11 am to 6 pm on Wednesday through Saturday, and 11 am to 9 pm on the third Fridays of the month.