Sep 20 2019

Transformative Bodies: deSAR 2019

by Cassie K. Liu

WING PO SO during her residency at de Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong, 2019. All images courtesy the artist and de Sarthe Gallery.

Over the past six weeks, Wing Po So filled de Sarthe Gallery with bushels of dried corn silk, fossil-like dried corncobs, and golden kernels—common ingredients in Chinese medicine—suffusing the space with their earthy, musky aromas. Inspired by the materiality of the humble vegetable, So crafted a body of work using these items during her time at the third annual de Sarthe Artist Residency (deSAR). Over the course of her open studio residency, visitors witnessed the artist’s project gradually come to fruition, culminating in the solo exhibition “From the Body to the Body Through the Body.”

During our conversation at the exhibition opening, So recounted how she first picked up an interest in corn as a medicinal ingredient. As a child, she used to observe how her mother, a Chinese medicine practitioner, would transform mundane materials into wound-treating salves, taking extra care to preserve corncobs left over at the dinner table. Years later, So began researching this plant and considering its artistic applications in her practice. The long, slender stalk of corn silk is the style, which functions to transmit male gametes to the egg cells. Taking as a departure point corn silk as a symbol of fertilization, So’s project reflects her own thinking about the power of nature and the vitality of life forms that appear simple to humans. 

Installation view of WING PO SO’s From the Body to the Body Through the Body, 2019, corn silk, thread, iron, sound, motors, 6.3 × 11.7 × 3.78 m, at “From the Body to the Body Through the Body,” de Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong, 2019.

The centerpiece of So’s show was From the Body to the Body Through the Body (all works 2019), a monumental installation of a cocoon made of corn silk twined around a metal skeleton. By laboriously untangling, assembling, and reconfiguring reams of corn silk, So sought to transform this ingredient into an alternative body, transfusing the strength of one life form into another. Tall enough for visitors to walk through its tunnel-like interior, the cocoon evokes a mythical, tribal dwelling at first glance. Yet a closer look reveals the subtle movements caused by embedded motors. Through the incorporation of electronic components, the seemingly ancient structure is endowed with a posthuman, cyborg aesthetic, bridging the prehistoric and the futuristic. Inside the cocoon, viewers can sit on the floor, watching the ambient light casting ever-changing shadows through gaps on the corn-silk walls. The ingredient’s pungent smell floods the hollow cocoon, while thunderous beats—So’s distorted recordings from Chinese medicine workshops—resound from below the floor. These visual, mechanical, and aural elements seem to invoke a living creature—it “breathes” in and out to the rhythms of the soundtrack as the mechanical skeleton drives the lumps of corn silk to subtly shift positions.

WING PO SO, Habitat No. 1, 2019, clay, corncob, steel, 82 × 35 × 40 cm.
WING PO SO, Habitat No. 1, 2019, clay, corncob, steel, 82 × 35 × 40 cm.

The other two sections of the show elucidated the origins of So’s fantastical maize-based world. Near the gallery entrance were clay sculptures entitled Habitat No. 1, 2, and 3. Each of these misshapen lumps features several small cavities. Peering into them, one can make out rows of strange, round imprints, recalling prehistoric fossils, or traces of “alien” life; in actuality, they are the silhouettes of corncobs. Fired together, the corncobs disintegrated completely while the soft clay gained a stone-like texture, cleverly constructing a fake archeological site. The process of fabricating these objects, for all to see during the open studio, raises questions about authenticity, and the creation and validation of existing knowledge. By revealing the construction of these fake remnants of a seemingly lost civilization, So seems to challenge the inherent anthropocentricism of archaeological, historical, and scientific investigation.

The collapsing of human-nonhuman divisions was further elaborated in the three plaster compositions, hung on the gallery’s back wall, that represent an abstract, poetic documentation of the material processes behind So’s body of work. Entitled Changing States – Phase 1and 3, each of the frames features a thick layer of plaster, on which So had carved out lines and dots. The patterns recall images of cell division, with the chaotic tangle in Phase 1 enlarged in and replicated to form separate bodies in 3. Together, these works allude not only to the artist’s transformation of her materials, but also to life cycles more generally.

WING PO SO, Changing States – Phase 1, 2019, plaster on wood, 170 × 122 cm.

WING PO SO, Changing States – Phase 2, 2019, plaster on wood, 170 × 122 cm.

WING PO SO, Changing States – Phase 3, 2019, plaster on wood, 170 × 122 cm.

“From the Body to the Body Through the Body” was a thoughtful, inventive examination of the hidden facets of humble materials. Experimenting with scale and medium, So challenges anthropocentric perspectives, highlighting the fascination one can find in the ordinary and nonhuman. 

Wing Po So’s “From the Body to the Body Through the Body” is on view at de Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong, until September 21, 2019.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.