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The tenth edition of EXPO is upon us, and since its reinvention at Navy Pier, I’ve covered nine of them. I love EXPO; it’s the art equivalent of binge-watching the entire first season of Yellowjackets in a single day. It’s funny, scary, disgusting, uplifting, and shamelessly melodramatic. And like ten hours of your life hazily squandered on the couch, after a decade, most of it just blurs together.

The exception is always Exposure: a curated selection of young or up-and-coming galleries that, in contrast to the “art store” feel that pervades most of Festival Hall, feature concentrated displays of one or two artists in their stable. This year, the city’s own 65GRAND has been included in the lineup and will showcase the works of artist Gina Hunt and one of my favorites, Mie Kongo.

Kongo, who grew up in the outskirts of Tokyo, came to Chicago in 1992. Her sculptures are a multifarious assortment of contrasting materials that radiate clarity, balance, and intentionality. Modest in scale and finely surfaced, they invite close contemplation and kinesthetic provocation. These are works you want to touch—but please don’t.

Playfully ambiguous, many of these wall-mounted modules of porcelain and wood, felt and foam assume the visual character of objects that have the potential to be “useful,” although to what end remains an intriguing mystery. In anticipation of the show, I reached out to the enigmatic Kongo to get some insight into her work and process.

Quarter Ovals, a wall-hung sculpture by Kongo will be on view at EXPO Chicago.
Credit: Holly Murkerson

Alan Pocaro: How did you find your way to the Chicago area?

Mie Kongo: I left Tokyo about 30 years ago because I wanted to experience something different and new and be more adventurous. But I also wanted to get away from the crowded and complicated city of Tokyo. I thought Chicago’s size was not too small, not too big, and seemingly much more manageable for me.

Have you found the city to be a nurturing environment as an artist? How has place affected the growth and trajectory of your work?

I don’t think I would have become an artist if I hadn’t left my own country. Or if I hadn’t moved to a city where there was a great art school, like the School of the Art Institute. I would have been doing something completely different now. And while I didn’t come to Chicago to study art, I did find my curiosity about it in Chicago.

Leaving Japan gave me the opportunity to look at my own country and culture from outside and to appreciate where I came from. So over the years and through making art, I have become more cognizant of my own roots and what my upbringing in Japan has instilled in me. I don’t know that I could have found that perspective, so crucial to me as an artist, if I were still living in Japan.

Kongo’s sculptures are a multifarious assortment of contrasting materials that radiate clarity, balance, and intentionality.
Credit: Holly Murkerson

Speaking of your past, I know you have a background in production pottery, can you talk about how that experience informs your approach to your work?

I worked as a production potter for many years while also making pottery as my own work. This experience taught me a lot about clay—how to handle it, its properties and materiality, its tradition, and the history of ceramics making. The repetitive work suited me, and I would wake up in the morning excited about going to work.

I learned a lot about form from making pottery, looking at Japanese pottery, and thinking about pottery. When I was making it, I was constantly asking myself questions like: What is a good form? What is a good proportion? How do you finish to bring out the best of the materiality of the clay? And today I am still asking these same or similar questions while I am making my mixed-media sculptures.

There is an incredibly graceful, collage-like quality to your sculptures. How do you select your materials, and what qualities call out to you?

I source wood from my friend’s woodshop and my husband’s farm in Indiana. I look for scraps, odds and ends, and discarded and unwanted items.

I am interested in ambiguous, irregular, organic, and odd shapes that were made naturally, by accident or as a by-product—but certainly not by me. That’s one way for me to bring the elements of chance, coincidence, and unexpectedness into my work.

I seek to uncover and communicate intrigue. The materiality of the “stuff” I use in—and its combinations—essentially intrigues me.

Kongo sources irregularly-shaped odds and ends as materials, allowing the element of chance to enter the work.
Credit: Holly Murkerson

After you’ve gathered your materials, what’s next? At what point do you sense that a composition is resolved?

When I have a focal item, the act of building begins. I start a work with all kinds of maquette components in my studio, often using cardboard. Then with the maquette, I experiment with scale, proportion, texture, color, etc., before moving on to making the actual components with the actual materials.

One problem, though, is that I keep changing my mind, so I always have a lot of works in progress in my studio. I use Rhino 3D-modeling software and Photoshop frequently to figure things out in drawings and photos when I’m having difficulty solving problems.

Creating formal and color relationships within the work is essential. And I also add components to serve certain purposes, like hiding something, or adding actual and visual weight. Each component has to be designed to work both functionally and aesthetically.

My gut tells me when a work is finished. Sometimes it takes a day, and sometimes it takes months. It’s an intuitive process, but it does have some internal logic. When the work is completed, it has to make sense to me. It’s like when a sentence is complete, it just makes sense. I make sure there’s no excess, unless deliberate; if an element is not doing anything or not relating to anything within the work, it should not be there.

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