Essay: “Holes are an interesting case study…”

Holes are an interesting case study for ontologists and epistemologists. Naive, oversimple descriptions of the world treat holes as objects of reference, on par with ordinary material objects (e.g., “There are as many holes in the cheese as there are cookies in the tin.”), and we often invoke holes to explain causal interactions or occurrences (e.g., “The water ran out because of the hole in the bucket.”). Holes are ontologically parasitic: they are always in or through something else, cannot be detached from their hosts, and are somehow liable for mishaps. They are fillable yet immaterial: located in–but not identical to–regions of space.


Making and featuring holes are an even more interesting subject. Applying different processes, such as excavating, drilling, or mining, add a violent component to a concept, rooted in philosophy and physics, that is already fragile and ephemeral.


The hole is a recurrent visual element in the works by Chinese artist Mo Kong. As one of the most adroit observers of China’s industrialized, globalized, and heavily censored condition, Mo Kong investigates, with uncommon precision, the influence of local politics on geology, sociology, and the human psyche in today’s China. Although not all of his works literally involve a hole, they deal with the passage from the spatial to nonspatial, with the unknown depth of the psyche, and with fears and pain inflicted by others.


The video installation “See, Sun, and Think The Shadow” (2016) opens this discourse. A huge video projection draws the viewer into a multilayered story that addresses, in very different ways, the same aspect: China’s cruel mining industry and its disastrous impact on the human psyche, symbolized by the hole. A digital collage of existing footage, video animations, sounds, and symbols from our social media culture merges with a dream-like carousel of fictional and nonfictional data. The visual experience is akin to a sweet nightmare. The visual and audio components, including emojis, video game sound effects, and a digital voice assistant, combine into an awkward story where the conveyed destruction of nature becomes an emotionally tangible topic.

Video ‘Sea, Sun and Think the Shadow’, 2016 (click to play)

The artist excels at drawing subtle parallels between American and Chinese cultures and politics. In setting the video to a famous American pop song (“Sweet Dreams” by Beyonce) he finds a way to critique, quite sarcastically, the corruption and censorship of the Chinese government, maintained with the undeniable support of the United States. Because dreams are like virtual realities, the computer game-like environment is particularly apt: you can get killed a hundred times and yet wake up alive. At some point, Beyonce sings, “You can be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare / Either way, I don’t wanna wake up from you,” while Kong’s video overlays the making of a lead sculpture, a face recognition software, and a recording of his own use of smartphone activities in which his face slowly sinks into the oblivion of a hole. Until a digital voice assistant pulls us back to reality.

In the footsteps of Hito Steyerl’s films, Kong combines new scientific information with the entertaining nature of emojis and digital technologies to offer insight into a frightening reality. The psychological imbalance is at its highest peak in both the work and the viewer. “The constant mining process, landscape destruction, and sinkholes everywhere brought me to think about the symbolism of holes and the meaning of filling holes, gaps, and mental/physical cracks. My works are a miniature of personal and emotional reaction to both the real and the virtual world. They project the abuse of land, corruption, the government’s censorship, and environmental pollution in my personal life,” states Kong.


Steyerl articulates how the internet, digital technologies, and images are transforming life, work, and politics. Kong uses those same tools of technology to create metaphors that tell truth otherwise censored. Thanks to a creative use of technology and digital images and the use of a contemporary, entertaining, almost pornographic language, his works brutally yet engagingly denounce how Chinese politics transform and negatively change everyday life. His masterful use of image montage echoes the forms of communication and pace of the digital age: fast, empty, and direct. His video works communicate with the visual excitement so typical of our Western society.


China and the United States regard each other as potential adversaries as well as economic partners, and their relationship has been described as the world’s most important of the century. Both share political, economic, and security interests; both exist in an economic co-dependency. To maintain that exchange, China exploits its land and people. Various forms of pollution have increased as China has industrialized, causing widespread environmental and health problems. Corruption, censorship, and violation of human rights don’t merely sustain this machine, they make it possible.


These ideas feed the large-scale installations Kong creates. The works resemble the internet: rather than disconnected works of art, the pieces form an environment where they communicate and feed off of each other. An emblematic example is “Please be the World You Promised to Be,” a sculptural installation in which literal references to the mining process and earth pollution overlap with direct allusions to censorship and corrupt journalism. Long text runs along the walls and slogan-like words are trapped in long Plexiglas tubes. They fill the exhibition space with keywords that refer directly to the damage to the ecological system as well as to the social drama inflicted by a government that doesn’t care about its citizens. Kong draws these words from extensive research of governmental documents, interviews, and censored articles in order to confront the audience with a reality that doesn’t fully leak into our everyday life.


A number of shelves are installed in the corners of the space. The grain texture of the wood looks like a topographic map, with coal dust, natural stones, printed letters, and human remains (like teeth) deliberately arranged on top. This fictional setting creates an eerie and alienating atmosphere. Words and sentences are spread out in an apparently accidental way and look like chopped text messages. The arrangement of the shelves creates shadows that emphasize or hide specific topics, not unlike censored media. Emotionally loaded words, like “family,” “miss you,” and “crying,” are juxtaposed with words of formal communication, like “confirmed,” “further investigation,” and “mining accident.” Text and “landscape,” broken up at strategic points, function as both signifiers and metaphors for social issues and emotional trauma. By using symbols from social media, like hashtags and “@” signs, Kong draws attention to both the encryption and dissemination of information by activists through social platforms and the growing emotional gap between technology and reality. Censorship is heavy, but creative ways exist for spreading information. At the same time, digital communication remains a very limited and beautified experience.


The 360-degree application of the text around the walls of the gallery creates an arena for other installations to play with each other and complete the discourse. The free-standing sculpture “I Am Your Marble,” for example, dominates the center of the room like a heavy ship in the ocean. Its layers of colored marble, dripping black oil, and images of the sea clearly critique pollution, “leaking” information systems, and the suffocation of flora and fauna, including human beings.

The West has grown into a society in which information, and often personal data, is unconcernedly made available to everyone—through public websites, social media, subscription-based services, apps, etc.—creating a land of milk and honey for the digital Big Brother. Meanwhile, censorship in China is still extreme due to the belief that a restricted exchange of information might preserve its political system and control over its population, which functions like robots to maintain China’s industry. Amnesty International notes that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world” and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in 2010 and 2012 that “China is the world’s biggest prison for netizens, . This is the opposite of the United States, where personal data “is to the tech world what oil is to the fossil fuel industry.


Words therefore have a different meaning and weight when spoken or published in the U.S. versus in China. Mo Kong elaborates upon this opposition with large-scale drawings that communicate the conflict. “GO-o-d,” a drawing made with coal dust, graphite, pencil, and charcoal, is an example of how art might fill a communication gap that spans the globe. Like in “Please Be the World You Promised to Be,” significant text appears prominently at times, and at other times the letters merge with the background, barely visible. The sentence “The Government Covered the Truth” transforms into GO-o-d, which reads either as God or Good, a subtle allusion to the sad fact that neither God nor anything good can help to uncover the truth and make life better again.


“Heart Broken in the Deepest Room” works with the same omission of letterforms in order to allude to a political and social discourse. Created with the same emblematic materials (coal dust, charcoal, graphite), the words (e.g, “life,” “power,” “justice,” “safety,” “family,” “last”) appear out of nothing and disappear into oblivion, like a dream that leaves a powerful imprint in our memory.


The concept culminates in “Die Prematurely,” a drawing of similar nature but without any text. The reproduction of an old parquet floor shows crumbling wood panels and the gaps in between. It conveys the same dark but magnetic atmosphere of his other works and draws the viewer into the unknown. The verticality and the total lack of words emphasize the empty spaces and go back to Kong’s core element, the hole. As mentioned earlier, a hole has a relational nature and cannot exist without its host—in this case, the deteriorating parquet floor: the slats cover the truth, but the holes let it leak.


The holes in Kong’s works only exist due to the exploitation of the landscape. At the same time, they are physical signs and symbols of the illness of the situation. To a broader extend, Kong’s practice works with the same relational nature, born out of the need to critique and find an alternative to censorship. Amidst the apparent emptiness, the holes are all loaded with invaluable information.


This essay appears in the exhibition catalog of ‘Mo Kong: Please Be The World You Promised To Be’ on view at Galleria Artericambi Verona (Italy). Please email me for a free PDF copy.