Creating Artifice: Between Page and Objet d’Art
by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
“There’s always something new by looking at the same thing over and over again.” That’s what John Updike wrote, and the statement rings incredibly true for me. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to reimagine the sonnet, how many times I’ve used the tulip or peony or frangipani as a trope, how many times I’ve cited some Derridean aphorism, or written something on Celan.
I started out illustrating a lot more than writing, but the text – this goes beyond poetry or even the written tradition to include other media – has always seemed the point from which all my other work came into being. I love the confluence, the way creative energies shift from my work in one medium to my work in another.
I am in the midst of two rather daunting projects this year. They fully obsess me. I need to sculpt ceramic pieces to commemorate the birth centennials of Nobel Laureates William Golding and Naguib Mahfouz. I initially reread Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and moved on to The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, and The Paper Men, in that specific order. I liked coming away from reading them with ideas of them as a continuous, threaded theatre within an unintentional magnum opus. For the Mahfouz piece, I chose his novella The Beggar as the source text from which to sculpt his piece, but then there’s Miramar too. I love the idea of four retellings of a seed story, the counterpointing, the different personal interpretations and revelations, and how all that might translate into my stoneware. I’ve already decided on using carvings as a decorative motif for both pieces – this decision to have incised patterns was definitely influenced by my recent poetry that had me contemplating the kuhi. Maybe some overglaze decoration too. And I’m toying with the idea of using beads, individually hand-painted. Unlike my previous ceramic pieces where the text defined the molding, I’m letting both artforms play off each other, constantly moving between the books and the wheel. Lots of abandon and wastage, of pieces being dropped back into the slip bin.
Sometime back, I discovered this gem of a quote by Jacques Barzun that addresses both artforms: “Convince yourself that you are working in clay not marble, on paper not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands. Just put it down; then another.”
I like the sense of play in that. It reminds me of my favourite children’s book, Richard Scarry’s Just For Fun, published by Golden Press in 1973. It has beautiful illustrations of raccoons, owls and squirrels, inventing games with ordinary objects to occupy their time. I remember begging my siblings to try out the games, which I took very seriously like an instruction manual. We filled the bathtub with water, and made paper boats for it. We turned our double-decker bed into a pirate ship. We made a fire engine out of five chairs, tying rope across the top rail. I love the final page of that book. Down at the bottom, there is a tiny mouse carrying a red toothbrush over his shoulder. His bed has pink sheets, and a red duvet. And beside it is a spool of thread for a bedside table. I told my therapist the mouse looked like Fleiss confiscating one of Freud’s infamous cigars, and to my dentist, the story helped me avoid getting a root canal.
Out of this book grew my love for the miniature. This sensibility had me creating three dollhouse installations in the past. One is titled “Feriae Conceptivae: A Found Poem”, a custom-made doll-sized art gallery replete with parquet flooring and an exhibit wall of magazine covers. There are platters of food everywhere. In the corner is a TV-like clock that I gutted, removing the mechanism. There are no people in it, so that despite the dripping materialism, the whole room comes across terribly cold and alienating. Someone mentioned it was a commentary on the activity of feasting, and how it can turn excessive, even gratuitous. It was an interesting take on the work.
My work in craft – be it in illustration, sculpting, or installation – usually promises a quieter, more meditative time for me. Writing poetry and fiction frequently seems more challenging – no less invigorating, don’t get me wrong – because of my penchant for careful sonics, deep compression, and theoretical underpinnings. Still, all the artforms allow me incredible ways to interact and dialogue with my environs, to participate in it yet lend it another shade of voice through the creative vision of artifice. Sort of like what Allan Gurganus said: “The world was something that a poet had to roll around in, personally becoming a sort of breaded veal cutlet of the spirit.”
About Desmond Kon:
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books. The titles span the genres of ethnography, journalism, creative nonfiction, and poetry, several edited pro bono for non-profit organizations. Previously an 8 Days journalist, Desmond has traveled to Australia, France, Hong Kong and Spain for his stories, culminating in the authorship of the limited edition Top Ten TCS Stars for Caldecott Publishing. Trained in book publishing at Stanford, with a theology masters (world religions) from Harvard and fine arts masters (creative writing) from Notre Dame, he is the recipient of the Tom Howard High Distinction Award, Tupelo Press Poetry Project Honorable Mention, Hiew Siew Nam Academic Award, and Singapore Internationale Grant. His poetry and fiction have appeared in nine chapbooks, various anthologies, and over 140 literary journals. An interdisciplinary artist, Desmond also works in clay, his ceramic works housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.