Cloud Elements by Eli Marshall, xiao (Chinese flute).
Mei-ling Hom (born 1950) addresses Asian and Asian American identity in installations, drawings, and sculptures that have been the focus of numerous exhibitions in the United States, China, and Thailand. Hom spends several months each year in Asia; her home base is Philadelphia, where she teaches at Community College of Philadelphia. Composer Eli Marshall (born 1977) currently lives in Beijing, where he is a guest professor at the Central Conservatory of Music. His symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and art songs have been performed internationally. Curator Debra Diamond recently discussed Floating Mountains Singing Clouds with artist Mei-ling Hom and composer Eli Marshall.
I’d been thinking about clouds for a while and started working with this idea of how different cultures perceive clouds differently. A Vietnamese artist told me how “our gods arrive on clouds.” Some Thai friends mentioned that clouds are welcomed symbols of the end of the hot season and they greet the New Year. A Greek writer I know described clouds as ominous symbols that herald bad things. I started looking at the relation of clouds to space. Chinese art often has a cloud motif filling the background, as if the artists couldn’t bear to leave a space absolutely empty. And I noticed that Japanese screens often use clouds as a motif to separate space. This thinking led to drawings and sculptures of clouds.
Mei-ling, why did you create Floating Mountains Singing Clouds for the Sackler pavilion?
It responds to the space of the lobby. The lobby is the space where everyone enters. It’s the transitional spaces where they prepare to clear their minds from the outside and enter another reality. I scattered the speakers among the clouds so that the aural and spatial experience recalls a scholar’s retreat among the clouds. It clears your mind for the galleries below.
The light and shadows cast by the clouds, which sometimes create a tracery of lines, also work to dissolve the space of the pavilion. It enlivens the rather formal architecture.
Yes, it really has to do with dissolving the solidity of the space, but the space also shapes the clouds. Another thing about clouds is that sometimes they look like mountains. I always like the idea that the ephemeral can look solid—and also that mountains shape the clouds. The way that the air pushes up against the mountains creates different shaped clouds. The physical is really shaping the ephemeral.
You’ve mentioned the relationship between mountains and clouds as well as the scholar’s retreat among the clouds. Both are important motifs in Chinese though, and they recur in poetry, literature, and painting.
There’s a famous sixth-century verse that describes the importance, the power, of being up near the clouds. In the early sixth century, the future emperor Wu was enamored of a great Daoist sage and invited him to court. The mountain-dwelling sage refused, instead inviting the emperor to his retreat. The emperor, who was used to being obeyed in all things and also desirous of learning, asked the sage to explain the importance of the mountain.
The sage replied:
On the peags there are many white clouds
One can only count them for oneself
I cannot take them and send them to you.
At one point I denied these kinds of connections completely.
I would make things and people would say, “I see those Asian connections,” and I’d look and say, “No, you don’t,” but it would keep coming back. That was what prompted me to go back and consider how much of me is Chinese.
Your clouds are so dense from one direction, yet almost invisible from another. Why do you use light to make them disappear and reappear?
Sometimes you think it’s a cloud, but maybe it isn’t. I’m trying to describe palpable presence that often has no form. Maybe I can explain it another way. Growing up Chinese American, I learned Chinese culture through sound. The old ladies who came around to the grocery store often scolded me. I couldn’t understand them because they spoke Chinese, but I knew that a particular action was wrong and I shouldn’t be doing it. I thought this was a particularly strange way of learning a culture, understand what do and not to do, just though sound.
So the clouds become metaphors?
Yeah. I think that’s exactly what they become. They are a metaphor for cultural markers that don’t have a form. For me, it was about recognizing Chinese-ness. When I began traveling to [and living in] Asia, I realized that there were a lot of things I never understood very well. In china I felt, “Oh, that’s why they do that” or “That’s why that’s important.” It’s making those kinds of connections.
So the cloud forms embody something Chinese?
The cloud forms are Chinese as much as I’m Chinese. The tough part there, even for me, is figuring out how Chinese I am.
What materials form the clouds?
Chicken wire. In the trade they call it hex netting. It’s a material that has a lot of air in it, to start with. Many viewers won’t recognize that the clouds are made from hex netting.
How do you work with hex netting and transform it?
I tape my fingertips with black electrical tape (because I find that gloves are too unwieldy) and use needle nose pliers to twist, knit, and pull the wire. I manipulate each hex of the wire.
When I begin, I have an idea of what big shape I’m making. I chop off a huge length of chicken wire, and I knit the ends together to form a huge cylinder. I start chopping, and cut darts, and knit parts back together, watching the shape as I pull it in. If it needs a tail, I piece on more wire. I keep looking for the form, looking for the line. I have an idea of the form that I’m working for and then as it evolves I clarify that. It’s a lot of twisting, pulling, and knitting things back together.
Can you explain how the installation lighting changes the forms and viewer’s experience?
It depends on your individual perspective and where you are standing. If the light is coming toward you, these things dissolve; there’s nothing there. If the light is coming with you, these things become solid. It’s this interplay between the solid and translucent that really forms the basis of turning steel into a cloud.
Eli, how did Mei-ling involve you in the project and how did your composition, Cloud Elements, evolve?
The first thing, which I immediately understood was this idea of space. Mei-ling summed it up so well when she spoke of chicken wire containing air. Air is what carries music. It’s the substance. I imagine these forms being made of air that is palpable and touchable as much as being made of wire.
I also incorporated space temporally into the music to allow room for the temporal gaze, the contemplation of the visual. Cloud Elements incorporates silence as a major temporal element; there’s not sound all the time. There’s a lot of rest in the sense of breath and air. It’s a cycle and is not meant to be heard with a beginning, middle, and end, the way a narrative work is heard. You can enter at any point and leave at any point.
Why did you choose the xiao (Chinese flute)?
I scored the composition for Chinese flute, a very air-based instrument. The xiao is a long flute, a solo instrument. I also wanted to use a flute because it really fits that in-between space of what may be considered Asian and non-Asian.
Mei-ling the flute (xiao) music is such an intrinsic part of this work. Why did you decide to incorporate sound?
Sound is such a palpable anchor of memory. I’m trying to land memories, to figure out where they fit in, and if they’re significant. Hopefully other people coming to the exhibition will have that same experience.
This page originally appeared as an interactive Adobe Flash feature that was created at the time of the exhibition. Due to Adobe’s discontinued support of Flash as of January 12, 2021, the original feature is no longer available; it has been migrated to the format you see here.