Canutopia

David Miller, Virginia Oberlin Steel
05/12/2012

 

Introduction

The parallels are striking, the symbolism serendipitous. Grounds for Sculpture, today a lush dreamscape of a sculpture park, vividly imagined and painstakingly built by artist Seward Johnson on the barren site of the abandoned State Fairgrounds, opened its gates in 1992. Exactly 20 years later it dedicates the opening of a voluminous East Gallery by filing it with the phantasmal flora and fauna creations from the life work of the incomparable artist Ming Fay. Fay calls his spirited installation Canutopia… Can-utopia is as much a question as a title, and one just as aptly asked of its honored host.

Our shared aspirations answer, “Yes!”

Welcome to a world of organic transformation, peppered with flights of human fancy. Welcome to intimations of a new beginnings from gardens as ancient and fabled as Eden itself. Welcome to quizzical questions about what your senses really tell you and where we techno-modern, restive souls actually fit into a teeming, timeless universe. Is it real? Is it possible? Is it good? Can it last? Can-utopia?

Maybe all we can say is, “Maybe…with care.”

We are deeply grateful to the fearless Ming Fay who saw the potential of this immense and rather Spartan space to become fertile soil and setting for his endlessly imagined garden of delights. And we thank our founder and the Johnson Arts and Education Foundation for building a remarkable space where we can now showcase art, performance, and events in ways we only once imagined. We offer it to you now and for years to come and with the reverberating questions Can-u-topia?

I hope the answer will always be, “Let’s try.”

 

 David Miller

Executive Director

Grounds for Sculpture

 

 

The garden that I have created is a mindset where I cultivate an imagined place for mystical forms to exist in a sculptural landscape. –Ming Fay

Over the course of Ming Fay’s long and impressive artistic career, the primary inspiration for his work as been the relationship between mankind and nature. Canutopia—a retrospective of sorts—is composed of sculptures Fay has created during the past 30 years. The personal and artistic path he forged that has led him to create this major installation is a clear testament to the deeply held values that connect all of Fay’s work. Complex both metaphorically and visually, Canutopia is a feast for the eyes, the mind, and the spirit.

Born in Shanghai in 1943, Fay grew up in Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan environment suffused with both Eastern and Western cultures and influences. Early on, he envisioned his artistic future in the United States and, in 1961 at the age of 18, he won a scholarship to the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. Fay went on to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Kansas City Art Institute and a master of fine arts degree from the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he learned to create large scale, abstract steel sculptures.

In the early 1970s, Fay moved to New York City, another multi-cultural cosmopolitan center, because he felt the city had a unique energy important to his work as an artist. At that time, New York was burgeoning with post-modern art movements, such as Minimalism, Pop Art, Hyper-realism, Process Art, and others. Fay came to thoroughly understand the styles of these movements as well as their underlying issues, and he flourished in an atmosphere that encouraged experimentation. Fay also befriended other young Chinese artists educated in the U.S. and found a direct link with his heritage through the people and shops of Chinatown.

However stimulating, this was also a time of hardship for Fay. With little money and limited studio space, he gave up working in steel and sought his own materials and methods. Newspapers were abundant and cheap, so he began experimenting with papier maché. He made wire armatures and layered paper over them to give them shape and form, similar to the way he made paper lanterns and kites as a boy.  Papier maché was then applied over the structures, to which Fay also added gauze, plaster, acrylic polymer, or pigment. He articulated their skins by working and painting the surfaces. In time, Fay incorporated other materials, such as tubing, rhoplex, spray foam, wood, hemp, pigments, and hydrocal, and in some cases more permanent materials such as bronze, glass, and ceramic.

Fay’s discerning observations and his cross-cultural perspective led him to the central theme he would explore through his work over the next several decades – the relationship of mankind with the other living things of nature. As he walked by the Chinatown fruit stands, he observed that the bins piled high with beautiful shapes, colors, and textures were seen by passersby simply as food. They did not appreciate that fruits are in fact the reproducing components of plants, their means of propagation, nor that mankind has had a long, intertwined symbolic association with them – something deeply embedded in Chinese culture.

While Western culture tends to view nature as something to be dominated by mankind, the Chinese philosophy of Taoism holds that humans are but one component in a broad spectrum, non-hierarchical natural world. Fay’s awareness of the symbiotic relationship between human and plant life launched him on a path of exploring the symbolic and mythological meanings of fruits and other plant forms and finding ways of communicating their layered meanings through his work.

Initially, Fay selected fruits based on their meaning in Chinese folklore. Pears represent prosperity and long, healthy relationships: oranges, wealth and good fortune; cherries, love and female sexuality; peaches, longevity; plums, strength in the face of difficulties; and so on. He first created a large scale version of a pear which, was not the re-creation of a single pear, but a distillation of a succession of pears that ripened, rotted, and were regenerated. He created more gigantic sculptures – peaches, plums, oranges, and cherries – forms re-sized and re-worked from the natural objects that inspired them.

The physicality of his sculptures, their large scale and dramatic presence, is a Western trait, but the intent, the layers of meaning that animate the sculptures, is Chinese. Fay scaled up and transformed the fruits into artworks manifesting their myriad associations – nourishment and pleasure, myth and magic. As viewers, we cannot approach his sculptures as we do their natural counterparts; that is, in terms of meeting our physical needs and desires. Their size along confers upon them a status that we must consider in a different way. The sensuous shapes and elegant surfaces encourage our eyes to linger over them, generating a resonance tinged with notes of intimacy, human, and irony. The hyper-real artworks eventually direct our focus back on the objects that inspired them, to look at them with new eyes. 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Fay added peppers, pea pods, nuts, and other plant forms to his iconography as well as seed pods that guard their inner treasures with tough skins, prickles, or horns. The ling pod was of particular interest to him because it was viewed in such opposite ways by Eastern and Western cultures. To Western eyes, this botanical oddity looked sinister and was given names such as goat-horned devil, bull demon, and flying bat. In China, however, the bat is a lucky animal, and the pod is simply known as the ling nut, containing the seed of the water chestnut. Fay’s interests also turned to sea creatures, such as fish, mussels, and octopus, as well as to rhinoceros horns and medicinal herbs. Again the shops in Chinatown provided a wealth of shapes and information about the various actual, mythical, or magical attributes of the animals and plants.

As thoughts on his own mortality emerged, Fay explored the nature of relics, both natural and cultural. He traveled to the seashore and gathers battered shells and coral, fish bones, shark teeth, and many other specimens. Elsewhere he collected dried up nut shells and even wishbones, which he fabricated in many sizes. He created imaginary fossils such as the skulls of creatures long extinct, and funerary artifacts reminiscent of ancient civilizations. 

Like botanists and gardeners who breed plants with new characteristics, Fay began his own artistic intervention by reworking nature’s forms to generate previously unknown species. About this process, Fay explains:

I consider myself a scientist of sorts and my studio a laboratory. I continually research and collect natural forms that have specific symbolisms, usages, and aesthetic intrigue. The artwork is an outgrowth of my inventory of seeds, herbs, bones, and mysterious objects that people present to me for examination. In time I decipher some of their usages both metaphorically and literally and start to investigate new forms that I have heard about but never seen.

In the early 2000s, Fay increasingly viewed the hybridizing process as a personal metaphor and he himself as an offspring of the same mosaic of forces that continually alter the fabric of society and nature. He states:

As I went deeper into the realm of symbolic plant forms that fulfilled human needs or desires, I started to invent and make my own discoveries of forms related to concepts of reproduction, rejuvenation, and other human desires. These hybrid inventions, while still realistic in form, do not represent a specific natural species. They are often the result of a composite of characteristics and contain personal or a collaged symbolism. 

This perspective is clearly evident in Fay’s Monkey Pots, a series of work featured prominently in the Canutopia installation. The monkey pot tree is native to South America, and the name of the fruit refers to the fact that the nuts inside are so enticing to monkeys that their heads often become stuck in the pot while trying to get them out. For Fay, the monkey pots and their seeds become a metaphor for people trapped in their desires. The Monkey Pots he creates are similar in scale to those in nature, but Fay’s renditions bulge and swell with gooey, lava-like layers of candy and cake icing colors. Their chunks of foam, shiny paint, paper and gauze layered over partially exposed wire frameworks overtly call attention to the process of their creation, stressing the artist’s role as an agent of human intervention in the natural world. 

In the spirit of intervention, Fay became interested in “…creating a new species of the magical tree, which bears miraculous ideas as its fruit.” He eventually focused on the tree of life, an enduring concept in world religions, philosophies, and mythologies since ancient times. The tree of life is a metaphor for the common bond of all life, the connecting of all forms of creation. Fay produced several installations on this theme, both as exhibitions and as commissioned works. For some, he laminated actual seeds between two pieces of translucent hemp or rice paper to create the beautiful, variously shaped leaves. 

Fay has been conjoining his motifs in elaborate environmental installations of mythical gardens since the 1990s. He sees parallels between the work of the gardener and the artist, each of whom respectfully studies, cultivates, and modifies nature to draw out its power and mystery, its beauty and wealth. As he states: “In recent years, my work as focused on the concept of the garden as symbol of abundance, paradise and the location for the ultimate desirable state of being.” The tree of life is central to Canutopia, which is by far Fay’s most ambitious garden installation in both scope and concept. He invented the title for this imaginary place by merging the words “canopy” and “utopia.” This complex piece represents Fay’s vision for a future in which humans and nature coexist in harmony.

Throughout the center of the East Gallery, suspended forms hang, drape, and link together to create a floating forest canopy, lush and teeming with fanciful objects and shapes. Branches and vines support a tangle of berries, bean pods, monkey pots, insects, sea creatures, tiny human figures, hybrid botanicals, and many other forms, all festooned with fluttering white, green, gold, and red leaves. It is a fantastic array of forms that sway and swirl on currents of air, shimmering with symbolism and invoking mysterious, magical energies. 

The tangled vitality of the canopy is mediated by the placement around the gallery perimeter of relatively sedentary, larger scale objects, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, bones, sea shells, and hybrid botanicals. Tableaux of objects, in various sizes and ranging from familiar to strange, sit on rough platforms. One shelf, supported by slender tree trunks, is composed primarily of enormous brown pods, including a winged maple seed, a coconut, a twisted honey locust pod, a peanut, and an anise star, as well as a primitive human-like root figure.

At a lower level, sensuously curved, colossal shapes of hybrid pea pods are precariously posed on small wooden ledges. Other forms are arranged on shelves above the gallery’s doors and windows: tall, green and red cactus-like shapes, smooth-skinned peppers, an orange, and many hybrid forms. By his subtle positioning of the individual components in contextual relationships, Fay creates a rippling, resonating chorus of meaning. These objects seem to have forged alliances and, whether standing or reclining, they watch over the activity of the canopy. Nearby are a large chunk of calcified coral, sculptures evoking mysterious ancient ruins, and skills of unidentifiable creatures – elegies on the succession of life.

Across the gallery, a long expanse of wall is articulated by an irregular pattern of relatively austere forms that serve as visual and metaphorical counterpoint to the colorful array of work suspended throughout the center. These broken sea shells, crab claws, pieces of bone, curved horns, shark teeth, fish bones, black ling seed pods, jagged hybrid forms, and other objects, some of which protrude menacingly from the wall, are like signs or glyphs, loaded with meaning if only we can decipher them. They are layered composites of the reality and memory of the timeless forces of nature. 

Canutopia holds a balance of many messages in a sublime allegory of the natural world, ever-changing in a cycle of birth, growth, death, decay, and rebirth. Fay’s garden invites us to contemplate the processes that govern all living things of nature alike: we are more like plants than not. Canutopia further speaks to the desire to control our cultural environment while remaining open to the inevitability and unknowable effects of cross-cultural influences.

Like all great artists, Fay communicates through his work his multifaceted insights about the historical moment we share. The circumstances of his life have given Fay a unique and visionary perspective. He is of both the East and the West, of both the 20th century and the 21st. He is both scientist and artist, who loves the energy of the city he has chosen as his home as well as the fantastic garden he endlessly tends in his imagination. 

As we wander through Canutopia, it soon becomes clear that we are separated from the glorious canopy floating between earth and sky – it is just out of our reach. Ming Fay presents us with an enchanting, mesmerizing vision of utopia, but we, as humanity, must make a concerted effort to earn our place in it. Only we can determine the appropriate actions required to reach this state of blissful belonging. Fay intends the experience of Canutopia to be transformative, redirecting our conception of the world and showing us the way to a renewing and fulfilling place. It stands as a profoundly optimistic work and a generous gift of wisdom and goodwill.

 

Virginia Oberlin Steel

Curator of Museum Exhibitions