Critics’ Picks

View of “Mo Kong: Lounge of a Prophet,” 2022.

View of “Mo Kong: Lounge of a Prophet,” 2022.

New York

Mo Kong

Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space
88 Essex Street, No. 21 inside Essex Street Market
March 25–May 21, 2022

Tucked between the intoxicating fumes of spiced tagines at Zerza Moroccan Kitchen and neat rows of dried Japanese goods at Ni Japanese Deli is Mo Kong’s presentation “Lounge of a Prophet” at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space. The close proximity of Asian and North African delicacies awakens ancient, reductive myths about the Orient inside the contemporary food bazaar that is Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—where the gallery is located—bringing forward the show’s main critiques.

Beneath the exhibition space’s yellowed light, Kong has constructed what appears to be a modernist curio shop or fortune-teller’s parlor, replete with arched doorways and clean black surfaces at countertop height. Drawers of dehydrated produce native to Asia, such as dragon fruit and citron, incubate quietly behind a glass display. Strange devices whir with changing temperature and light. Herbaceous steam rises from cabinet orifices.

The scents concocted from Asian ingredients in Kong’s work have typically induced repulsion or posed a racial threat to the existing white world order. Yet the artist’s embrace of innocuous-yet-disfavored odors does not suggest that the mere tolerance of racialized smells will extinguish anti-Asian racism. Instead, Kong’s utilization of the olfactory asks what kinds of racial animus suffuse domains outside of the visible.

Kong’s built environment is inspired by the shape of the empty space between two lines in a graph that charts about a decade’s worth of economic and ecological collapse—a shadow realm that receives little attention yet seems to harbor equal parts romance and despair. Rather than flatten the curve as an antidote, the artist has extruded it so that we all may dwell in its queasy dimensions.

Jars of fruits pickled by fictional company NEW YORKOOL—foodstuffs that the artist predicts will be endangered due to global warming and nationalist trade policies—interrogate a hypothetical solution to preserving “exotic” cultures. At once rejected and retained, prized yet disposable, the hermetically sealed, live-fermented foods epitomize what theorist Anne Anlin Cheng has called the process of racial melancholia in the United States. In an age of neoliberalism, tasteful branding and the theater of crisis come as a package deal. Hope you’re hungry.