The Clouded Underground: Mei-ling Hom’s “Multiversity Garden”

April 27, 2017 by

Every year, modern science discovers a little more about networks of communication between plants. Airborne signals or through the soil, the wilderness seems full of unknown languages, the bounds of which are only now being investigated and understood.

Nature is sending a more straightforward message along the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. Designed by sculptor and Cultural Crossroads Public Art Grant Resident  Mei-ling Hom, this Morse code message will soon bloom. The project, Multiversity Garden, is the latest in a series of Mei-ling’s environmentally conscious, Earth art installations throughout the United States. Each sculpture, filled with compost and stitched with twine by Mei-ling and her partner David McClelland, will slowly decompose and, Mei-ling anticipates, “leave the soil a little richer.”

Three weeks ago, Mei-ling and David set up shop in the CHRCH Project Space with hay bales and a stack of cardboard. From the board they cut twenty-three circles and five oblongs which form the bases of each vessel. Sitting at the apse of the Dutch Reform church-turned-art space, they hand-wove twine through coiled hay using tweezers as sewing needles. As they worked, they described that during a similar project in North Carolina, a hardy garlic chive plant long outlived the hay vessel, leaving a knotted, sculptural mound of roots in its wake. 

Having several decades of work constructed from pipes, wood, and plastic filling her home studio, Mei-ling enjoys this biodegradable chapter of her practice. In recent years, she and David started a farm in rural New York and began constructing installations of soil, plants, and mushrooms.

“The interesting thing that comes from shifting the artwork to farming and growing things… it’s almost like everything from Western art history and the Enlightenment taught us that we, man, are at the center and how wonderful it is that we can think,” Mei-ling explains. “But really there are so many small things that have already ‘out-thunk’ us.”

She goes on to explain that trees, for example, send signals to one another through microbes in the soil like a subterranean neural network and furthermore, an alliance between plant and fungus. It’s known that massive, fibrous fungal structures—thought to be the largest organisms on earth—exist undetected beneath the soil. These mycorrhizal fungi exchange nutrients with neighboring plant roots and create a symbiosis between biological kingdoms.

For Mei-ling, working with the fine threads—called mycelia—of fungi didn’t deviate from her art practice. For years, she has been rendering clouds in wood, clay, and wire. “We started doing international residencies and looking at the universal things that we share,” she says. “I started asking people from different cultures what they thought of clouds.”

In Thailand, they were told that clouds marked the beginning of spring, the rainy season, and the new year. Clouds also separated scenes within Japanese paintings as visual instruments of storytelling, and were vehicles of gods and goddess for some Indian and Vietnamese religions.

In American culture? She says,“They’re a bad omen. Think of ‘dark clouds on the horizon.’”

“To say your judgment is clouded,” adds David, “is not a good thing.”

“When we started working with the mycelia and the way that they spread under the ground, it’s almost like an underground cloud. I think when you start studying the science of what is carried in a cloud,” Mei-ling continues, referring to bacteria, spores, and living matter around which vapor droplets form, “the underground clouds carry an equal amount of information traffic and communication.”

When the planting season begins in a month, Mei-ling and David will return to WSW and introduce fungus spores into hay structures to grow their own underground clouds. At the same time, they will transplant a range of culturally variegated flowers and vegetables to stimulate mycorrhizae. Until then, a few herbs and garlic bulbs serve as placeholders.

Aware of the ongoing debate between native and nonnative planting, Mei-ling and David are quick to center the Multiversity Garden in the larger conversation. With words like alien, invasive, and foreign saturating both political and ecological spheres, Mei-ling’s brings up that staple plants such as potatoes, parsley, and cabbage are nonnative.

Instead, looking to the political conversation, they offer the coded message Rise Resilient, soon-to-be written in a diverse and representative array of plants. In celebrating solidarity and inclusion, they play on words for the project title, describing the installation, as the di in diversity means two, as Multiversity Garden—welcome to all.

Mei-ling and David will be back mid-May to plant flowers and vegetables in the Multiversity Garden! Keep an eye on our Flickr for updates throughout the summer!

Mei-ling Hom is sculptor and installation artist based in Philadelphia, PA, and splits her year between living in Philadelphia and Western New York. A WSW Artists’ Book Resident (’89), she produced the sculptural book In the Morning. Mei-Ling earned an MFA in Sculpture from Alfred University and has received awards such as a Pew Fellowship in Visual Arts, an NEA Fellowship, a Joan Mitchell Foundation Visual Artist Grant, and a Fulbright Research Fellowship to South Korea. She has taught sculptural bookmaking in WSW’s Summer Art Institute and at numerous other venues worldwide.

The next time you’re at the Raleigh-Durham or Philadelphia International Airports… look up! Her wire cloudscape installations are on view!