From Hunan, China, to New York’s downtown via Chicago, Covey Gong defies any easy categorization. His intricate work spans fashion, sculpture, and installation, and investigates our deep emotional attachment to clothes and other everyday commodities. A surrealist twist marks his approach to object making, skillfully producing objects lost in translation between the wearable, the exhibited, and the trashed. We sit down to speak to Gong about mentors, craftsmanship, and story-telling, and why all you need sometimes is some empty coconut juice containers.
Where are you from, and what led you to your creative practice?
I’m from Hunan, China. I went to art school studied fashion and fine art. The school’s curriculum was very open, so I didn’t have to stick up to a major and was able to do more than one thing.
Your work defies any strict categorization. How would you describe your work?
I don’t like categorization. At first, when I was in art school I thought I wanted to do fashion or become a fashion designer. When I was in the fashion department, what I enjoyed the most was to learn how garments were made. I had a really good teacher Yoshi for a year, she used to be a pattern maker at Issey Miyake, and in that one year she taught me the most throughout my whole 4 years of college. Then I started interning for the most amazing tailor I’ve ever known, Oscar, in Chicago. He is a legend. We became best friends. Besides what I have learned from Yoshi, Oscar taught me everything he knew about tailoring that’s off the book. I was very grateful for knowing Oscar and Yoshi. One day, I just decided that I wanted to try something different. I heard people in school was telling me about how Gaylen Gerber’s class was good. It was a class under the fine art painting and drawing department and it was a critique-based class, where you can make whatever you want and bring it into class to have it critiqued with fellow students and teacher. That was how I branched out my practice to art-making. I realized being a fashion designer was not what I wanted, and was not enough to present what I want to show. So I started exploring other formats through paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations. My practice now utilizes my techniques of garment making in alternative ways of producing art. I like to think of my work as personal belongings. To make better sense of what that means is like how everyone has their rooms decorated differently, and each one’s closet says something about a person; like in people’s room there’s something unexpected of them to own and something totally expected. I like to have this kind of breadth in my work. I think Kai Althoff’s show at MOMA is a good explanation of my practice.
I also learned the value of hand-crafting through my teacher Yoshi and my tailor friend Oscar. Their ways of working with their hands and their expertise on tailoring and garment-making really affected me. I was really fascinated by them. On the other hand, I witnessed many bad designs and mass-produced knock-off fashions out there in the supermarket, department store, and in fashion outlets. I thought, how could people consume all this” fashion”, a lot of them would end up going to the dumpsters and companies wouldn’t even donate them to people who needs these. Through observing Yoshi and Oscar, over time, I have learned how hand-crafted objects can record a dialogue in between the maker and the material, which mass-produced objects cannot achieve sometimes. I want my work to be an extension of me, and I like to be as much involved as I can throughout the process of making. I think in that way my work records parts of me in it, and the dialogue happened in between my body and the material I was working with.
Tell me about the piece A Cute Title with an Old Font.
A Cute Title with an Old Font was a piece I collaborated with my friends with, Annie Au and Kacie Lambert. I made the metal pedestal sculpture with trimmed lace, and screen printed the Bounty paper towels. Annie and I collaborated on the bathrobe. At first, I just wanted to do something with Annie, because she’s one of my best friends. So I thought we’d make clothes together. Then I had ideas of using these garments we made for an installation piece. I wanted to use garments as a form of representation in this specific installation. I thought about my experience with clothes I own, how I have my favorite pajamas to sleep in, the favorite jacket that’s not so fashionable but I wear it all the time, favorite jeans I throw on without second thoughts when I’m in a rush, how my feelings become attached to these mass-produced clothes. I have also thought about different clothes I would wear for different occasion and purposes, how clothes could be a medium for fetishization. So I stretched the bathrobe over a recliner chair, then made the metal pedestal sculpture with designed lace trim to go over it. I acquired work from my friend Kacie. She was making these beautiful chains out of necklaces she bought in bulks from thrift stores and some of her own old jewelry. I think the chain Kacie made for this installation responded to my idea of objects becoming representations of people’s feelings and attachments towards things very well. So I incorporated it in the installation to hang the onesie shirt with two apples in a plastic bags hanging off from it, and parts of it become attached to the shirt and the medal pedestal sculpture. I also threw some empty coconut juice cans on the floor at the end, because I asked my friend how he felt about the installation, he said he thought it was a little too serious, and said it was “not Covey enough”. I threw a little humor in it. The empty coconut juice container was essentially an emptied out vessel, which in a way symbolizes the provided comfort through the juice and drained bodies. A Cute Title with an Old Font gives a premise to the installation but not too much information.
Are garments containers of narrative to you – and are you concerned with telling stories with your art?
I think garments can be containers of narrative to me, so does many other things such as furniture, music, a text message. I like stories, and I think most of my work tell a story and that’s important to me. Sometimes objects I use and things I make carries a story within itself. I think that’s part of the work.
What do garments offer that traditional representational space such as painting and drawing offer – and vice versa?
Making garments to me feels just like making paintings, drawings, and sculptures. The process of making garments requires me to be as involved as when I was making paintings. Garment to me incorporate artisanal skills from both painting and sculpture making. Fiber spun into yarns, yarns weave into fabric, dying gives fabric color, embroidery and printing give fabric pattern, fabric gets cut and sewn into garments. Every process of it requires as much involvement as when one is making art. When artworks get placed in different environments or next to other objects/art their context changes, though artwork can be its own thing by itself sometimes. Similar to art, putting a piece of garment on a model then it becomes fashion, putting it in the closet it becomes storage. How a person choose to engage with a piece of garment gives further definition to the garment, whether it becomes fashion, storage, or rags. Garments, paintings, and drawings can all be representations of our feeling, a record of emotion, and expression. That’s what I think they can offer in common. When I put garments, paintings, drawings, and sculptures together, they correspond with each other, they all delivers certain feelings and expressions in their own way but speaks to each other at the same time. I found them working together pretty harmoniously.
Who is the most important creative maker to you – and why?
Hmm, I don’t know… I like to look at many different things, but I don’t think there’s one, the most important creative maker to me. I like looking at my friends’ art/things they are doing. I think all my friends are very creative, and they are very important to me. Lately, I have been working with food. I like to think about the vessels people use to eat, tools we use to cook, platforms to serve food on. So I was looking at artists like Judy Chicago, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Yangjiang Group, and Betty Woodman. They are all good artists I really like Betty Woodman’s work. I think she’s a genius. I also like the Yangjiang Group, their paintings and calligraphy made with Chinese food were so messy and fucked up, I loved it.