Mei Ling Hom Has Her Head in the Clouds


Philadelphia-based Mei-ling Hom uses clouds as symbols of transformation. For the past three decades, the artist has used that amorphous, ancient and endlessly interpreted celestial form to create peaceful examples of land art. A new work, Mycelial Nimbus, on view next month at the Abington Art Center in Jenkintown, PA [Sept. 24–Nov. 27], sees the artist exploring themes of growth and death.

In the Center’s forest-like sculpture garden, under a canopy of maple trees and nestled amidst periwinkle, Hom returns white poplar branches to the ground in bunches, their severed ends face-up. She seeds the wood with golden oyster mushroom spores, which grow into “clouds” in three months to a year. Some have already sprouted into snowy white fan-shaped clusters. After several blooming cycles, the mycelia will consume the nutrients in the wood and the decomposed material will return to the ground, enacting a full, if unheralded, life cycle.

The Chinese-American Hom has previously created cloud formations in an array of diverse materials that include chicken wire, stone and clay. Hom told A.i.A., “Clouds mean so many things; they can portend good fortune or disaster.” In Western literature clouds are foreboding; in India and Vietnam they are vehicles for beneficent gods, while in Thailand a mass on the horizon signals the end of the dry season and the beginning of the new year. In China the word for cloud sounds like the Mandarin word for “luck.” In Hom’s Floating Mountains Singing Clouds (2005), meticulously configured chicken wires transform into bulbous floating structures suspended from the ceiling, approximating the ethereal appeal of cloud formations. Undulations of music composed by Eli Marshall, featuring a Chinese flute, permeate the space.

Recently, the artist purchased land in upstate New York and started an organic farm, eschewing pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Her interest in rural living is informed by an inclination to re-evaluate traditions of the land and its cultivation. In her work, Hom draws from several Asian cultures (including Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Thai) that use food as a form of expression. Infused in every aspect of a meal’s production, preparation and consumptions, age-old traditions and customs are preserved.

In her latest work, the edible mushroom cloud relates to Hom’s interest in the role of food in Asian culture. For the 1991 installation, Feeding Ancestral Ghosts, the artist arranged elongated rectangular pieces of delicate cloth above nine metal cones containing alarm clocks. These are neatly wrapped in bamboo leaves, like rice offerings. The ticking of the clocks resonates within the metal cones creating sounds akin to whispers as the padded floor emits the scent of spices. This work alluded to the hunger of dead spirits and the ways in which food can be used as an intermediary through different worlds.