Monica Ong’s Insurgent Universes
Monica Ong’s exhibition Planetaria, on view at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, opens a universe of visual poetry to readers. The term planetaria refers to models of the solar system, and visitors should come prepared for not only celestial travel but also political dethronement, as Ong neutralizes China’s astronomical patriarchy by repopulating the heavens with a feminist gaze.
For example, Ong’s Purple Forbidden Enclosure explores the tendrils of power that link China’s distant stars to its earthly governance. The broadside’s title references one of three celestial universes in ancient Chinese star charts. In that universe, purple represents the North Star as well as the heavenly abode of the Celestial Emperor, with the surrounding stars and constellations designated as the Purple Forbidden Enclosure. As above, so below: for more than 500 years the Forbidden City in Beijing served as a home to (terrestrial) emperors and the seat of China’s political power.
That history appears as a Chinese astrological map printed in soft gray on the indigo paper. Second and third print runs in gold and silver carry glittering constellations amid Ong’s visions, such as, “FLYING SERPENTS / circle overhead,” “The muscle memory of your eyes averts the strange foliage of her / PURPLE FORBIDDEN ENCLOSURE,” and, “FEMALE PROTOCOL / Look up to her / See the self dissolve like dust into mouth open sky.”
A self-described visual poet, Ong publishes work through her micropress, Proxima Vera. Visual poetry is work that ranges across artistic terrains to create textual meaning in concert with imagery and symbols, as well as, in some works, by incorporating sculptural, auditory, and performative elements. Those works that require touch in order to generate meaning transform the act of reading into performance, with chance and surprise waiting in the wings. Ong’s Lunar Volvelle is an interactive poem that consists of three rotating paper discs of successively smaller dimensions secured in the center. The discs carry text as well as pointers that represent the sun and the moon. To release a poem, a reader must rotate the discs to match the positions of sun and moon to the present month and date.
The volvelle structure is believed to have first been used in the Arabic world, appearing later in medieval Europe’s mathematical, medical, and astronomical books. These paper wheel charts served as tools for calculation or prediction, since each disc independently rotates to connect with information on the other discs—in this sense volvelles are considered early examples of an analog computer. Since contemporary readers have likely encountered volvelles in children’s books, book artists include them along with other “paper engineering” techniques (folding, pop-ups, and other manipulable structures) to cultivate a reader’s subliminal memories of exploration and delight.
Ong’s Lunar Volvelle recruits the reader to enact her feminist reframing. As the day’s lunar phase is determined, the discs rotate into position, which in turn lines up the phrases printed around the discs’ outer rims. The resulting poem catches a phrase from each disc, radiating outward from the volvelle’s center, such as, in this reading: “someone is dying alone,” “shape of a woman who calls his bluff,” and, “a lava lace summit.” This particular disc alignment also reveals Ong’s paternal grandmother, her unwavering gaze held at the work’s center like a full moon, her visage soon veiled behind a new moon’s darkness.
Structures like the volvelle require a reader’s action to complete the work, similar to the contemporary art of the book, in which book artists consider every aspect of a book’s design and structure to fully engage a reader. Book art and visual poetry share a lineage as ancient as language itself, and both fields rapidly expanded throughout the last century, intertwined with the avant-garde and contemporary art movements. Today, visual poetry and book art are vital practices that overlap in the creation of dynamic textual-visual environments.
Ong’s interactive works hold dual citizenship in these art worlds. Her The Star Gazer: Planisphere Poetry, is a circular star chart that rotates on a common pivot. A planisphere displays only those constellations visible on a particular date; Ong based The Star Gazer’s design on the Soochow Astronomical Chart of 1193, which represents the sky from the northern hemisphere. To set the poem into play, the reader rotates the disc to the date and time, and then the body follows, as the reader faces north with the planisphere’s northern corner similarly situated, before looking up to find the constellations in The Star Gazer’s night sky overhead.
For The Star Gazer, Ong released her poetry to populate the midnight blue expanse, the words and phrases disporting among the constellations. The composition appears random, free from any narrative structure, but every reading somehow resolves into vivid poetry. One harvesting produces: “You are here / to enter the palace of your life / step off / moonstone / the way Chang’e floats / over swelling waters / your solitude / a deeper / well / where / rivulets flow / stars send / arrows to / the land of god / and soil.”
This is Ong’s magic, to anchor the reader in a present moment that is also timeless. Even as a gazer searches overhead, she can imagine centuries of long-ago gazers’ faces tilted similarly upward, searching the night sky for meaning. Visitors to Monica Ong’s Planetaria will encounter glittering starscapes and resonant language, but equally important, Ong’s poetic incursions reveal how the star charts that locate and assign meaning, map our societies as well. Following Ong as truthteller, perhaps readers will interrogate the assumptions that map their own identity, while comforted that the stars will remain overhead in abiding witness to every voice raised.
Dr. Betty Bright is an independent writer, curator, and historian who specializes in the contemporary art of the book. In addition to her extensive writing and curating, she published No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980 (Granary Books, 2005), the first history to trace the emergence of the artist's book in the US...