Monica Ong: Silent Anatomies

Review by Megan Heise

(KORE PRESS, 2015)

Monica Ong is an artist, a sorcerer of image and text, a weaver of worlds both foreign and familiar. In her interplay of text and image, the experimental space of conflict, openness, and possibility are born. Ong’s debut collection, Silent Anatomies, selected by Joy Harjo as the winner of the 2014 Kore Press First Book Award, transcends the vocabulary of traditional review or critique. To borrow from her recent artist statement, the book refuses to “inherit an oppressor’s narrative.” Ong accomplishes this in many ways, including the biological embodiment of the text and image. By incorporating images and embracing a hybrid structure, Ong and her work resist being pigeonholed. She combines text and image with a deft hand, sometimes syncing the two, and other times putting them in conflict. This work reflects the challenge of fealty to the mother and fatherlands while also revolting against them.

Ong resists conformity, varying her approach to what has been referred to as the interplay between diary and diagram in Silent Anatomies. Some pieces, like “The Glass Larynx,” read coherently top-down, first on the left side, then on the right. Others, like “The Vessel,” form a narrative when reading left-to-right from the top down. Sometimes order coheres to the position in the diagram, other times to the independent position of the text. First, there are sonograms held in the outline of China. Later, we see photographs of medicinal bottles, which are prescribed for various purposes: for conceiving a male child (“Fortune Babies” and “Perfect Baby Formula”), for conformity to American culture (“Yeong Mae’s Whitening Solution” and “Yeong Mae’s Oral Whitening Rinse”), or for hiding mental illness (“Silent Treatment” and “Her Youth in Asia”). These bottles are no mere Photoshop trick, but physical bottles with real labels that Ong has exhibited throughout the United States. In one of the longest pieces in the book, “The Onset,” bottle labels are replaced with photos and excerpts from a vintage Chinese-English dictionary, pairing “de-por-tee” with an airplane and words like “dependable” and “depiction,” or “fa-ther-land” with “fascism” and a picture of a ruler being adored by his—of course he is male—subjects. These visual arrangements accomplish more than text could on its own.

To further layer the complexity of this juxtaposition, Ong specifically roots her work in the body, most often in the parts of the body frequently associated with language and speech—a complicated symbol of foreignness as well as agency. Ong begins her collection with “The Glass Larynx,” juxtaposing images of still water with “torrents” of water alongside an image of a larynx, suggesting the tension between staying quiet and tranquil with speaking, letting it all flow out. Ong chooses to speak, but always in a “tender” manner, as she evokes in “Glass Larynx,” always in a way that honors the complexity of the fighting parts within her. In other cases, such as in “Yeong Mae’s Oral Whitening Rinse,” the image makes a more direct point, depicting a Chinese woman whose mouth is literally covered by a label saying “100% Engrish Free” alongside text about how to “lose your accent in 30 days—guaranteed.” Later, Ong juxtaposes images of a tongue with a recipe for her father’s favorite food, alongside poetry about her father: “We taste our selves, / ripped to shreds—.” Here Ong has teased (ripped) apart the shards (shreds) of her identity but is still consuming them, containing them. Ong further illustrates being a container, especially as a woman. Among her images are ultrasounds (“Catching a Wave”) and x-rays of a cervix (“Etymology of an Untranslated Cervix”). In this context, Ong’s bottles take on a feminine quality, the containers and holders of something else—of life, of re/oppression, of pain as well as joy.

This collection rebels against the pa-tri-arch-y (a photo of her father, with words like pa-tri-ot surrounding it), while honoring the stories of the fa-ther-land. These are felt pieces, speaking the language of emotion in their syntax: they treat pain and belonging, culture and family. Take these lines in the opening poem, “The Glass Larynx”: “tell me your shards in a tender torrent.” This collection itself is tender towards ancestors and the self, while simultaneously questioning these very ideas and legacies. They are also deeply political; “Catching a Wave” pairs sonograms from the pregnancies of Ong and her sister with statistics of the number of baby girls who have disappeared in China, creating a commentary on gender politics in China and the United States, all coming from a place of emotional depth. These are, after all, very personal images. There is a tenderness even in the critique, a challenge even in the gentleness. Indeed, the preface to Silent Anatomies is comprised of a quotation from Susan Howe: “I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” This is what Ong strives for and accomplishes in this collection. She, in her own words from “Innervation,” unearths and recognizes “a way to cultivate birds from torn things, find ocean in empty seats.”