by J. Fatima Martins
November 18, 2017
“You Can See with Closed Eyes” - Kong & Olive “The word ‘wedlock’ has ‘lock’ in it.” - Fifi Capet
Artists and lifestyle bloggers, Kong & Olive, best friends and intellectual collaborators had been contemplating mounting an art exhibition for a long time. They love to craft, read, watch films, write poetry, and discuss politics and cultural events, and felt in their souls that the world would benefit from their unique cultural perspectives and health and wellness advise. Kong & Olive knew that they had a lot to offer. Olive felt that if a celebrity, who is not a health professional, could sell jade egg vaginal health and get away with it, she could provide wellness and happiness philosophy through her dance and acting. Kong wanted justice and was reluctant to speak up, but knew it was necessary. After no debate, they focused on arranging a physical and intimate manifestation of their already popular personal lifestyle and social commentary blog Kong & Olive: BFF Cat & Kong Lifestyle Bloggers / Kong & Olive: Lifestyle Bloggers & Social Commentary Artists. When the blog got noticed and received critical attention, they knew they were on the cusp of making it big.
ogether, and individually, the artists attended art events, exhibitions, and talked with professors, critics, curators, writers, and savvy friends, like the fabulous MimiSting and her companion Karl, to learn the ‘how to’ of exhibiting art. Finally, after months of designing and building sculptures, producing a video, and having been featured in an art magazine, where they answered Proust’s Questionnaire, so that the public could get to know them, Kong & Olive had enough material ready for a public show. Olive, being the extrovert and performer, was confident and ready to go - she wanted the spotlight, she felt that she deserved it! “Let’s Do This!” she said, “I feel good about it!. My art is me, I am the art, my body is the art, the art is my body!” Kong, however, being the contemplative introvert, took on the project with cautious excitement, often lamenting “I don’t want to be blamed if it’s terrible, it’s not my fault.” Olive softly cuddled Kong to calm her logical fearful mind, and repeated in Zen-like mode “Let’s Do This!, Let’s Do This!” The repetition relaxed Kong, she put herself in Focused Yoga Gorilla Pose, took a deep breath, and let out her best Riot Girl Rawww!. A few days later, while installing the exhibition, Olive wasted too much time looking at herself in the mirror, practicing and adjusting herself into an award winning body pose. She couldn’t get anything done, “I’m soft, I’m cute, is it hot it here?” Kong watched her, laughed and said, “I see you Olive, and I love you. By the way, here’s a fun fact: The female egg is the largest cell in the human body; and, yes, I’m always hot because of all my luscious hair!”
Kong & Olive: Let’s Do This!, a multimedia exhibition featuring video and assemblage sculpture, is audience participatory. Formally, it is a sincere and encouraging presentation that engages the craft and new media methods, demonstrating how common ‘craft store’ materials, and simple technology, can be transformed into dynamic visual expressions. Being within the ‘primitive and visionary’ mode the work challenges while acknowledging the structure of ‘fine art.’ It says: ‘You Too Can Do This!’ It derives from trends in social media blogging, DIY (Do It Yourself) sensibilities, and the contemporary love of everything ‘outsider’ as fashionable.
The exhibition opened on November 3, just as the Full Beaver Moon was rising. This astrological distinction is important and serendipitous because some of the artwork references the female reproductive ‘moon’ cycle, and, overall, the exhibition is distinctively female gender focused. Arranged in III of Cups, a small bedroom-sized gallery, perfect for intimate and experimental installations, the art is presented in a darkened space in which light sources come from the artworks themselves. To see some of the smaller details, the viewer must hold a special lightbulb up close to the art in voyeuristic and intrusive manner.
The installation is organized into four main components and one additional ‘welcoming area’ that functions as a ‘introduction’ to the show. None of the works of art have titles or labels, so for this review I’ve created names for each: 1.) Red & Gold Obsession Wall 2.) Queen Olive’s Throne 3.) Kong’s Origin Diorama 4.) Kong & Olive’s Digital Blog Videos. The exhibition title itself is simply Kong & Olive, while Let’s Do This!, a motivational exclamation, is my addition taken directly from Kong & Olive’s ‘empowerment rap and dance’ video created by visual artist and writer, Robyn O’ Neil.
There is so much we can talk about with Kong & Olive that an exhibition catalog could easily be written. The only criticism I have is that is suffers from being too much of a ‘good thing,’ to take Martha Stewart’s marketing motto, but, perhaps the decadence, confusion, and attempt at commodification is the point?
In short: the exhibition is about bonding and friendship as well as a person’s core personality as it changes from wise and free innocence in childhood to questioning and shielding into adulthood. It is also about the ‘split self’ and the dualism many of us feel because of a traumatic alteration of our core. It has a tonality of being therapeutic because the process itself, materially and conceptually, suggestions change, transformation, and impermanence. Most importantly, it hits on the vile use of people’s insecurities to sell products, and tackles the commodifying of ‘wellness.’
All this anxious stuff bubbles up and shimmers out in Kong & Olive: Let’s Do This!, but before we get into analyzing the exhibition, specifically, here’s the background story: this is my second attempt at interpretation of the evolving and experimental work of Myra Sontheimer, the artist who created Kong & Olive. The duo are fictional semi-autobiographical characters that reflect Sontheimer’s dualistic introvert - extrovert personality. The first review was published in September 2017 on a different media site, and focuses on establishing Kong & Olive’s identity and introduces the public to the blog “Kong & Olive: BFF Lifestyle Bloggers,” a satirical twist on today’s ubiquitous lifestyle and wellness blogs targeted at women.
Kong & Olive’s rise as real characters is a result of the democratic nature of social media in that anyone can quickly make and display their artwork. This makes Kong & Olive as art and as artists innovators in the use of digital communication and social media platforms as expressive material. They became fully formed personalities on their website before moving into becoming physical artists. Sontheimer, as an artist, is not yet defined, but can be discussed within ‘New Media and Film, Feminist, Conceptual, and Visionary-Craft’ frameworks. She is mostly unknown, meaning that she has never physically exhibited before, as a professional artist, and has no market history. She does have, however, a long history with various types of craft as well as writing and creative linear organization. All these skills merge in the creation of Kong & Olive’s narrative.
During her first interview with me, Sontheimer revealed her identity as the author of Kong & Olive, but she made it clear that all the art, both digital and tangible, is created by Kong & Olive themselves as artist-agents-directors. Because of this, the first interpretative review features Kong & Olive answering Proust’s Questionnaire in their own voice. The full questionnaire is too long to republish in full, so here is an abbreviated segment that establishes their core characteristics.
Kong is a digital two-dimensional image who exists only as a picture. Her personae is that of a self-conscious and introspective guerrilla, who may or may not be a writer. In physical appearance she resembles the iconic King Kong giant ape from the 1933 film. On her social media Facebook page, Myra’s early debut of Kong featured Kong responding to situations with the exclamation “Not Kong’s Fault” which became her underlining motto, suggesting her confusion and embarrassed condition at finding herself in situations not of her own making.
Olive is a three-dimensional doll, the largest of several such dolls that Myra has constructed, who can be held like a pet or child. She is a white faceless and androgynous stuff animal, that Myra says is a cat creature, made of cloth and roughly stitched together. Unlike shy Kong, Olive is confident, relaxed, sometimes silly, and willing to express herself without constraint, often in interpretative dance or pantomime format. ( Olive’s motto is “How Olive Feels.”)
Kong & Olive are multifaceted evolving characters who evoke their creator’s self-effacing temperament. Myra agreed to having them answer Proust’s famous Questionnaire, as the characters themselves, to reveal their life philosophy. Through Kong & Olive, Myra exposes parts of herself and gives voice to feelings that are universal and relatable to us all.
Proust’s Questionnaire was developed by the French writer, Marcel Proust (1871-1922), inspired directly by the ‘confession album’ that was popular in the nineteenth century as a way to record a person’s lifestyle preferences: likes, dislikes, tastes, and aspirations. Today’s ‘lifestyle blogging’ trend, as well as social media platforms, share many features to the ‘confession album’ in that they expose details of a person’s most personal moments and peculiarities that would normally be kept private.
Proust’s Questionnaire: Kong & Olive
1. What is your idea of perfect happiness
Kong: To live free without being afraid of being taken from the ecological environment that is your home and abandoned.
Olive: I want to be in an ecological environment that is soft and has AC and can expose my interpretive mime to a greater audience.
2. What is your greatest fear?
Kong: Being lost in a world that does not understand me.
Olive: That only a few people will get to see my interpretive mime abilities and softness. Also AC, I need AC.
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Kong: Vanity, I look at magazines and wonder what it would be like to have a poem published in The New Yorker and.... my size 19 shoes....embarrassed. Olive: Often, I wonder if I am as soft as I look. I wish I had more confidence.
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Kong: Intolerance, and if I can add one more, hypocrisy.
Olive: Bigotry, especially against seemingly eyeless cats and mimes.
5. Which living person do you most admire? Kong: Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Talking about the exhibition, Sontheimer asked to remain invisible, but I found that anonymity to be impossible because writing about Kong & Olive as real was pushing me to write in a manner that obscured seriousness. In my mind they became too cartoonish. While everything that Sontheimer does is grounded in comic-seriousness, Olive’s relaxed language, for example, and the overall structure of the work, comes off, at times as one big joke and doll play. I needed to move beyond the laissez faire tonality to get to the valuable truth. In my earlier review I wrote: Through the theatrical roles of Kong & Olive, Myra is able to explore her own nonlinear psychology using comic formats, playfulness, parody, sarcasm, and sometimes a gentle hostility. The key to understanding Myra’s art is appreciating the imperfection of direct feelings. She’ll react, expand upon and comment on situations from an emotional, honest and pure place, pulling together images straight off, working sincerely and expressively, allowing oscillation and spontaneity to be her defining aesthetic voice. She said, “The ideas come quickly, I have to make it [the art] immediately; most of it is done on my phone.”
Also, Kong’s gender, which I assumed was She, on the blog, has changed to Neutral. This is an important shift. When I asked Sontheimer why the change in gender, she said “Kong is everyone; Kong is a kong; we all have a kong inside us; Kong has no gender.” This explanation is a bit deceptive and confusing as we look deeper into the actual exhibition. In the review I continue to use She. I think She is powerful.
The physical artwork, in the exhibition, is weird, complex and nuanced, created purposefully to engage in a discussion about silence, specifically the tension between revelation and secrecy. Other themes are modesty and ambition, toxic narcissism versus healthy self-love, guilt, vanity and value, and how voice / speaking-up is manifested. The work is intended to be criticism served up as playful, entertaining, and awkward. Amongst all the zaniness there’s moments of deep anger and resentment. The artwork’s unpretentious ‘crafty’ and honest physical style of raw and messy materials hide and then divulge tough messages. It’s a mix of contemporary modes of thinking, with an abundance of pop-culture references, and celebrity worship, casual and hip, with old fashioned decadent Victorian-Gothic and Midcentury paranoia, rigidity, perfection-seeking, and shame.
For example, the exhibition opens up with a Trigger Warning:
“This show is pubic hair assertive. The shaved vagina is not represented, discussed or referenced in our work. While being pubically biased is not our intension, as collaborators and artists we felt it is important to give an honest representation of our vision of the vagina. We sincerely apologize if the exclusion of a shaved vagina point of view causes feelings of reproach or abasement.”
The ‘Trigger Warning’ is about a modified depiction of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 oil painting L’ Origine du Monde ( The Origin of the World), a realist close-up view of the naked female torso with focus on the genital area of full and dark pubic hair. It’s a beautiful painting and continues to be troublesome because of its depiction of female body hair. Hair has always been associated with power. In ancient Rome, girls would offered locks of hair to Jove/ Jupiter. for good luck. Female werewolves are more vicious and strange than their male counterparts.
By happenstance, the famed art historian, Linda Nochlin, died on October 29 just a few days before Kong & Olive opened their show. Nochlin is the author of Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, and Women, Art, and Power, who made extensive observations and interpretations of Courbet’s work with attention to L’ Origine du Monde. She wrote, “in a world of total and, so to speak, unconscious equality, the female nude would not be problematic. In our world, it is.”
Red & Gold Obsession Wall
In Kong & Olive’s exhibition the image L’ Origine du Monde is small, abstracted, and hidden several times within the Red & Gold Obsession Wall in petite gold frames. There are five ‘pubic hair/ jade egg’ constructions created as commentary and challenge to a strange practice of placing jade eggs in the vagina for supposedly health reasons. Kong & Olive offer their own advise and health warning by sharing the scientific Latin names and pictures of the various bacteria that can infest the vaginal space if strange objects are placed inside. The ‘pubic hair/ jade egg’ pieces are hilarious and of course TMI (too much information, as the kids say), and that is precisely the point. The sexualization of the female body as a source of pleasure halts an open and honest discussion and appreciation of it as real flesh and blood; moreover, because of this reality, the ‘dirty’ aspects of women’s bodies are either fetish or taboo.
The Red & Gold Obsession Wall holds other talismans and honorific precious objects and trinkets. It is a very intimate and private space. To view the small pieces you need to place a light bulb up close to the art. This action reminds us of horror movies in which a ‘secret room’ is discovered containing revelatory information, or, if you are a woman, going to the gynecologist. Either way, the implication is that something shocking is about to be discovered. The overall color scheme is gold to signify a valued status. The red wall could be read as evoking menstrual blood. The frame’s imperfect and broken condition follows the idea of Wabi-Sabi, a way of living which allows for imperfect flow; and Kintsukuroi, the Japanese practice of repairing with gold, making the objects more beautiful for having been broken.
The central frame that spotlights the notion of ‘continued improvement’ and expansion is a homage to the artist Beyonce when she transformed herself into the Pregnant Golden Goddess for the February 2017 Grammy musical performance and award show. In Kong & Olive, it is Olive who takes on the Golden Goddess. She is pictured in a medium-sized oval golden frame wearing Beyonce’s goddess attire with her soft and full belly exposed. “Love the body you have” is one of Olive’s life mottos!
The most important motif in the Obsession Wall is the Eye. The classic blue and white Evil eye protective talisman is represented several times, as are the eyes of Kong, repeated throughout the wall in different frames. Along with Silence, and having Voice, being Seen is an important theme. Historically, framed eye miniatures, sometimes called the Lovers’ eye, are painted depicting a spouse, child, or sibling. Here we have Kong's eyes everywhere. She is the ‘all seeing, all knowing.’ In one piece, a portrait of Kong's face is surrounded by green mossy material ( a reference to her origin story) and 17 plastic goggly eyes decorated with gold and black fur / hair. The quote inside is curious: “I can see with closed eyes.” (An interesting side note that relates to the ‘keepsake’ practice of hair: the British Library holds preserved locks of hair of author Mary and Percy Shelley in small individual frames. )
We get a sense that Kong is special in some way - cursed or blessed. Kong camouflages her past. She’s voicing something but it’s indirect so it is therefore neutralized. This is why Kong’s gender is confusing. What happened serves as warning. Kong is the protector against self-loathing, envy, jealousy, and attack. In another frame Kong’s eye is the Evil eye talisman itself! It’s in central position surrounded by green moss, more goggly eyes and a power quote referencing childhood by Margaret Atwood - “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”
Kong is a shield against malevolence, but who is she protecting? Maybe she’s protecting Olive? In still another frame piece, nine Kong eyes inside gold circles surround a large blue and white Evil eye motif and an image of Olive’s face with a famous quote by Oprah, the star of female empowerment and health - “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” (Another side note: it has been voiced that it’s a ‘no-no’ to use psychology to read artist’s motivation and work. I personally, as a professional, think that’s total bullshit and will continue to use the method, if I think it fits, in my practice to interpret what I see. Artists who don’t agree can ask a different writer to explain their work.)
With Oprah / Olive we move into the theme of being in the spotlight and a suggestion of abuse and violence. There’s a frame dedicated to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Kong & Olive include themselves as players in the show. There’s a special focus on actor Mariska Hargitay and a quote by Nicholas Cage - “Every great story seems to begin with a snake.” This is obviously an evocation of the violence done to Eve, in the Biblical Adam and Eve story. Eve is the victim. Another clue is in a framed image of Olive sitting on the floor, watching a white screen onto which a vague image of herself is projected as a ghost. The quote here is by Corey Feldman - “Self-realization is great,” which suggestions the location and rebuilding of the core self after a traumatic split.
Kong’s Origin Diorama
It is here where we jump to our next main theme: Kong’s motto “Not Kong’s Fault” and Olive’s “How Olive Feels” - the ‘split self’ or splitting, and disconnection, a defense mechanism created during trauma in which the victim is blamed and is made to feel guilty. Kong’s Origin Diorama is an assemblage of ten square and rectangle box lids containing various vignettes. Each lid is a chapter in Kong’s life story. The top lid shows Kong in the baby stage, she’s represented by many small goggly eyes surrounded by greenery and natural fiber material as if in a forest. Below that is a smaller box, suggestion of childhood play and innocence with colorful flowers where the dual Kong’s begin to manifest. Next to that is Kong’s natural family, represented by large Kong eyes, watching, monitoring, protecting. After that the story becomes dark. Kong is removed from her natural environment. One box is black with simmering starlight: vague memory. The next boxes are exquisite, powerful, and complete.
One box depicts two Kongs together and the coloring is gold and black where one Kong is pulling away from the other,but they are still connected. In the next box the story continues: Kong’s face is surrounded by little human legs with knee socks in a jumble of circular confusion, spinning, and chaos. Lastly are the two final boxes showing the twin Kongs separated into two individual gray silver boxes. It is here where the full split is complete and manifested. Kong is now Moon Child. The Dark and Light are Split.
Queen Olive’s Throne
Kong’s silver moon light and intellectual melancholic beauty is a complement to Olive’s golden sun girl. In Queen Olive’s Throne, a self-indulgent assemblage sculpture, Olive sits on a fancy cake platter as a platform. Again, the idea of ‘good thing’ comes up. Beneath her are baby Olives, little dolls that look just like Olive who admire and follow her. Olive is surrounded by her personal talismans: inspirational stones, plenty of little silver mirrors, tiny silver Oscar awards ( for her acting and dancing, of course), a television set where she watches Dr. Phil, for self-help, pictures of famous paintings, and a paint palette with brushes. It is from here that Olive dishes out her advise to people who need help. When I look at the assemblage of Queen Olive’s Throne, I begin to think of Betye Saar’s goddess shrines. Saar has a few different mystical and reliquary shrine sculptures, but the one that most connects with Olive is the audience participatory piece where visitors place gifts, notes, flowers in a form of blessing and respect.
The plinth on which Olive is displayed is festooned with colorful award ribbons. These are vintage Cat Fancier, Cat Show Awards from the 1960s and 70s. Remember: Olive is a Cat. There are various categories: Best Grand Champion Opp. Sex, Best Premiership, Cheshire Cat Club, Long Hair Specialty, Second Best Premier Malibu Cat Club and many more. Olive, of course, has won all the awards in every possible category. Above her is a cascading arrangement of small golden and pink disks that rain down on Olive and are attached to a group of larger golden sun / moon disks above. Each disk is imprinted with the face of Kong, her BFF and protector, or images of pink female ovaries. The cascading arrangement spins around gently pushed by the Ovary Fan. This is a white plastic fan that is decorated with cut out images of the female ovary and arranged to resemble a flower. It also looks like a breast. The backdrop to all this is a golden sheet. Olive is Oracle Goddess, ancient Circe. She is also Salome, Judith, and many others.
If you need romantic art by male artists for comparison I highly recommend two gold paintings: Henri Regnault’s, 1870 Salome, and Klimt’s, 1901 Judith and the Head of Holofernes. My favorite is Louis Chalon’s 1888, Circe. Just in case you have forgot the stories, Salome and Judith’s men lost theirs heads, and Circe transformed men into pigs.
Lastly, there’s Kong & Olive’s Digital Blog Videos. This is an edited collection of short films first presented on the Kong & Olive blog. It’s from these videos and website conversations where Kong & Olive matured their partnership and intellectual ideas. The website is the ‘motherboard.’ More of Kong & Olive’s personal histories, political ideals, and world view is explored on the blog. MimiSting and Karl, fashion bloggers, also make appearances. It’s entertaining and worth a visit because of all conceptual tidbits and idea seeds. Remember: perfectly imperfect is the new shabby chic. “If you put things away in a too tidy way, then you will only find what you are looking for.” - MimiSting and Karl
The Last Word
Kong & Olive, as we seen them in the exhibition are characters that exist within the history and practice of female sanctuary and shrewd survivalist sisterhood and safekeeping. There’s a lot to say about this and Myra Sontheimer does an excellent job at attempting to identify and then expose some problems. She uses her own personal experiences to do this. The main struggle is that in an attempt to secure each other / protect, women accidentally construct ways of working that unintentionally perpetuate the patriarchal system, out of fear. In an amusing manner, Kong & Olive bring up important timely topics and age-old problems stemming from a deeply twisted understanding of female power. Specifically, the artwork hint at how contemporary Feminist views of what it means to be a successful woman has resulted in some odd unexpected contradictions. To me, it’s just more of the same - telling women what to do. There has never been a time ( in our most recent history) when girls and women were not told how to behave, how to think, and instructed on being ‘careful.’ As I write this, the New York Times published an essay Modest Dressing, as a Virue, while Teen Vogue published How To Shave Your Pubic Area Safely in 6 Steps, and Houston Press released Teach Your Daughters to Hit People Who Touch Them. Blame and responsibility continues to be placed on women to ‘better themselves.‘ So women throughout history have created a sophisticated, and sometimes flawed, cultural system of keeping themselves and each other in a place of strange protection ( purity codes ‘slut shaming,’ behavior and fashion rules, career pressure, and the continued focus on monogamy, marriage, and family as the ideal). Why is this? A ‘handmaiden’ world as described by Atwood is possible because women themselves, in the book, abuse each other, out of fear and self-loathing. It is a horrific break in the sacredness of female sanctuary. Why is this? To keep jobs, to keep positions of protection within the patriarchal system. This is not thriving as women, it’s simply surviving. Kong & Olive teach a lesson: survival and success is tricky and personal for you, for me, for all of us.