IN LOOKING at Mei-Ling Hom's "Floating Mountains Singing Clouds," an installation of cloud forms made of interlocking wire on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery's entrance pavilion, I am reminded of three things.
The first is an exchange I had with my 6-year-old son recently while driving through the District during an especially gorgeous sunset. "I'm glad we live near the mountains, Daddy," he said. "Um, yeah," I replied distractedly, scratching my head. "I guess we live sort of near the mountains."
"No, Daddy," he answered, exasperated at my foolish literalism. "I'm talking about the clouds, because they look like mountains." Like Hom, whose shapes of sculpted "hex netting" (aka chicken wire) resemble both clouds and mountains -- hence her title -- my son had seen a connection I had missed. It did feel as though you could just reach out the window of the car and touch them. As it does at the Sackler. If Hom's airy constructions were hung just a little bit lower, you probably could.
The second thing I am reminded of is the 6th-century poem posted on the wall of the Sackler. It's the text of a certain Daoist wise man's answer to the emperor Wu, who became indignant when the sage, who had been offered an audience with Wu, insisted that the ruler come to the sage's mountain home instead:
On the peaks there are many white clouds
One can only count them for oneself
I cannot take them and send them to you.
What Hom has done, in effect, is to bring the clouds down to the emperor (or, if you prefer, to bring the mountain to Mohammed). In this transitional space -- the Sackler's "foyer," if you will -- she has brought a little bit of the outside in. Emptied of almost all furnishings except the information desk and a few wooden benches, and accompanied by a piece of recorded music by composer Eli Marshall, played on Chinese flute (or xiao), the room becomes not a place to stride through mindlessly, but a space of quiet contemplation.
For, in addition to mountains, Hom's artificial clouds also resemble ducks, tadpoles and the hand of a hitchhiker, at least according to several museum visitors the other day. "You think it looks like a croissant?" a woman asked the little girl accompanying her. "I think it looks like a manatee."
They are actually neither clouds nor mountains (nor manatees, for that matter) but metaphors. For what? For anything, really. For "cultural markers that don't have a form," to use the words of the Chinese American artist, who, in an interview with the curator, Debra Diamond, also observes that they're only as Chinese as she is. "The tough part, there," Hom says, "even for me, is figuring out how Chinese I am."
Clouds and not clouds. Mountains and not mountains. Manatees and croissants. Chinese and not Chinese. Inside and out. Something and (depending on how the light is shining on them) nothing.
Which brings me to the third thing I'm reminded of when I look at "Floating Mountains Singing Clouds," which has a way of feeling both decorative and kind of profound; a little bit silly and a little bit serious at the same time; familiar and ultimately unknowable. It's the Joni Mitchell song "Both Sides, Now," and it goes like this:
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all.
PERSPECTIVES: MEI-LING HOM -- Through March 5 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.asia.si.edu. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.