Before coming to New York City, Ming-Jer Kuo (b. 1972, Taipei) was an environmental engineer assigned to government projects in Taiwan for more than 11 years. In 2011, he left behind a comfortable life in civil service and steady income in Taipei, arrived in the U.S. alone, and became a graduate student in photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Like many, Kuo believed that living in a metropolis like New York was part of the pilgrimage to becoming an artist, but for him, the physicality of the city itself— its scale, rapid rhythm, and verticality— became his mecca.
The seeds of attraction to urban rhythm were planted at a young age in Kuo’s mind. He considers himself a city boy. Growing up in Taipei, Kuo explored the urban spectacle of Taiwan’s largest and most populated urban area with a film camera his father gave to him when he was a child. As an environmental engineer, he surveyed land and infrastructure and collected, analyzed, and presented data visually and objectively. Kuo’s observant eyes accompanied him as he shifted to being an artist who interprets the city’s physical form by blurring the boundaries between architecture, urban planning, design, and photography.
Kuo is deeply fascinated by the city as a changing and extremely complex system, one whose form is only partially revealed through maps. Before online maps became widely available, Kuo frequently relied on GPS to spot potential pollution points as part of his job in Taiwan. By the time he moved to New York, mapping services such as Google Maps became popular and offered various types of views. Browsing online maps and satellite images to look for unfamiliar places became part of Kuo’s daily routine.
While looking at satellite images, he started to notice manmade patterns reflected in urban design. It occurred to Kuo that he should try to work with data retrieved from the internet for his creative process. The former engineer began to experiment with screenshots from Google Maps, and he developed into an expert in highlighting urban elements from satellite images—houses, roads, piers, airport construction, and graveyards—and introducing them in unfamiliar contexts.
In his City Shape series, Kuo painstakingly extracted artificial patterns of cities from satellite views to reveal the abstract shapes within them. One image for a particular area may be composed from Photoshop files as large as several gigabytes and could take up to one year to be created. The results are transformative. Deprived of “background noise” on the map such as side streets and fields, the city of Houma, Louisiana bears a striking resemblance to Louise Bourgeois’s Spider. The sprawling “legs” appear as if the city constantly moves, devouring any obstacles as it expands while leaving behind a vast urban web. The mass of the urban area — dense buildings, traffic and crowds —usually hides our perception of its organic form, and Kuo’s imagery, executed with meticulous attention to detail, recalls human beings’ subconscious longing for nature. When nature creates the most efficient patterns and systems, humans mimic.
Kuo also turns his eyes to the area around cities, where suburban communities are planned and built in more systematic and regular ways. “I transform patterns of construction into myriad forms to reflect the expansion of America’s mass-produced and standardized lifestyle as it has been expressed in suburban housing projects,” he says of his Suburban Housing series. Connected by streets and paths, these man-made communities resemble plant branches and leaves.
In addition to flat representations of suburban housing developments, Kuo fuses natural forms and suburban construction images into three-dimensional vine-like sculptures. In Suburban Form, recreated as site-specific installations, processed satellite images are printed on transparent acetate film, cut out, and suspended, sometimes together with actual dried vines. With shifting perspective and scale, the floating tangle comes alive and changes with the movement of the viewer.
Kuo has incorporated this work into various spaces, from office buildings to factory-turned art venues. Spanning as long as 24 feet, it creates an immersive environment for its audiences. A new iteration just debuted on Amsterdam Ave. in Harlem, where Kuo filled an empty storefront in collaboration with chashama—an organization that partners with property owners to nurture artists through unused real estate.
Kuo’s questing mind for urban patterns is best reflected in a poetic series, The Cemetery. Focusing on negative spaces within an urban area, he divorced tombstones from two New York City graveyards and presented viewers with a territory of death, a place that the living rarely notices. Memorials of loved ones who have passed away are turned into stars in Kuo’s astronomical imagery. We become stars after we die.
Kuo is not only interested in viewing the urban landscape from above, but also in reconstructing elements found in aerial photographs to create his own custom city skylines that are absurd and unlikely. In this playful recreation of the city, he collects and rearranges the usually unseen construction sites of urban infrastructure, such as half-built airports and piers, reshaping our imagination of the iconic New York City skyline. His depictions are far from reality, but as bold, super-tall skyscrapers sprout on Manhattan’s streets, they foretell the metamorphosis of the metropolitan skyline into something unfamiliar. To Kuo, the urban skyline symbolizes “verticality of human desire”— one that is intense and never-ending, but Reconstruction encourages viewers to “rethink the imagery of a city and the way we see cities.”
Kuo turns cold, distant data into something that we, as urban dwellers with a tremendous sense of being overwhelmed, can relate to. “The view from a satellite is not a human one, nor is it one we were ever really meant to see,” said Jenny Odell, an artist who also works with satellite images and inspired Kuo, “But it is precisely from this inhuman point of view that we are able to read our own humanity, in all of its tiny, repetitive marks upon the face of the earth.”
Suburban Form continues at 1351 Amsterdam Ave. until April 8, 2017.
The article has been updated to more accurately reflect Kuo’s employment as an engineer.