Climb the Institute Library stairs and enter the constellations.

Whether lit from within, as in antique boxes covered with blue transparencies, or from without, as in a View-Master reel held up to the window, the works in Monica Ong’s Planetaria, on view through September 8, are studded with stars and poetry. Ong’s creations bring together the mathematical precision of geometry and physics with the artistic precision of language in an attempt to express what may ultimately be inexpressible: the bonds of family, the displacement of the immigrant, the struggle of women to be seen.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

In The Star Gazer (2021), a paper dial rests inside a frame, creating a manual wheel chart—a “volvelle”—for locating the constellations on a particular date and time while facing a particular direction, but here the pinpricks of stars are interspersed with tiny gilded phrases of poetry. In one display case, Ong documents the difficulty of creating for The Star Gazer an accurate planisphere—a representation of a spherical object on a planar surface—of the Soochow (or Suzhou) Astronomical Chart, a 13th-century Chinese chart of the heavens. Among her sketches and taped-together drafts, she includes snippets of correspondence with an expert in Paris who attempted to help her accurately render the Soochow chart. “I was reminded whilst playing with your image that the rubbing of the Suzhou Sky Map itself has inaccuracies in it that make it frustratingly difficult to realign its ecliptic, pole and colures to another date using a couple of guide stars, even as a slap-dash solution,” he writes in one note.

The impossibility of making an accurate chart seems, ultimately, to serve Ong’s project. There isn’t an easy fix, here or in life. In addition, because the volvelle’s dial rotates inside a frame, you’ll never see all of the chart and its poetry at once, just as you’ll never see all of the stars together in the sky nor gain a full understanding of life’s challenges.

Disconnected phrases, themselves riffs on the names of constellations, float in gold text on a dark sky; often, several combinations are plausible depending on where your gaze travels:

You are here
to enter the
palace of your life
to meet
on the side
of the road
beneath a tender sky

Or possibly:

You are here
to enter the
palace of your life
step off
the way Chang’e floats
over swelling waters
your solitude
a deeper

The confluence of math and poetry extends to many of the pieces in Planetaria. A series of pages that look as if they were torn from a worn textbook explores the geometry of movement and the trajectory of comets as a way of talking about family and motherhood and what it means to be a woman. Several pieces pay homage to women in science, including the astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), in whose memory Ong created a custom View-Master reel of seven images.

Ong’s words are like stars that, when connected, create a rudimentary picture that still requires some imagination on the part of the viewer. In a sense, her dark and beautiful meditations turn the reader into an explorer, much like Herschel or Ong herself.

The Institute Library – 847 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues & Thurs 11am-3pm, Fri 4-5:30pm, Sat noon-2pm through September 8
(203) 562-4045

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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