Gordon Cheung Interviewed by Yuen Fong Ling
YFL: As a way of introducing this exhibition
of work, could you tell us about some of your ideas and concerns
in your work over the past 5 years?
GC: When I started at Art School on my painting
course there was a feeling that the dominant discourse was to
deal with the issue of the ‘death of painting'.
YFL: Could you explain this issue?
GC: The appearance of photography and mass production
de-stabalised painting as the most culturally elevated means of
producing an image and traumatized it into finding its essence
that distinguished itself from photography giving birth to Modernist
abstract painting that focused on touch, texture, gesture and
eliminated the figurative. To find the essence of painting led
to proclamations of having produced the last painting and ironically
its end or in a more melodramatic tone; its death.
YFL: So how did this affect your thinking during
GC: For a while I felt that this was the right
thing to tow the line but 11 years ago the new technologies that
were becoming readily available like mobile phones and the Internet
meant for me that we were undergoing a technological revolution
that impacted on how we perceived the world. For painting to remain
so insular about itself in order to maintain some sense of Modernist
idea of autonomy was for me an incredible self-indulgent fantasy
and at best a detached philosophical or spiritual enquiry with
very little wider practical or cultural use anymore.
YFL: And how did it effect your art making?
GC: I embraced the feeling that we were in the
midst of accelerated global change and at first deconstructed
my practice of painting into its material constituents and replaced
paint with collage such as maps and stock listings as a direct
metaphor of the changing geo-political landscapes and birth of
a new virtual globalised space. The work during this period dealt
with the genre of abstract painting but overloaded it with information
forcing it into an in-between state of being both an abstract
work and one that referred to beyond itself into the everyday
YFL: And what of this period now?
GC: The development of that work has over the
years led to full figurative works the earliest of which that
are in the show are “Canyon” and “In the Black”.
These are pure collages that developed further to include other
diverse range of materials but always retaining the deconstructive
nature of the work. My interests have always been in the invisible
spaces that saturate us, the flows of data moving around the world
which the stock listings represents in a literal way. The recent
works with images almost hover in an indeterminate space of being
in-between an illusion and actual space. In this way I wanted
to create a sense that the elements of the paintings fragment
encouraging a viewer to take a deconstructive journey to question
their habitual perceptions of our existence.
YFL: So these parallel developments of collage
and digital technology have significantly merged for you, can
you explain how it practically relates to you making a new work?
GC: My recent works uses the Internet for extensive
image research and ‘Photoshop’ to edit and manipulate.
“Google” has enabled me to search for images and sift
through hundreds before settling for one that is just right for
the painting. By working the painting out on Photoshop, I am able
to go through a comparatively huge amount of permutations before
coming to the final composition and colour. If I had to sketch
these all out by hand it would take a prohibitively large amount
of time to achieve anything. Essentially it has accelerated the
development of the process of producing an image. I also print
directly onto the actual stock listings of the “Financial
Times” by scaling the computer image via a grid system and
then ‘jigsaw’ the segments back together onto board
or canvas. In a way it is a traditional system scaling an image
up via a grid but faster in terms of production. The speed of
technology has enabled me to invest a larger amount of my energy
into the development of the ideas.
YFL: The concepts of ‘speed’ and
‘time’ seems to be of importance and by the sounds
of your process, it reminds me of this idea you have had about
‘painting without painting’. With this in mind, how
do you see the labour and value of the ‘hand-made’
in relation to your work?
GC: The idea of ‘painting without paint’
was originally intended as an investigation into what painting
meant for me. By removing actual paint from my practice it made
me question the value of it and also heighten the principles of
painting itself. What is the definition and identity of a painting?
And ultimately, did it matter? Were some of the key questions
that I was trying to understand. By substituting paint for collage
and simulating paint effects I was making a virtual painting that
simultaneously reflected my wider concerns about techno-landscapes
that were increasingly coming into existence and also the ‘death
of painting’ discourse.
YFL: And the ‘hand-made’?
GC: In terms of labour and value of the hand-made
I used to place a huge emphasis on this aspect as I wanted every
physical part of the collage to come from myself to the extent
that I genuinely felt like as though I was having a spiritual
experience. Yet there was always an inherent contradiction in
this relationship between making something hand-made and placing
such great emphasis on it. After all, the collage itself was a
material I did not have a hand in making, other than to select,
cut or shred. Even the canvas or the wood came prepared by some
sort of machinery or the paintbrushes that have been manufactured
in a factory. Even if I was to use paint at that time, it had
also been made in a factory and transported into shops.
YFL: So mechanization had implicitly changed
the concept of ‘time’ for you, and yet they conflicted
with this ideal of Modernism you were grappling with. It feels
like a no-win situation?
GC: To me the whole Modernist idea of pure painting
and its discourse was a stubborn delusion. It was a theoretical
idea that depended on a consensual hallucination about achieving
some sort of transcendence and an insistence on the hierarchical
cultural position of painting. All of these matters I came to
realize were not important in isolation but rather how one came
to implement them as a tool for understanding.
YFL: So you were trying to place yourself into
this art historical context that had no bearing on you as a person…how
did you move forward?
GC: I’m not sure whether it was a conscious
move or if it was something imposed on me through art school where
most of the tutors were abstract painters. I am inclined to think
it was the latter. Either way I moved forward by side-stepping
into the margins by creating works that looked like paintings
but were on closer inspection made from alternative means. The
most recent works have developed ideas to include paint and also
the use of computers. I embrace technology and use it to produce
my paintings from concept to physical finish and there are elements
that are clearly hand-made. There’s pleasure in the hand-made
and a feeling that we are experiencing a kind of handwriting and
therefore subtle human messages. I suppose most of us find it
a more direct expression compared to mechanically produced images.
YFL: Especially in art…yet I sense a change
is happening with the impact of the Internet. So how does your
role as the author of your work play out?
GC: The Internet has given me access to find,
research and quite often accidentally discover a huge range of
inspiring material that is constantly feeding into my creativity.
I love the way it is possible to surf the net and explore interesting
threads that lead you to somewhere entirely different to your
original search. Perhaps I could be seen as a sampler, a kind
of visual DJ or an editor, but I think I transform the images
substantially with many decisions and choices so that they can
be considered new and fused with my vision and voice. Authorship
and authenticity are not really things that I consciously explore
in my work. I embrace the fact that we exist in an information
rich culture from which I channel anything that I connect with
and retranslate into the paintings.
YFL: And how do you think it impacts on you,
as part of a ‘global community’?
GC: I don’t really know how this impacts
on me as part of this global community. I am fascinated and think
it is a truly great thing that we are experiencing a global communications
YFL: Going back to some earlier works, the use
of bi-symmetry, such as “Colliderscape 2”, for me,
suggest self-perception and an instinct to learn from imitation,
how does the use of this optical effect work for you?
GC: The symmetrical landscapes or “Colliderscape”
series suggested a perfect world but inherent in the idea, is
the fact that it cannot exist in actuality.
YFL: Do you think it reflects your idea of culture
GC: The Colliderscape series don’t reflect
those ideas in a deliberate way but it’s true that the experiences
of being both British and Chinese, the acceptances and rejections
by both communities contribute to my identity and therefore the
work. I felt like as though I was in an in-between state of both
belonging and not. My particular life experiences didn’t
lead to a polarisation of identity but rather to accept the blur
of in-between-ness which I think is why I have always been drawn
to the emergence of a global virtual reality. To me when I first
started using collage more than 11 years ago we were at the beginning
of a new communications and digital revolution and the euphoria
of this translated into ideas of global villages, information
superhighways, cyberspace and digital frontiers. We were all global
citizens existing in a virtual space – an in-between state.
YFL: So how then would you describe the moment
in time‚ we live in?
GC: The communications and digital revolutions
collapsed notions of time and distance into the instant reconfiguring
our perceptions of time and space into a state of flux. The 90’s
‘Utopic’ euphoria of the digital frontiers, information
superhighways, cyberspace and global villages gave way to techno-phobic
hysteria of apocalypse from the ‘Millenium Bug’ along
with the technology stock and ‘dot com’ bubble that
YFL: So ‘fear’ has a place in this moment…
GC: We entered the new millenium with one threatening
wave of apocalypse after another with Enron and Worldcom corrupting
and collapsing harshly underlined by the 9/11 attacks, a global
‘War on Terror’ while the world also grappled with
it’s fragile relationship to nature itself. If one significant
pre-millenial moment was marked by the Cold War and the collapse
of one of the Super-powers, the dawn of our new Millenium perhaps
will be marked by the rise of a new Super-power in the shape of
YFL: An exciting prospect…
GC: It will be interesting to see where the tectonic
forces of power will collide, erupt and essentially mark the new
lines of our world order and how that will impact on us….I
want to capture some of that.
Yuen Fong Ling is an artist, former Co-Director of Castlefield
Gallery in Manchester, and currently completing his MFA at Glasgow
School of Art.