Born in London to Chinese parents, Gordon Cheung is an artist who will, whenever possible, talk to people who want to know more about his work. I’m very grateful for all of the occasions when he has given his time to discuss his work with me, conversations which often turn to the topic of science fiction. This interview took place on 4th March 2020, as the impact of COVID-19 was beginning to be recognised in the UK, as the streets of central London started to look very quiet, and elbow bumps had replaced handshakes as the acceptable greeting among friends. Before the interview, we discussed COVID-19 and the strange sense of fear that was taking hold. We talked about whether perhaps there was a sense of xenophobia attached to it, relating specifically to China.
The context of the interview was his exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ held at Edel Assanti Gallery in London from 17th January to 18th March 2020. The interview was a chance to explore Cheung’s fascination with science fiction, the ways in which his practice becomes a lens through which to view some extreme conditions of modernity, and the nature of his work as a series of speculative forms. It was also a chance to talk about these interests in the context of an exhibition that very much looked towards China. The show was presented as a reflection on the continuing emergence of China as a global superpower, an act of witnessing which looks towards futurity as well as to historical narratives, such as the Opium Wars. The five paintings in the exhibition offered aerial views of landscapes, equal part actual and prophetic. These relate to sites of infrastructure projects on an enormous scale. Using a combination of methods, including paint and hardened sand, floating cities coexist with the proposed outlines of new urban realities. These paintings shared the gallery with Home, a sculptural installation made using bamboo and paper from the Financial Times. These sculptures, suspended from the gallery ceiling, were recreated forms of traditional Chinese windows, evoking homes demolished as part of the ongoing process of rapid urbanisation.
Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2001, Gordon Cheung has built a practice around painting, while sometimes making use of sculpture, video and elements of installation. He is best known for his paintings, often large in scale, created on a paper laminate surface made up from stock listings cut from the Financial Times. His 2009 exhibition ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ brought together these elements to create a hallucinatory overview of the present, through evocations of both histories and futures. The exhibition demonstrated the extent to which Cheung’s work had become a visual practice of cognitive estrangement. There is not just a demonstration of an interest in science fiction but rather the construction of a science fictional set of operations manifested in a body of extraordinarily rendered imagery, offering a contested arrangement of the future in a form that demands engagement.
Cheung’s work beguiles and seduces, alluding to the terror of the sublime while exploiting the seductive potential of images and surfaces. He is captivated by the ongoing history of the twenty-first century. Earlier work was preoccupied with his own memories of the promise of a technological revolution, a future that was never to arrive. The hopeful things to come, both social and technological, that Cheung was once led to believe in have been superseded by wave after wave of catastrophe, played out as forces of global capitalism, perpetual conflict, and environmental destruction. Within Cheung’s work, the apocalypse is happening right now.
The thematic and symbolic territory has moved on since Cheung’s ‘Four Horsemen’ exhibition over a decade ago. For some time he developed something of an obsession with tulips, both as a trope of Western painting and as the embodiment of the first speculative economic bubble. As evidenced in the exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ his practice in recent years has increasingly looked at imagery and narratives derived from his fascination with China as global superpower.
DS: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Gordon. Something that has always struck me about what you do, in relation to my interest in science fiction, is that rather than make use of genre elements, to make science fiction a theme or a topic, your work actually operates as a kind of science fiction. Another way of looking at this is that you’ve developed an approach to practice where you use science fiction as a lens through which to see the world. I don’t want to reduce your work to being one thing in particular but I’ve always thought that this was an important dimension to your work, or a way to think about what you do.
I wanted to begin exploring this by going back in time to something that you have said, where you’ve talked about your own expectations about technology and a modernity to come. This relates to how you were thinking at an earlier time in your life, particularly when you were an art student, looking ahead to the end of the century.
GC: When I was first at art school, it was during a time that was a digital and communications revolution. Both the internet and the mobile phone were becoming more available. There was an emerging language of terms, like globalisation, global villages, the information superhighway, digital frontiers, all these utopic terms, experienced as a kind of euphoria with talk of borders and boundaries coming down. There was going to be this new world, in which technology would enable us to connect like never before. As a result, we’d all hold hands, sing songs together, and be happy. Then there was the tech stock crash, the dot-com bubble bursting and the millennium bug. This was a very odd situation or phenomenon. We believed in the West that computers were going to explode in our faces and that airplanes were going to drop out of the sky. It was only in China, I believe, that this hysteria did not catch on. China seemed to keep everything going, looking at us and asking ‘what are you guys doing?’ We were all being told to download a security patch to fix everything, as the computers didn’t understand the date change and were going to overheat and explode. This of course never happened.
DS: It seemed like a lot of companies and institutions had to hire specialists to essentially future proof their systems against this flaw. Without this intervention, everything would crash, the whole operation would cease.
GC: Almost like a techno-snake-oil scam. Somewhere, someone made multiple millions from this.
DS: So, how did you feel, before the millennium bug and the tech stock crash, about all these promises, the information superhighway and so on?
GC: I was very excited. It spoke to my love for the futuristic and for science fiction. I’d always loved those things. I’d long since been drawn to realms of imagination that were embodied by things like Star Wars. As a child I’d draw space battles and that kind of thing.
DS: It seems pertinent that you’d feel a sense of excitement in the 90s. If you look at the history of Western imaginaries and narratives, it looks like the idea of a future grinds to a halt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around the time that humans land on the Moon. It is easy to look back at that time as feeling like the end of the future, that projections about progress, about human civilisation being fundamentally transformed in a positive way by technology, had all ended. You can look back and see a slowing down of ideas around futurity, a reduction of these ideas to almost nothing, or at least nothing positive. This is a massive generalisation of course, but there is then this moment of technological promise in the 90s that is an important reappearance of a supposedly positive futurity in a Western context.
GC: I guess, maybe post-post space race, I hadn’t thought of it in that way. There were so many facets to the science fiction that I’ve enjoyed and the kinds of ideas that were addressed. A lot of the science fiction that I digested was concerned with the Cold War and the Red Menace. Then there were things like The Terminator and Blade Runner, films that were dystopic, raising questions about what it was to be a human being, relationships between us and technology. Reacting at art school to the euphoria around technology while digesting these dark and dystopic fictions perhaps is an indicator of my personality or something, but I’m actually a lot more optimistic about what technology can enable us to do. So it was shocking to experience the Millenium Bug, that we went into the millennium, which was supposed to herald a future for all us, cowering under a security patch to protect us from exploding computers. You couldn’t make this up. If you’d taken this script to Hollywood, you would have been told that it would never ever happen. The year 2001 was overshadowed by the events of 9/11 but we also saw the first too big to fail companies, WorldCom and Enron, suffer and collapse at that time. These institutions were revealed as these kinds of Ponzi schemes, we were beginning to see the cracks in this multinational globalised economy, in these impossible to understand machines that we exist within. This was all before the 2008 financial crisis.
DS: There’s a recurring motif I see emerging in your older work — the ghost, or rather the Scooby Doo ghost, which is you alluding to a manufactured or fake fear. It is a visual motif that sums up an example of people looking for fear in the wrong places. While something like the Millenium Bug is built up and grabs all the attention, these other forces are also at work, which are to shape the early years of the new century. The focus of fear and anxiety was directed in the wrong places. This seems to then unfold as a sequence of manufacturing fear that continues today.
GC: The 2001 9/11 attacks spawned hysterical absurdity. As well as all of the lives lost in the violence of the attacks, there was this rapid spiral into what we now call fake news. There was a manufactured consent to go to war with a country that had nothing to do with the attacks. People were quickly and easily bamboozled through the theatre of politics to become willing participants, allowing our leaders and governments to bomb people who had nothing to do with the attack.
DS: There were protests against this, huge demonstrations of people who were opposed to military action.
GC: I was on that march in London, millions of people here, with many more around the world. But then there was a child witness who had seen babies taken from incubators and thrown. The story got repeated over and over again in the US. This became part of the justification used to convince people that it was necessary to take down a dictator. When it was discovered that this witness was the daughter of a Kuwaiti diplomat, and that the story was fabricated, things had already been set in motion. These are incredible manipulations of fear. It is cruel and cynical, particularly as we should be afraid of violence and injustice, and should act to stop those things. But the methods and reasons that our leaders choose can so often be little more than manipulations and lies. It’s such a cynical understanding of human emotion and morality, used to enact something that should not be done.
DS: So, what years are you at the Royal College of Art, in London, doing your postgraduate study?
GC: 1999 to 2001.
DS: You are there at the cusp of the millenium, at the transition into the new century. You begin under the pall of the Bug, what you see in the world around when you graduate is this new disturbed era.
GC: Well before all of that was the Hong Kong handover in 1997. Before that there were all these other moments of shock, surprises, the Berlin Wall, the freeing of Mandela, these moments where you were like whoa, what was that? There is some serious stuff going on. But Hong Kong in 97 was particularly striking for me. I was watching the handover on TV. I didn’t really understand what was happening, I just knew that it was important, really important. It was pulling at my sense of identity in different ways. Back then, in my early twenties, I didn’t know what empire was. I didn’t know what the British Empire had done and why Hong Kong was a British colony. I didn’t understand any of this, I didn’t even know what a colony was, not really. It’s only in the years since then that I’ve begun to understand it better. So there was this kind of excitement or euphoria around all these historical events in the latter part of the last century. But then there were these dystopic or apocalyptic waves. Perhaps that’s the case all the time? That there are always these multiple events that represent utopia and dystopia, breathing almost, inhaling, exhaling. It just happened that these things we’re talking about existed over the threshold of the millenium, so became that much more significant in the collective psyche. But from 2001, and the consequence of one of my friends dying in the 7/7 attacks in London, and Tony Blair’s shoulder to shoulder participation in the war, made me question more the given narratives provided by our leaders and the media. Over the years I’ve changed the way I digest news, cross referencing multiple sources to try to get closer to some kind of truth.
DS: When would you say you started to try and deal with this politicised landscape through images? Is it something that happened at the Royal College? When did you start to develop the complex and layered narratives that you present visually? When did you come up with a method or an approach to constructing your non linear narratives?
GC: In my interview for art school I presented these self portraits, of an angry young man, typical cliched angsty stuff, but I got in. But then the first thing that I did at St. Martins was to question what painting was. There was this dominant discourse of the death of painting —
DS: It was the 90s!
GC: Yeah, it was the 90s. I found this idea of the death of painting really weird. It struck me as odd to be questioning the existence or validity of a medium. As a discourse, it seemed detached from any realities. So, when I had this digital and communications revolution starting to take place around me, and there is this euphoria around what this technology will enable, it made me think about how to capture this sense of history and bring it into my work. I had this idea of painting without paint. I removed paint from the process of painting. I exchanged pigment for information. I started to use the stock listings from the Financial Times as a way to capture the new information spaces that we are living in. It began as a form of abstraction in my art school years, and I was trying to grapple with finding a self-constructed language that was sidestepping the dominant narratives of the death of painting through abstraction. Touch, gesture, surface, writing, these were the dominant themes for me but I was substituting and augmenting many aspects of those things with collage, with layering and mechanical reproduction. I was able to explore and absorb something about the materials of our current histories. I wanted to try and capture a sense of what it means to live in a situation where all of these narratives are flying at you, both euphoric and apocalyptic. In 2001 there were more natural disasters recorded than in any other time. The twenty-first century was clearly going to be about the existential relationship that we have to our environment and to climate change. But then there are all of these science fiction narratives about robots taking over, sentient AI and so on, these were some of the things that became foundations and the building blocks for my current interests.
DS: You talked about depicting certain forms of information space. For me, that’s an amazing cognitive leap, to start to think in those terms. It’s interesting to look back to the promises of the future that were made in the 90s. Those promises demanded this kind of cognitive leap, to cross over wide spaces of how things could be understood. I struggled to get my head round this thing called the internet that my friend was trying to describe to me. Similarly, when I read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I didn’t really understand the information spaces being described. It demanded a shift or expansion in how I thought about things. How did you get to the point where you realised that you needed to represent information space?
GC: Neuromancer was exactly the thing that got me to that point, and the film Tron before that. But I also remember growing up in the era of the home computer. The TV, with its three channels, was this one way delivery system. To then have the ability to move the pixels on the screen in a computer game was magical, as if I could reach into the screen and influence the images and actions. You project this idea of agency or control inside this space, behind the screen. This felt very profound, particularly when extrapolated into these new worlds in science fiction stories. It all makes for an engrossing world of possibilities. The opening of Neuromancer describes the sky, which is the colour of a tv tuned to a dead channel. The imagining of the sky as buzzing with dense information is essentially what the internet became, and by extension, what the stock market is. This space that completely saturates us. The information flows through us at the speed of light.
DS: Do you remember when you made that connection to the stock market? This global network that is abstract, symbolic, real and concrete all at the same time. It has this tidal pull. When did you look at those listings and think that it was that world of information you describe?
GC: Well, the news constantly talks about the stock market.
DS: Yes, but I would just ignore it. It was on a par with football results, I’d just switch off.
GC: Unlike football results, these things have a huge impact on the world. The stock market represents capitalism and consumerism. It is economics and data. It promises wealth, it is a kind of casino. It was later on that I fully understood it as a parasite, as a way of making money that doesn’t really contribute anything to the productive life of society.
DS: But it drives so much and our lives are tied into it so much that our sense of agency feels diminished.
GC: Yes, when the market crashes, there are real consequences. It has an impact on us but we are not involved in it. These are part of a world of complicated events that I wanted to try and understand. In a lot of science fiction, like in the film Alien, for example, corporations have essentially taken over everything. This is a projection of the logic of capitalism, that governments will be taken over by huge and powerful corporations.
DS: One of my excuses for having a lifelong fascination with science fiction is the way it can sensitise you to these kinds of structures and discourses around power that might not otherwise be so obvious, particularly in relation to other spaces of representation. This is precisely what you are describing in Alien. Science fiction can present speculative situations in which corporations have the power that you would traditionally associate with the state. With this comes an acknowledgement of the power that corporations already have. This is actually already built into many political systems. Science fiction, it seems, has traditionally been comfortable telling those stories. Paul Verhoeven’s science fiction films were really interesting in that regard too.
GC: Yeah, there’s fascism, police states, attacks on progressive values and so on.
DS: So, these are very accessible spaces of interpretation and critique, often in a kind of disguise.
GC: Science fiction holds up a mirror. It’s a distorted mirror of course, almost a funfair mirror, but it allows us to see something in a different way. That ability to shake our fixed ideas of something enables the possibility of revising a perspective. We are able to see things from a different point of view, or from multiple points of view. It expands our cognitive abilities. It is to be able to look at things cubistically. Reality has multiple truths and narratives. Sometimes they are hidden from us. The one that is given to us is the mainstream version necessary for a particular leadership to get us to do stuff, to make us beholden to their beliefs. Revealing a hidden narrative might destabilise, and make you question the version of events given to you. Science fiction has that power to be able to open spaces of imagination that are beyond what you perceive to be real. That perception of reality has been provided for you, whether from a culture or leadership, it is important to question it.
DS: Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘A Small History of Photography,’ refers to Bertold Brecht and borrows this saying, that a photograph of a factory tells us very little about the factory. It tells us nothing about what life is like for the workers in the factory, it tells us nothing about the impact that the factory has on the world around it. That has become a very useful way of thinking about some of the things that science fiction can offer, as opposed to more conventional documentary or realist modes.
GC: That reminds me of a quote from Watchmen about the value of a photograph of an oxygen molecule to a drowning man.
DS: There’s an early work of yours that you showed to me in your studio many years ago, it’s an image taken from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was wondering if you could say something about that work and the scene that it depicts?
GC: So, you’re talking about the scene of pre-dawn man, in which this proto-human’s tribe has been in contact with the monolith, this mysterious and ambiguous alien artefact. We’re led to understand that some sort of knowledge has been passed. This pre-dawn ape comes to understand that if you use a bone as a weapon, you can conquer this pool of life which all of the ape tribes drink from. By violence and murder, this ape secures the survival of its tribe and then throws the bone into the air. As the bone rotates through the air, the image cuts to a space station in orbit. Kubrick seems to be suggesting that the evolution of humanity is intertwined with violence. This is an uncomfortable truth. Or perhaps a truism? But I found it an idea that was profoundly delivered in the film, which brings us forward in time to a sentient AI which seems more human than the astronauts on board the ship. They are trapped with HAL, who is so rationally determined to save the mission that it’s been programmed to fulfil that it realises the need to eliminate the crew. Dave Bowman then becomes this Starchild at the end, which suggests another evolutionary state. In the film, this suggests a kind of hope for humanity, to become more than what it is. These were amazing ideas to me. What does it mean to be human? Where do we want humanity to go? There is also this acknowledgement of the darkness of our own species, and the impact we have on other species.
DS: All of this discussion comes from a very small image, a small work that becomes a kind of shorthand for a lot of ideas and thoughts, some of them troubling, some of them hopeful. This image becomes very useful for referencing a lot of things and it feels as if this is a technique that you have adopted and are still using. You’ll use fragments, elements, pieces within these elaborately constructed canvas works where these parts are a shorthand for a large-scale discussion.
GC: Absolutely, but all images are in a way shorthand. It depends on how much someone wants to find out about. You could look at this image and just think it is this primal scene.
DS: But then anyone who has seen the film can pick up on all of the things that you described.
GC: I think of films and other popular narratives as modern mythologies, or like the tales told by bards in other times. These are stories that have had an impact on millions of people, have been taken to heart, become part of their identities. This isn’t necessarily a dominant part of their identity but it is part of it, part of the tapestry. We are linked to these tapestries of mythology in these entertainment systems that we are part of.
DS: We were talking earlier about how fans of some kinds of entertainment, some franchises of science fiction, become so invested in the topic of their fandom but fail to invest the same kind of emotional attention, of anger or enthusiasm or excitement about issues in real life. It has become common to invest so much in these modern mythologies that lived experience and the world around us gets somewhat ignored.
GC: It’s a safe zone. You’re free to empathise. You’re free to cry over the plight of these characters in a way that you wouldn’t when watching the news. If you empathise with the news, with some kind of reality, there is a risk of responsibility. In the cinema, with stories, with fiction, you are free to feel without consequence. You don’t need to feel responsible. You don’t need to act. There is the illusion of a tangle of morality which becomes entertaining. It becomes this expansion of your cognitive realities in a safe and controlled way. In fiction, there is no guilt or hypocrisy when you don’t act. You can turn it off. You don’t need to feel about witnessing something awful and doing nothing about it.
DS: So, when you came out of the Royal College, you became very interested in the apocalyptic. This was the apocalypse not as something projected into the future but as something unfolding in the present, something ongoing.
GC: I came to realise that the apocalypse is being enacted, is something being done to people around the world by the very civilisation that I belong to. When you hear stories of children being afraid of the sky, because of fear of drone attack, this is not a reality that I face. Hearing these stories makes you comprehend the difference of your reality. These are people facing real existential danger. These are people who are having their homes destroyed through no fault of their own. These kinds of fears and conditions are things that we might see as tropes in dystopian films. People trapped at borders, in refugee camps, in places where the rule of law is missing.
DS: About ten years ago, you had a large show in Walsall in the West Midlands, where you used an image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. You used this image, this motif, as a theme to explore a lot of the ideas we’ve been talking about. Could you say something about what you did with the Four Horseman?
GC: The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse was a response to the 2008 financial crisis. There was all this talk of these masters of the universe, these bankers who took the economy down. It was also a reference to the Iraq war but I was interested in these classic, traditional ideas of the end of the world that were being used to somehow help us understand our modern end of the world. For a two week period, these companies were collapsing, in some cases they had been in existence for over 150 years. Their stock prices went down to nothing. These too big to fail companies were like dominoes, collapsing on this biblical scale. These gigantic monoliths of power and financial might were crumbling before our eyes. Some parts of the media were talking about it as the end of capitalism, questioning whether the system itself could survive. That was how afraid people were. Would the rule of law be stable, would society continue and so on. And it did, well, we kicked the can down the road, we’ll see how things continue. But at that moment, it was this compelling and profound moment of fear and I wanted to find a way to capture that. I used the motif of the bull rider. So the stock market is called the bull and the bear markets, mythologically in terms of attack, the bear strikes down and the bull thrusts up. It is aggressive terminology, attack metaphors to describe this artificial space. In this mythological world, I exchanged the four horsemen for the four bullriders. I added another metaphor to that which was the Minotaur. This half-beast, half-man was for me the banker, this creature that is the epitome of predatory capitalism. The bullriders are macho, themselves a kind of mythology of retained masculinity from another era. It was a convergence of different mythological elements.
DS: For me, there were different ways in which that show was science fictional. There was the nature of the imagery, characterised by these toxic, petrodelic landscapes. Strangely recognisable, a bit like those moments in the stargate sequence in 2001 when actual aerial footage of landscapes is coloured to appear alien. Recognisable but distorted. Twisted into something with an apocalyptic sensibility. Relating to the sublime as well. Then there is this other sense of world building, of developing a mythology with rigour and thoroughness. So it is partly visual, partly down to a considered and detailed process of world building, constructing the logic of this reality, a logic of the fantastic. All of this has a referent in the world of reality.
GC: That may all stem from me taking LSD as a teenager. It blew my mind, literally. Before that point, reality was reality. When you interrupt the processes by which your brain constructs this, with a hallucinogen, suddenly everything appears as psychedelic colours, as patterns forming when you look at the grass, or the dappled light coming through leaves onto the ground turns into hexagonal shapes. When you’ve experienced this you come to realise that the brain is just an instrument through which you perceive reality. That experience opened up the horizon. You understand that you are inside a machine, in a way, and that you’re looking through the instruments that have been given to you, through which your consciousness exists. So, this widening of your perception, of your horizons, is something that I aspire to achieve with my paintings. To look at reality through a multi-faceted view. Not a fixed point. We have multiple ways of looking, multiple genders, biases, cognitive dissonances and so on.
DS: The show was incredibly ambitious in that way. It was constantly interrupting itself. There were three spaces which each did different things, and there would be these counterpoints. A very large painting of the Four Horsemen (after the Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov) was in the same space as a series of your own distorted versions of Durer’s apocalypse woodcuts (from 1498). These were small images, burned into layers of the Financial Times with a laser. These were next to an image of a mourning family, of a man who died at Abu Ghraib. As a viewer you are being walked into these different realities, as well as different methods of making the work. You also had a video installation. There were these projected animations of the bullriders that looked like your paintings had been brought to life. These projections were accompanied by a refrain from The End by The Doors. The sound of the song pollutes the whole thing, all the rooms. Somehow you feel like you are in this machine, this machine that is distorting reality. It is a distorted reality of global finance and unfolding apocalypse, but is also distorting the reality of experiencing the work. It was quite an immersive experience.
GC: The room that had the Four Horsemen and Durers, and the image of the family holding up a photograph of someone who was tortured and murdered in Abu Ghraib. I wanted these indelibly powerful consequences of certain mythological narratives, which take us to bombing another country, and then doing the very thing that we accused them of doing. It was this Nietzschean concept of staring into the abyss and the abyss staring back at you, of the danger of fighting monsters and then becoming one yourself. I wanted to have a modern version of the end of the world contrasted with a historical one. In another room, I also had Top Ten Billionaires, Top Ten Hackers and Top Ten Celebrities Earning After Death. The top ten is an absurd way of listing and measuring things. I wanted that absurdity. The complexity of comprehending the vast scope of our human existence and civilisation is so overwhelming that we need shorthand forms, stepping stones towards understanding. The billionaire is a new type of class. Some are arguing whether they should even exist, as they represent the accumulation of wealth on such a vast scale that they damage economies and societies. The last room was this immersive video installation made up of four looping projections of the four bulls, like infinite gods. The real gods, though, are really the billionaires, while the four horsemen as imagined in the past dominate a wall in the first room. These are all competing mythologies that set up oscillations between utopias and dystopias.
DS: I still have vivid memories of that show and it felt like I was experiencing a kind of science fictional encounter. It reminded me of lots of things that I love about science fiction but you brought those things together in ways that not only emphasised the uniqueness of contemporary art and what it can do, but that really was very much your own configuration of how these things come together and operate.
GC: I was trying to create new languages. This in a way comes back to the time when I was at Saint Martin’s, trying to paint without paint. It was a way of trying to find alternative languages. Also, Because my identity is in-between. I was born in the UK and I have a relationship with Hong Kong, which I also consider to be a home. The conflict that I have come to terms with, with how people like to designate an identity, is something I’ve found empowering. I can accept ambiguity. An ambiguity that a lot of people can’t accept. They like fixed statements about something. That’s why I’m always challenging overarching narratives: Good versus evil, democracy versus communism. Which is often used, or has been historically, to designate good versus evil. To try and look beyond these simplifications and reductions, to the complexities of living in civilisations in frameworks of geopolitical histories written by victors.
DS: Maybe you could say something about how your attention has shifted towards China.
GC: Even when I was student, I remember that it seemed like people were talking about a rise of China as a world power. This was something I didn’t really understand, I wasn’t aware of histories of empire. It is something that has continued to be talked about with fascination, a kind of admiration for these economic miracles, but also in terms of unsustainable growth. And then there are those who are dismissive of the scale or success of China’s economic growth, despite it far exceeding Western nations. There is a lot of criticism of their economic policies, on the basis that they are being enacted by the communist state, or a dictatorship. Over the years, I’ve gravitated more towards China, I’ve tried to understand more about what is happening there. In 2008, when I was interested in the birth of modern capitalism, I started looking at the Dutch Golden Age, which led me to think about the first globalised company, which was the East India Trade Company. So I was thinking about how this company helped globalise trade routes, colonisation, slavery, things which are not often depicted. Then to looking at the contemporary form of capitalism and what is happening in China, looking at the extraordinary project. Looking at what they’ve done, such as building more railways and roads than in the entire world’s history. They brought 800, 000, 000 people out of poverty in a matter of decades. These are extraordinary achievements and now their largest project, the Belt and Road project connecting over 170 nations for mutual trade through infrastructural investment, as fraught with problems as it is, is still an enormous undertaking. Looking at how a civilisation is conducting itself on the world stage, compared to the US empire and the West has been of interest to me, especially as I try to traverse an understanding of the British Empire versus Imperial China.
DS: It is interesting how you came to that through looking at the Dutch Golden Age, thinking about tulips as a kind of origin of contemporary capitalism. You are developing methods of research that employ a kind of distance, or looking at things through a lens.
GC: 2008 was this very confusing moment, I didn’t understand how an economy could collapse on a global scale just because the bankers were corrupt. This led me to look into the idea of an economic bubble, the first of which to be recorded was tulip mania. I found it absurd that this happened over a flower but no more absurd than the 2008 crisis. At least then you actually got a tulip bulb. There was this insanity, this casino mentality of the global market that had such an impact on human civilisation. Tulip mania led me to looking at the East India Trade Company as well as the genre of flower painting. This genre always seemed benign, but the inclusion of tulips and the symbolic references assigned to the flowers was really interesting to me. The flower isn’t just a flower. It is not just an image of beauty. Still life paintings aren’t just about the transience of life, reminders of our fragile mortality.
DS: There’s something about how you remade those still lifes that has to do with science fiction’s ability to defamiliarise, to perform cognitive estrangement.
GC: In order to be able to reflect back on our modernity, looking into both the past and future blurs modern reality between different times.
DS: Around the time you started working with still life imagery you also started to introduce glitch technology into your production process.
GC: I found an open source algorithm that rearranges the pixels of an image without destroying, erasing or copying over them. So the images that are glitched can, theoretically, be put back together in the original form. What you get is something that questions the idea of a fixed image. It realigns pixels into gradients. This notion of reordering is a metaphor for the repetition of history. The same images and narratives are reorganised into a different form.
DS: Sometimes on your Instagram account you’ll take a current news image and transform it.
GC: I hashtag those as a history glitch. It is usually moments where there is this dominant narrative tendency towards simplification, such as good versus evil. I’m interested in the images being reordered as if to say that there is more than one way to look at it, to encourage consideration of wider geo-political circumstances. To think more about why something might be happening. The algorithm was first used on open source images of still lives from the Rijksmuseum. These were reproductions of paintings that included tulips. These interested me because of tulip mania and the first economic bubble. It was a way for me to suggest that we are cycling through these things from the past, without learning any lessons from the past.
DS: It seems that in turning your attention to China, you are returning to an idea about new mythic narratives concerning futurity and the future. It is a shift away from futures as Western narratives of supremacy and manifest destiny. In one way, it could just be that you are drawing attention to things happening in China but in the creation of your images there is the use of elements that you’ve been developing for years. They become like motifs. They contain a lot of information.
GC: They are like maps within maps.
DS: There are visual devices that serve another sense of purpose, as elements of world building. Or as the elements of a story. It feels like an epic narrative, something like Frank Herbert’s Dune or NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. It is like a huge story about ecology and power and the destiny of a whole population.
GC: That is me wanting to avoid simplified narratives of good versus evil, democracy versus communism, liberty versus dictatorship. I find these oppositions un-useful as a way of understanding the realities of civilisations that lie on geopolitical fault lines.
DS: Thank you. That is quite a place to end this interview. It really sums up how your work offers a space to build new kinds of narratives that reflect this sense of depth and complexity.
Dr Dan Byrne-smith is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Theory at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL. He is the editor of Science Fiction: Documents of Contemporary Art (2020) published by the Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press. His practice makes use of improvised electronic sounds in relation to site and visual elements, exploring dimensions of narrative, affect and deep listening.