Dan Byrne-Smith in conversation with Gordon Cheung

Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

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. 

Gordon Cheung, String of Pearls, courtesy of Edel Assanti gallery, 2020   
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Science Fiction edited by Dan Byrne-Smith

The MIT Press/Whitechapel Art Gallery (2020), 240 pp

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler. This review first appeared in Vector 292.

There is a moment in an 1836 lecture at the Royal Institution when John Constable argues that “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” Various nineteenth century artists actually made science-fictional paintings — John Martin and Thomas Cole spring to mind — and groups of artists such as the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Surrealists embraced the ambiguities of modern technology in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1956, the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened by Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and featured science-fictional imagery among its utopian and dystopian reactions to post-war, consumerist Britain. Among its many visitors was a new writer called J.G. Ballard. 

It is thus appropriate that this book on science-fiction art is published by the Whitechapel Art Gallery (in conjunction with MIT). As part of the Documents in Contemporary Art series — other titles include The Gothic, Beauty, Abstraction, The Sublime and Ruins— it brings together extracts from theoretical essays, academic journals, museum catalogues, interviews and written creative works, mainly produced in the last two decades. The book is arranged by theme rather than chronologically: “Estrangement”, “Future”, “Posthumanism” and “Ecology”, the first being driven by academic definitions of sf and the others by three broad areas of sf art. It is perhaps surprising that “Utopia”, “Dystopia”, “Technology” or “The City” are not sections, but it seems a reasonable breakdown. There is no editorial voice to situate each extract, beyond the bare fact of bibliography, and so most voices are gifted equal status, some contesting and others contradicting. Occasionally I longed for a map, or perhaps a clarification of whether, say, Afrofuturism starts in 1993 (South Atlantic Quarterly) or 1994 (that issue reprinted as Flame Wars) and I’m not clear whose typo M.R. Shiel was. And the volume assumes that you are familiar with the artists under discussion — a good many of them were names new to me, reflecting the eclectic range.

Across the volume there are some leading academic voices, such as Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Darko Suvin — represented by judicious extracts from central works — and writers such as Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Ted Chiang, Tom McCarthy and Kim Stanley Robinson. Atwood is given prominence as someone who has been accused of committing science fiction and who begs off the label, as what she writes isn’t what she thinks science fiction is, and she apologises that we may have taken offence at being misled into thinking it is science fiction. This is nicely countered in the interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, “Whenever science fiction gets interesting, then people try to give it another name. […] If its content becomes relevant, you call it cyberpunk, cli-fi, Anthropocene literature or dystopian fiction” (195). Nevertheless, Atwood places herself in the Vernian rather than the Wellsian tradition. But, of course, she isn’t producing art, in the sense of the other practitioners in the book.

The heart of the “Estrangement” section is an extract from Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which situates science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (36). It is estrangement that is picked up on by the rest of the book — the sense of the familiar becoming unfamiliar and the unfamiliar becoming familiar, which we can surely see in the dialectical dance between the artistic simulation of, say, a landscape in paint or the reimagining of a location thanks to its depiction. Estrangement is a socio-political act, persuading us to think about the real world in a new way. The cognitive part of the equation — loosely, the science — is not really discussed in the extract, although Sherryl Vint picks it up in the next one. Suvin’s formulation allows us to see art in Pawel Althamer’s salutation to the new millennium in a Warsaw housing estate and then the travels of its inhabitants in gold spacesuits to Brasilia, Belgium, Mali and Oxfordshire. It empowers Afrofuturism and a huge amount of non-Western art by reframing European colonialism as an alien invasion and opens the space for new myths and fables. For example, Amna Malik discusses Ellen Gallagher’s Ichthyosaurus installation at the Freud Museum as “the basis of a foundation myth in which the sea becomes an incubator for the potentiality of the future” (79) (and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is mentioned in an interview with Ama Josephine Budge [215]). Meanwhile Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Dysfunctional Family, featuring an alien family dressed in batik cloth imported to Nigeria from Indonesia, was on display at the “Alien Nation” exhibition at the ICA, reappropriating fabrics sold to that country because it was perceived to be African.

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