Yuen Fong Ling

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 this time?

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 reality.

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 revolution.

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 and identity?

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 crashed.
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 China…

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.

December 2006

Yuen Fong Ling is an artist, former Co-Director of Castlefield Gallery in Manchester, and currently completing his MFA at Glasgow School of Art.

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