Fall of the Rebel Angels

Paradise Lost and the Unknown Rebel

An interview between Gordon Cheung and Helen Waters, November 2007 for the solo show catalogue

HW: In 2006 you made your first set of prints: Rider, Colosseum, Monkey and Floating Worlds. Can you talk a
little bit about this first print project? What drew you to the medium?

GC: The prints are a logical extension to my work because there are already a lot of print and layering
techniques in the paintings. With the prints, I wanted to make them different from the paintings, so for the
first time I included figures and animals in the composition. Previously the paintings were always devoid of
people or creatures, as I felt a desolate, post-apocalyptic world amplified the viewers’ experience more,
drawing them in. These prints then generated a whole new body of paintings for me where I explored the motifs of animals and people. The four prints are based on a common interest in heaven, earth and the underworld ambiguously mixed up.

HW: The series of twenty-four paintings in this exhibition are called Paradise Lost, after John Milton’s epic poem. When did you first become interested in this?

GC: One of the prints, Floating Worlds, was inspired by the work of Glenn Brown, Chris Foss and John Martin. When I was awarded the Laing Art Solo Award, I discovered that they had a John Martin collection and that he was born in Newcastle where the Laing Art Gallery is based. I was keen to respond to that. It was like fate – the opportunity to look at his work in more depth was too good to pass up. Then, when I saw John Martin’s Paradise Lost prints at the British Museum, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – retranslate all twenty-four prints into a contemporary context.
    When I think further back, the first trigger that led me to eventually respond to the Paradise Lost prints was the Al-Qaeda World Trade Center attacks, the consequent global ‘war on terror’ by President Bush and that both sides claimed God was with them. Both parties used divinity or some sort of higher order to justify their immoral and unethical actions. I became fascinated with the idea of God as a device to mobilize support for a political agenda. Seeing those burning and collapsing towers……two strikes from the skies at the twin financial monuments of the world’s only superpower……I could not help but see the tragic event as a cross between a Hollywood special effects disaster film and a modern day biblical event……
    For me Paradise Lost is a metaphor of how we entered the twenty-first century in one apocalyptic wave after another with the dot-com bubble bursting, the millennium bug, destruction of the Twin Towers, and our increasingly urgent relationship to nature … Paradise Lost was like a symbolic vessel in which to reflect all of those interests.

HW: How does this series of paintings relate to your earlier work?

GC: I have a continuing interest in power systems, belief structures and our obedience to them. For me the ideologies of capitalism and religions share a parallel construction. Both operate with dynamic systems of fear to motivate believers into a ‘progressive’ movement by promising either paradise and riches or hell and poverty. Paradise Lost is a biblical story about the fall of the rebel angels into Hell, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their consequent eviction from paradise. In the paintings the stock listings from the Financial Times are used as a metaphor for the modern space that surrounds us all the time; an invisible datascape that saturates and influences all of us on a global scale. If you think of what is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, you could think of the stock market in the same way as some people think of God. I wanted to converge these ideas and somehow convey the megalithic structure in which we all exist. It is for me a contemporary space.

HW: The incorporation of these stock listings in the work also has the effect of interrupting the reading of your painting. All your compositions convey a great sense of distance and yet when you get close to them, and see the flat newsprint, it denies that illusion of depth.

GC: Yes – I like the fact that you don’t immediately recognise it; at first you have an illusion but, when you
come up close, that breaks down and reforms again when you pull back. There is this constant shifting
between foreground and background, which I enjoy. It reflects my interests in the virtual and actual
dimensions. I like to play with scale and distance – a kind of telescopic deconstruction. I also think that it
has a relationship to how we are always looking or experiencing something beyond. For example when we
speak into phones, email, or surf for information on the Internet it’s as if we are in an alternate dimension.
It’s as if we temporarily dematerialise.
   When I started using the stock listings, it was right at the beginning of the communications and digital
revolution; internet and mobile technology was becoming readily available and there was this utopian
euphoria about the new technologies – in terms of digital frontiers, global villages, cyberspace, breaking
down boundaries and borders, free-sharing of information... but all of this went into a sharp downturn with the dot-com crash, censorship etc... I have always been interested in the relationship between utopia and dystopia; the boom and crash of ideology. For me the stock listings constitute a very apt vehicle to use as a metaphor from the everyday, representing a global space; each tiny digit part of a global network representing a company, service, workforce and, ultimately, us the individual.

HW: Can you explain your working method? How do you go about constructing a painting?

GC: I start with an idea at the back of my head, which is usually inspired by things such as conversations,
films, novels and the Internet. I am constantly collating images, mostly from the Internet, which I
obsessively compile into digital catalogues. I call this my virtual palette, which I divide into sub-categories of trees, mountains, people etc. I look at these and, if anything stimulates, I drag it out into Photoshop, cut,
paste and compose, and eventually the image achieves a certain tension and I know that it is ready to be
gridded up like a traditional painting. It is then printed onto A4 sheets of stock listings, collaged, and sealed
onto canvas.

HW: And you paint on top of that? I have noticed there is quite a lot of impasto in these paintings?

GC: Yes, the impasto has developed in the last year or so. It came from all the layering in the work at the
computer stages through to the physical making of the paintings. So the impasto came quite naturally as
another dimension to the work. I wanted to add to the multiple realities that unfold as a viewer experiences
the paintings. I am very interested in merging painting with new technologies, and the physicality of the
actual newsprint alongside the impasto enhances the dynamic between illusion and reality.

HW: What are you working on at moment?

GC: At the same time as the exhibition here, I have a solo exhibition at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester called Death by a Thousand Cuts, where I am responding to the rise of China as potentially the next superpower, the effect it will have on the world order and I am also exploring how Chinese socialism is mutating into socialist capitalism. I am looking to capture a sense of this by working with Chinese
propaganda images combined with images taken from B-horror zombie movies.
    In my mind for the future I am planning to work more with digital media and make some animations and films. I would love to work in that medium – again it seems like a logical development for me. I’ve grown up with computers and it’s not an alien thing for me to work with.

HW: Can you talk a little about the new print you have made for this exhibition The Fall of the Rebel Angels.

GC: It’s a print based on a work by John Martin called Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still. It’s a
dramatic portrayal of the Old Testament story about the Israelites’ leader stopping the sun and the moon over the city of Gideon so that his people can complete the total destruction of their enemies. I have
replaced Joshua with the ‘tank man’ of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – you know the guy who held up a
column of tanks. There was that iconic photo at the time. I think it must be one of the most heroic images
of the late twentieth century – no-one knows what happened to him, but that image of one single man
holding up the might of China’s military in protest – it’s incredibly enduring, so I just sort of placed him in
this imaginary landscape, bringing together all sorts of ideas. Essentially I have subverted a kind of
propaganda image, in which a military leader calls upon God to exact complete revenge, into an image that
confronts that idea. It’s something to do with standing up against a huge fate of some kind, like the
traditional sublime painting, but rather than confronting nature and coming closer to a transcendental
experience of God, man is facing the corruption of power and economic forces. Is there a way for one
individual to stand up and make a difference? I don’t know.


Helen Waters is currently at Alan Cristea and was formerly Curator for the New Art Centre Sculpture Park and Gallery, Roche Court.


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