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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.