Signs Taken for Wonders
By Marilyn Zeitlin
former director of the Arizona State University Art Museum
currently freelance curator and writer
…a storm is blowing in from Paradise…. The storm
irresistibly propels [The Angel of History] into the future to which
his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
This storm is what we call progress.
---Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1939
Gordon Cheung presents a chiliastic view of the future painted
to seduce us into the contemplation of a ruined world. That Cheung
depicts a post-apocalyptic world is where we’ll start. But
it is not the whole story.
Both in his images and on the surface of his paintings, the presence
of decadence, collapse, and the end of “life as we know it”
is palpable. In the new series Wilderness of Mirrors, Cheung shows
us a dystopic universe in which all but the most primordial elements
of existence have been--- what? bombed? starved? poisoned? all of
the above, and more, unto oblivion.
Cheung references the CIA and double agents in explaining the source
for the title of the series. “Wilderness of Mirrors”
was the phrase used by James Jesus Angleton, chief of the CIA counter-intelligence
staff in the 1950s, to describe the convoluted duplicitous layers
of appearance and reality, of spy and counter-spy. It is a phrase
drawn from T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” (1920), a
poem narrated by a self-described “… old man in a dry
month/ being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.” It too delineates
a spoiled world--- ruined and overindulged, a world that is encapsulated
in the efforts of an old man to summon some last virility. “These
with a thousand small deliberations/ Protract the profit of their
chilled delirium,/ Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,/
With pungent sauces, multiply variety/ In a wilderness of mirrors.”
(Ah, for the days of a CIA in which poetry undergirded thinking!)
The sense of multiple readings behind what can be seen is more relevant
now, it seems, than in what now appears to be a simpler age in which
paranoia, red scares, and counter-counter intelligence was norm.
In the title painting of the series, Cheung uses the visual vocabulary
of religious tradition and science fiction film iconography to place
the issues on the table. We see a horizon of water or fissured earth,
framing devices of denuded mountains. The water mirrors the peaks
and the iridescent, psychedelic neon colors of the fumes of the
atmosphere. This compositional arrangement, with its near-symmetry
and flanking forms, has reappeared in Cheung’s work since
2003, when his work moved to the exploration of the future as void.
The composition is hieratic--- a formula seen in religious art of
both the West and Asia, a shell within which deities are enthroned
surrounded by parenthetical anecdotal material including landscape
and narrative that expand on the central theme.
The vision of an apocalyptic end is a theme with constant reappearance
throughout the history of art, and Cheung clearly knows the work
of and respects his art-historical predecessors. Apocalypse was
the rage in late medieval times and populates its art. It chronicles
a time when millennial fears were paired with the devastation of
plague throughout Europe. Martin Schöngauer (15th century)
and many others depicted the Dance of Death. Albrecht Dürer’s
The Apocalypse of St. John (1496-98) to Peter Breughel’s Tower
of Babel (1563)--- an early expression of anxiety about globalization---
lay the groundwork for the parables of destruction. Perhaps an unintentional
expression of hubris is Erastus Salisbury Field’s Historical
Monument of the American Republic (1876), painted to celebrate the
victory of the American Civil War. But now it is impossible to see
it without thinking of the World Trade Center. Zooming into the
present, there are the paintings of contemporary Brazilian artist
Oscar Oiwa. But these, and Cheung’s work, are not simply sci-fi
horror movie stills. Cheung uses an array of devices to draw us
into the paintings and to carry us into a psychological space in
which we can go beyond mere the present and contemplate a possible
As I write, the radio in the next room drones on, commentators
debating reasons for the financial collapse of 2008. None can explain
it. But that is because they are looking at the minutiae of market
economics. We all know what is happening in the grand scheme of
things, in the dues we are paying for excess. Gordon Cheung has
been laying it all out for us for quite some time.
The title painting of Wilderness of Mirrors offers two new elements,
images that carry the painting beyond the vision of a world that
has ended. First, in the bottom foreground is a form that at first
seems like a pelvis, or a pair of bones made into clubs knit together
by twigs. On closer look, it is a pair of battling bucks or elk.
The image is against a black background, an apron of a stage; it
functions like a cartouche that announces the genealogy of those
who brought us here: figures of the same species warring to their
own extinction. And secondly, at the top, in the distance, the painting
is crowned by a nimbus of light.
It is this central image of light that is important in the new work.
Like the foreground image, this one can be seen in two opposing
ways. First, it suggests a post-nuclear glow, which goes the distance
to explain the desolate outcome. But that alone would be far too
facile a reading, it seems to me. At the opposite extreme, it resonates
as a suggestion of a future, something that is not visible from
where we stand but offers a harsh, even blinding, future.
The composition, with its evocation of enormous scale in nature
and the diminution of man plays on the tradition of the painters
of the nineteenth century who sought to convey the enormity of nature.
The sublime. In the case of Frederic Church, his subject was the
American West, still exotic at the time that he attempted to portray
it, and the Andes. All were manifestations of a presence of divinity
to be discovered in the natural world. The classic example of this
relationship of man to nature is Caspar David Friederich’s
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). In Cheung’s painting
Death By a Thousand Cuts, he places takes the two elements of landscape
and figure and tilts the picture plane and radicalizes the proportions.
In the earlier painting, it is as if we are standing just behind
the wanderer and see his vision of the landscape. Friedrich’s
figure is dark, silhouetted against the whitish fog, and the figure
is more prominent. But Cheung places us, the viewers, above as well
as behind the figure, removing us emotionally, making us omniscient
rather than immediate observers. Cheung’s figure is minute
in the face of the landscape laid out before him. Friederich’s
figure stands above the fog, dominating what is below him; Cheung’s
is simply a witness.
The drama of Cheung’s paintings is conveyed in part by a
compositional device which often suggests a stage. That stage is
frequently empty, waiting for the characters to animate the space.
In Death By a Thousand Cuts the central nimbus is now revealed as
the backdrop of a tower of knives capped by a nuclear warhead rising
from the waters. At the right is the dead tree trunk--- like the
last remnant of Eden. A colossal floral branch grows at the far
The title refers to ling chi, a form of torture used in ancient
China--- but employed recently enough to be captured on film. The
victim is cut repeatedly to die a slow but inevitable death, often
one that is a protracted spectacle. Cheung offers not only visual
multiple readings but a verbal double entendre: the word cuts also
resonates with economics, with budget cuts and rationing and diminishing
resources. In a broader sense, it suggests intolerable changes made
so gradually that we do not notice or are, as the process goes forward,
too exhausted to object.
At the left side of the painting, a figure descends the mountains.
He carries what looks like Chinese ceramic ginger jars, one in each
hand and one balanced on his head. They are decorated with floral
patterns. The scene, witnessed by a tiny figure standing on an outcropping
in the foreground, is the reduced version of Friedrich’s wanderer.
I am reminded of Yung Chang’s film Up the Yangtze (2007),
in which the creation of the Three Gorges dam devastates the lives
of people living in the path of the rising water and the cultural
past of a region of China is being drowned and erased with the displacement.
The film is an inexorable indictment of the contemporary Chinese
economic boom and of carelessness--- in the literal sense of not
caring what happens in the long run. The film and Cheung’s
painting tell us to regard the implications of the changes we are
exerting on what is left of the natural world, to check our hubris
in dominating nature.
“Unnatural vices are fathered by our heroism” says
Eliot. At least one of the contributing forces that has brought
down the world must be war. But with the exception of the nuclear
warhead in Death By a Thousand Cuts, Cheung never shows us war explicitly.
In fact, his strategy is in avoiding the explicit.
What is beyond the horizon in these two paintings? It is undefined,
perhaps a void. I am reminded of the temple of Borobudur in Java.
Borobudur is a maquette of the universe, a three-dimensional cosmogram.
The central conceit is of the universe as a mystical mountain, a
form that bridges between heaven and earth. It is also a device
for gradually achieving enlightenment. As the devotee ascends from
level to level, he or she can see further out along the Java plain
and, figuratively, can comprehend more of the surrounding and ever-expanding
world. The lower levels are squared off to reflect the four cardinal
directions. The upper levels are circular, making the pace faster
and suppressing the differentiation that the lower levels reinforce.
Friezes of sculptural murals girdle each level. At the lowest levels,
the imagery represents the most savage aspect of human behavior:
murder and its mass version, war, are most prominent. Higher up,
the imagery depicts higher aspects of human behavior as human approaches
divine. And the concept is mirrored in form: the depth of the relief
becomes lower as the figures become more ethereal and the ideas
At the topmost terrace, several dome structures are carved with
lattice patterns. You can look through the lattice to see seated
Buddhas. But most amazing, when you finally reach the topmost level,
there is a single dome. When you peer through the lattice, the space
is empty. No Buddha. The most highly evolved form is beyond representation.
My first thought in seeing Wilderness of Mirrors is that the halo
at the center, which does not encircle the head of any figure, is
the analogue of that absent figure. Nor is the religious association
farfetched in Cheung’s case since he has long used metaphors
of temples and the fallen angels of John Milton as the armature
upon which he hangs his chiliastic vision of the present. But perhaps
Cheung is offering a last reconciliation, a final option for hope,
a promise that cannot be delineated.
So how did we reach this point? Since 1995 Cheung has used the
stock quotations from the Financial Times, plastering the sheets
seamlessly over the painting support. The columns of words and numbers,
flush left, organizing the entirety into a grid. They also never
allow us to forget that what underlies history in the age of global
capitalism is the fluctuations of these numbers. It is a collective
unconscious of the moment, inescapable, one we share even if we
pay no attention to it. The printed pages form an all-over texture
that unify what are often very large paintings. The stock listings
appear in some places and are covered in others, but implicit is
that they underlie EVERYTHING.
To regard the unseen as the moving force in our lives is paranoia,
religion, and/or science fiction. Paranoia is differentiated from
fear only when the reason for fear has no basis. These paintings
are not fantasy, they record the fluidity among elements that have
become combustible in the present. It seems that the narrowing ecological
path we are on and economic boom-or-bust tsunamis are very real
bases for fear, but they can be exploited to become paranoiac, to
the end that national security eclipses all else and “defense
spending” becomes a euphemism for a national security state
and the militarizing of the economy. Outsourcing the Iraq war has
moved wealth from the public coffers to private pockets. No one
spells this out as carefully and convincingly as does Naomi Klein
in The Shock Doctrine, which traces the impact of free-market economics
from the 1970s, from Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile, up
until the Iraq war. It is a book about economics that tells a parallel
history of the latter half of the twentieth century and goes far
to explain the depletion--- financial, moral--- of the present.Over
the ground of stock quotations, Cheung builds up layers of paint,
creating textures from the thin mist of spray paint to the thick
impasto of a loaded brush. He can control crackle to represent a
decaying world. The surfaces of his paintings are rich and complex
and completely relevant to his content.
The iridescent color that Cheung uses in these paintings links
them with pachinko or pinball machines in which science fiction
battles take place. They are the colors of hallucinogenic visions
in which an aura scintillates around forms, beautiful but on the
edge of painful.
In Deluge Cheung references another icon of Romanticism, Théodore
Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819). He frames the action
within a more roughly symmetrical stage: to the right are the stubs
of ruined buildings and one the left a barren tree limb with the
shipwreck scene below. The sea looks like molten earth about to
inundate the fragile raft. The back story of the raft is based on
an historical event. The few that survived the shipwreck resorted
to cannibalism in order to survive. Cheung does not tell us this,
but it is behind the image, like a dirty secret. Cheung, perhaps
aware of the ghoulishness of the story, has countered this horror
with a goofy image of a cartoon-like ghost in the opposing corner.
The light that is central in Wilderness of Mirrors and Death by
a Thousand Cuts here is diffused into multiple bursts, like fireworks
over a river. Beyond the edge of a V of mountains, the light appears
to be setting.
Like the wrong-headedness that is so vividly portrayed in Up the
Yangtze, Cheung shows us in Masterplan the results of technology
gone awry. Light in the distance still glows above the edge of mountains.
Human presence takes the form of figures amassed on the right. Cheung
takes them from documentary footage of “Futurama,” a
utopian vision of transportation efficiency presented by General
Motors as part of the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows,
New York. The figures are onlookers, not agents, an audience for
the human enterprise that takes center stage. Two figures appear
to be attempting to start some sort mechanism, like two guys trying
to start a lawnmower. A crank or electrical cord lies useless. The
machine is topped by a globe. Perhaps they are attempting to reincarnate
the Creation? They’ve simply got to get this thing spinning
again. Things are not looking up.
The constant in these paintings is the stock listings visible and
overlaid but ubiquitous. The machinations of the market, even if
we have no investments per se, impacts and unifies us all. Cheung
uses another device to underscore that we are all in this--- whatever
it may be--- together with a net-like scoring of the ground. We
see it in Death by a Thousand Cuts and in Masterplan. It creeps
up the facades of buildings. It is the modernist grid, which organizes
space. But in Cheung’s hands, it becomes animate and often
Cheung’s complex paintings--- complex in the multiple layers
and variety of technical means to create complex surfaces--- embody
the complex and often internally contradictory view of the world
and especially of history not unlike that of cultural critic and
philosopher Walter Benjamin who lived 1892 to 1940. Benjamin approached
his work as an analysis not only of aesthetics but of the political
and social as he witnessed the collapse of Europe, starting, from
his perspective, with the failure of Weimar Germany and the rise
of National Socialism or Nazism. Benjamin was an agnostic longing
for God. He formulated a Messianic vision in which his familiarity
with the cabala was countered by his interest in Marxism. His vision
of history is apocalyptic, a seriality toward oblivion that is also
transcendent. Benjamin decoded the everyday--- children’s
books, arcades, his library, works of popular culture--- as the
source for understanding deep human and social issues. He saw “the
unapparent in the everyday.” He relied, in the end, on the
flow of sensory experience as much as on theory. In this regard,
he is the appropriate prophet of our own time, and of the industry
of producing and understanding the role of media--- that term that
references an ever-expanding field of new technologies delivering
images in an undifferentiated torrent.
We understand abstractions in narrative or image. The actual event
is ephemeral, and what is important about it or will have staying
power is not clear as it happens before our eyes. It is in the reportage,
the theorist’s writing, the novelist’s plot and characters,
the painter’s image, that the event becomes comprehensible.
At worst, we get the repetition of the sound byte ad nauseum. At
best, we get works of art that embrace complexity, that present
options for understanding that allow us to keep many balls in the
The temple at Borobudur organizes a tremendous amount of information
and presents it as a cogent image for the world of sensory experience
and, at the apogee, of a void that we each must accept as the unknowable,
something finally beyond representation. An example of how an image
becomes a synecdoche for a larger event and finally of a large idea
is incorporated in Death by a Thousand Cuts. Cheung tells me that
with the man on the outcropping in the bottom foreground he is referencing
the student who stood before the oncoming tank during the 1989 protests
and massacre at Tien-an Men Square. In 26 seconds of video on YouTube,
you can watch him facing off, forcing the tank to feint right, then
left, trying to go around the student who repeatedly places himself
in the path of the tank. This man, his bravery and defiance, is
the distillate, our mental image, of the Tien-an Men events. In
the larger sense, Cheung sees him as, “the enduring symbol
of heroic hope in the face of a power system that will not accept
his voice and ultimately silenced it.”
Benjamin wrote in an unpublished fragment from 1931, “All
Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order
to learn what fear is.” Cheung takes the large issues of our
time and of every time, including the issue of our choosing between
annihilation and survival, and presents them in a way that shares
the longing for transcendence that is embedded in the work of Benjamin.
Cheung works like an archaeologist to find images that convey his
vision. He culls, cuts and pastes from history, art, film, literature;
he uses humor in the midst of visions of the terrible.
Cheung has always paralleled his operatic large-scale works with
portraits. Recently, the portraits have been of animals. They are
trophy heads, dead animals. He uses the stock listings to create
the grid as he does in the more complex works, and mixed media including
acrylic gel and spray paint. In Trophy 2, the head of what must
be a very old buck, with a complex rack of antlers, is shown turning
his head into profile. From his open mouth a sound is frozen. Drips
of paint simultaneously suggest blood and gore and remind us that
this is just a painting. The shadows--- of the neck and of the lattice
of the horns--- press the form into our own space.
It is the most poignant of the Trophy series. The iridescent, psychedelic
palette suggests the hyper-hybridization of advanced science that
transforms animals into commodities. The technologies of biology
are creating monsters.
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”