by Norman Warwick

We have looked before at whether or not we can separate art from its artist and view it objectively and we have also explored how a text / painting / poem / piece of music / song can mean something different to each generation it addresses. Can any of us explain why reading a piece of text whilst under covid threat so changes our ´understanding´ of the piece? I haven´t checked my archives, but today´s text might well have been published early on in the life of our daily blog, and anyway was certainly published on our all across the arts pages in the Rochdale Observer seven or eight years ago.  I employ it here today to steer you towards a collaborative poem, written by a primary school class, who benefitted from a quite extraordinary young female teacher, in response to a challenging exhibition at our local Touchstones Arts & Heritage centre by artist Gordon Cheung. Remember the poem you will read, if you follow your art down the sidetracks & detours of our piece, was written years before the pandemic had identified itself. These children ask complex questions.

I checked on-line recently for an update on Gordon Cheung, an artist I first heard about when he was exhibited at Touchstones Museum and Art Gallery, in Rochdale in 2012. I was working as an artist on the venue´s educational programme at the time, which gave me the opportunity to invite classes from local schools to creative writing classes based on exhibitons being shown in the galleries. I never failed to be amazed at how much the pupils (and teachers,too, I would like to think) enjoyed their visits and engaged with whatever was on display.

Gordon Cheung (left) was born 1975 in London. He studied painting at Central St Martins College of Art and at the Royal College of Art, London from where he graduated in 2001.

Born to Chinese parents, contemporary multi-media artist Gordon Cheung has developed an innovative approach to making art, which blurs virtual and actual reality to reflect on the existential questions of what it means to be human in civilisations with histories written by victors. Cheung raises questions and critiques the effects of global capitalism, its underlying mechanisms of power on our perception of identity, territory and sense of belonging. These narratives are refracted through the prisms of culture, mythology, religion, and politics into dreamlike spaces of urban surreal worlds that are rooted in his in-between identity.

Cheung graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting in 1998 from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and earned his Masters of Fine Arts in 2001 from the Royal College of Art in London. Select solo shows include Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall UK, The Light that Burns Twice as Bright, Cristea Gallery, London UK, Here Be Dragons, Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, UK and New Order Vanitas, Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, West Palm Beach, FL, USA. His works are held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Whitworth Art Museum in Manchester, Royal College of Art in London, and the British Museum, amongst others. He lives and works in London.

He is best known for his epic, hallucinogenic landscapes constructed using an array of media including stock page listings spray paint, acrylic, inkjet and woodblock printing. He has taken part in group exhibitions in Europe, Asia, South America and the USA. Solo exhibitions include Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, West Palm Beach, Florida (2017); The Whitaker, Rossendale (2017); Nottingham Castle Museum, Nottingham (2016); Leila Heller Gallery, Dubai (2016); Centre For Chinese Contemporary, Manchester (2016); Alan Cristea Gallery, London (2015, 2011 and 2008) and New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall (2009).

Cheung has taken part in the Karachi Biennale, Pakistan (2017); Venice Biennale, Azerbaijan Pavilion (2015); Beijing International Art Biennale, China (2010) and Liverpool Biennale (2004). His work is held in many private and public collections including the Whitworth, Manchester; British Museum, London; Royal College of Art, London; Government Art Collection, London; Museum of Contemporary Art, Kraków; Yale Center for British Art, Connecticut; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; and Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota.

Gordon Cheung lives and works in London and Cristea Roberts Gallery is the exclusive worldwide representative for Gordon Cheung’s original prints.

More recently Almine Rech, with venues in Paris, London, Bruissels, New York and Shanghai presented ‘Arrow to Heaven’, a selection of works by artist Gordon Cheung, on view from June 28 to July 30, 2022.

Cheung’s first solo at Almine Rech took as its historical marker, the Second Opium War, which lasted from 1856-1860. The show consisted of a number of new paintings and sculptures which further explore his interest in understanding the development of Modern China and continues his interests in revealing these lesser known histories of China and its invasion by the West. The heaven in the title refers to the city of Tianjian, which is translated as Heaven’s boundary or Ford and was the location where the Treaty of Tianjian was signed signalling the end of the Second Opium War.

The show was a study of confluences, a look at an intertwined history between two largely contrasting cultures, religions and philosophies at a historical juncture of huge acceleration on one side, charging headlong into Modernism. Cheung’s paintings are a multi-layered account of human activity and history and his interest stems from his upbringing as a British born Chinese and his desire to understand his own roots. His work speaks to a wide range of influences, from romanticists such as Caspar David Friedrich to sculptures influenced by Chinese Window designs. However, Cheung’s paintings are anything but polite, the acidic colour palettes (somewhat reminiscent of the swirling pyrotechnical allegories of the Victorian painter John Martin) suggest chemical interactions of a world ravaged by human industry, perhaps even on the brink of anthropogenic chaos or the aftermath of a nuclear war.

photo paris Now, only a couple of months later he is excited to be preparing to be part of ‘Les Portes du Possible’ Group Show at Centre Pompidou-Metz curated by Alexandra Müller, from November 5 2022 – April 17 2023.

“Science fiction is the art of the possible”, said Ray Bradbury. ´Under cover of anticipation, it speaks to us of the present; it is a laboratory of hypotheses that manipulate and extrapolate the repressive norms and dogmas of the current world, its ambitions, its social pangs, its opportunities and its perils´.

The last few decades have seen the advent of a “liquid” form of the present that disintegrates our certainties and habits, accelerating both discoveries and their obsolescence. In this unstable context, many artists draw inspiration from the world of science fiction to carry out critical reflections. It can more subtly and deeply than other genres question the potential of humans by going beyond the divisions between science, ethics and politics in order to take an “external” look at humanity and its inventions.

By developing the possibilities of the present, by developing stories based on scientific hypotheses or by conceiving unheard-of ways of life and realities, science fiction is a genre that confronts man with radical otherness. It offers an emancipation from the dominant political discourses, it embodies difference, political utopia, the profound renewal of our perception. As a result, it has always been a breeding ground for protest movements.

Speculative fiction irritates us, makes us progress by terrifying us, shakes the ramparts of our habits and those of our conscience. Although it acts from the margins, the themes it addresses are at the heart of current societal issues that concern us all: social fragmentation, ultra-capitalism, new forms of panopticism and totalitarianism, alienation, trans-/post-humanism, the removal of gender boundaries, colonialism or, of course, ecological disaster and human obsolescence. However, since the historic Science-fiction exhibition that Harald Szeemann organized in 1967/68 at the Kunsthalle in Bern, at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, a time when SF was on the rise , few large-scale projects were dedicated to its fruitful marriage with art.

Bringing together around 180 works from the late 1960s to the present day, the exhibition Les Portes du possible. Art & science fiction will search over 2,300 m2 with visual artists and writers, but also architects or filmmakers, for capillarities between imagined universes and reality. According to the mode of self-fulfilling prophecies, science fiction continues to forge our vision of the future and participates in its construction. Changing imagination and semantics also means influencing the trajectory of societies. The exhibition, by not focusing on the dominant dystopian prism, will strive to work towards a revitalization and a voluntary reappropriation of the future.

It was in 2012 when Broadfield Primary year five pupils proved themselves to be very mature art critics. During a workshop facilitated by Just Poets as part of the Touchstones’ Schools Programme the class explored Gordon Cheung’s Techno-Sublime exhibition, which had already been highly praised by Steve Cooke and I on the all across the arts page in The Manchester Evening News Media Group.

photo 3 Cheung’s work makes demands of grown-up audiences, with its sombre but vivid tones, and by being painted over a backdrop of price lists from international stock markets. His panels are big enough to overwhelm primary school children and the fact that that they hang in a panorama around a huge but otherwise stark gallery might make them seem even more intimidating.

His works are often adorned with clown-like figures appearing out of nowhere on frequently black landscapes; peeping over far horizons, floating in a sad sky or climbing out of forbidding canyons. 

Undaunted, though, the class looked around from their own chosen starting points and although the facilitator and teaching staff accompanied them to offer their input it was apparent that the children were more than prepared to make up their own minds about this art work.

Cheung’s work plays tricks, of course. What from a distance seems to be a painting of a thunderous waterfall might, on closer inspection, be a cliff face full of caves, or even of a person pulling themselves out of a hole in the ground. What might be a lava trail might equally be a river of blood. There is something Dali-esque, even Gammell-esque, in the work but these are finer points we could not have expected a class of nine and ten year olds to comprehend.

However, about twenty minutes later, when prised away, the pupils entered into a heated in-depth debate about the meaning, and the merits, of the art work.

Asked whether they liked the paintings they had seen they treated that somewhat facile question with disdain, preferring instead to wonder why the artists had painted ‘a broken down world.’ Nearly all pupils contributed individual responses to what they had seen. One spoke of ‘sadness drowning’ but when the facilitator suggested the paintings seemed to be looking at death, one pupil challenged that by saying that actually they seemed to be ‘more of death looking at us.’

About whether there was any hope at all in this work, one responded that ‘the happiness is not far away.’ Asked how far, precisely, the young girl replied, ‘just out of reach.’

Pressed to describe the feelings the paintings generated, pupils replied that the paintings seemed to be saying we should rather ‘keep our feelings in our heart.’

Children are, of course, still able to speak from the heart, unhindered by the mediations that we grown-ups apply to our thinking.  The broken bridges and pot-holed landscape, to them, resembled a snakes and ladders board game and who is to say the artist did not intend precisely that connection?

Such an early introduction to mature, provocative art might well set these youngsters on the path of life-long learning.

Karen Vine, Education Co-ordinator at Touchstones says; “We aim to provide opportunities for children to question and reflect on what they see, in order to become more discriminating and critically aware. Just Poets’ ‘Beyond The Horizon’ workshop helps children to look at art with an openness, to appreciate and enjoy its inherent quality, and to understand that there are no definitive answers in art”

Supply teacher Julie Ogden commented, “The children responded really well. They learned much about play on words and about re-arranging and structuring.”

However, the poem Year Five created with Just Poets should perhaps have the final say in this story.

Do we like this world

of sadness drowning,

as death stares from every window

at a happiness, not far away, but out of reach,

where feelings are closed and held in our hearts?

The artist thinks he’ll draw a line

under this torn-up landscape

on which we play life as if it were a board game.

We, though, draw warnings.

Why does he paint an old, broken world?

Of course, Gordon Cheung paints much more than a broken down world. That he employs his art to imagine beyond the near future  whilst also seeking, through his art, to understand his country´s historical past makes him both compelling and demanding of his audience.

Those Rochdale ten year olds of 2012 will be twenty now. How many of them, I wonder, will be at University or at an Art School, somewhere. How many of the read (or even write) science fiction?

And how many of them might one day look back at seeing Gordon Cheung´s work in Touchstone Arts and Cultural Museum as positive turning point in their lives?

No doubt there will be many schoolchildren visiting’Les Portes du Possible’ Group Show at Centre Pompidou-Metz and see this latest exhibition in which Gordon Cheung´s work is on display. Maybe for some of them, too, like their predecessors in the UK, this might provide a pivotal moment in their lives.

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