10 April 2018 We meet on a February morning at Gordon’s studio – a red-bricked warehouse building in an industrial area of South Bermondsey. There are stacks of Financial Times newspapers on the floor, as you would expect given that the newspaper, as both material and metaphor, has been central to Cheung’s work since his art school days. The space is incredibly busy, but ordered. Gordon introduces me to his assistant, Kirsty, who is making and sorting acrylic petal shapes in an array of colours for use on Cheung’s multi-layered paintings, whilst he makes coffee using filter papers inside coffee mugs. “Is black OK? We’ve run out of milk.” I use the time to take in the studio, incredibly light and open, though almost cold enough to see your breath. Up close Cheung’s paintings have depths that are impossible to appreciate via digital reproduction. His use of collaged paint is wilder and more three-dimensional than I had realised. As well as the paintings there are new projects dotted around – tree-like structures made from cords of newspaper, rectangular lattice structures and circular frames laid out on large tables which, when we talk later, Gordon explains are inspired by Chinese windows. We sit at a narrow work bench to talk. I am grateful for the panel heater that Gordon rolls over beside us.
Kim Booker: Could you talk a little bit about your background and the road you took to becoming an artist?
Gordon Cheung: I was born in London, and up until I was five years old I wanted to be an astronaut, but art was always the thing that I was interested in doing. I never thought that I would be anything other than an artist.
Were your parents into art?
No, my parents came over from Hong Kong, met here, to start a new life, because they thought they would have better job prospects. My father worked his way through restaurants as a waiter, and eventually saved up enough money to buy a restaurant. And now they are retired back in Hong Kong.
That’s interesting because I feel like, when you have a certain upbringing, depending on your schooling, your access to artists and the art world can be very limited. For me, I had an art teacher for GCSE Art, and I thought that was the biggest thing you could be. I don’t think I really knew what artists were. I just remember copying Modigliani paintings and making a hand out of clay…
Oh I had no idea what contemporary art was. Even at Foundation I didn’t really. And that was when the YBAs were suddenly coming to fruition and everybody was talking about them, and I had no comprehension of what it all meant. It was that sort of crossover time. I remember the old Saatchi Gallery on Boundary Road showing these modernist American sculptors, and then suddenly showing Sarah Lucas and all these what might be called ‘slacker art’ kind of works. It was a very confusing time for me in terms of understanding what art was, and what I was making at the time. At the time I was making really angsty self-portraits by stabbing and scraping paint with palette knives. These angry young man paintings.
That’s funny… What were you angry about?
Just everything I think! I was probably a hormonal mess, about eighteen, nineteen, something like that. And then I got into Saint Martins, after being told by my A-Level teacher that I wouldn’t get in. When I got in there I started making abstract art. I abandoned the earnest self-portraits to make earnest abstraction.
Do you still have any of those?
I do! As a cautionary reminder to never return to that point again. It’s a good reminder of the state of mind you were in at that time as well and also where you are making art from. When I started at Saint Martins I wanted to paint without paint. So that meant removing paint from the process to ask philosophical questions about what painting means to me and why am I making art as well, because quite often you don’t know, at least I didn’t know, why you are making this stuff. I just knew that it was the right thing for me to do. I was very clear minded when it came to pursuing the one thing that I knew I wanted to do which was to make art.
I first became interested in your work because of your use of the Financial Times, so I wanted to know how you came about using the FT as a backdrop to your paintings.
I slowly learnt about what contemporary art and contemporary painting was in the West and became aware of the discourse of the death of painting. So when I decided at Saint Martins to take paint away, one of the reasons for this was to side-step this discourse. So I substituted paint for, eventually, the Financial Times stock listings as a metaphor for the dominant space in which we exist. It was around 1994-98 and the rise of the internet and the availability of mobile phone technology. So the perceptions of time and space were now collapsing into the idea of the instant, in which we can communicate to anyone across the globe, and this changed our perception of time and space into a state of constant flux. I wanted to capture that by using what I felt was the stuff of the landscape we are now occupying, which is information on a global scale. When capital moves across the globe, trillions in an instant, it is carving out utopias and dystopias wherever the concentrations of the flows of that capital are pooling. The stock listings of the Financial Times became a very apt metaphor for me as a way of using that as the pigment of our space. And then I exchanged the brush for technology. To me this was a parallel structure to Chinese calligraphy in which the brush and ink represent text, image and poem.
So do you read the Financial Times or do you just use it as your raw material?
Rarely, it’s just my raw material. I was reading it for a while but find it boring!
[laughs] I actually do read it.
Oh you do!
Well the FT Weekend.
Oh the Weekend is alright. Very occasionally! But what I did find interesting was that financial newspapers have to tell more of the truth than any other newspaper because the economy relies on factual information as opposed to gossip. That’s not the reason it’s boring though, because it’s factual, but reading about inflation rates and so on is not that riveting! But I was reading it at the beginning, but that was many years ago. Now I dip and dive into it.
Most commentators describe your Financial Times landscapes as dystopian or apocalyptic. I wanted to know, is your work a reflection of the way you feel about the world?
994-98 there was a euphoria about what new technology was going to enable us to do, so there was a period of time in which there was this talk about boundaries and borders blurring and even coming down, and so we were all going to hold hands across the globe in this global village with the information superhighways and so on. And that quickly dissipated with the tech stock crash followed by the millennium bug in which, rather than going into a new millennium with great celebration, we went into it with cowering fear. Literally we were told that computers were going to explode in our faces, aeroplanes were going to drop out of the sky. Then in 2001 there was 911, but as well as that, which got eclipsed by the twin tower attacks was WorldCom and Enron collapsing. These first ‘too big to fail’ companies turning out to be these massive Ponzi schemes. All of that lead up to before the 2008 crisis, we had these waves of apocalypse occurring. So that people interpret these things I’m looking at, or say that I have become an apocalyptic painter, is because those are the events that became interesting for me as they show us the historical events that we find ourselves entangled in. They show how our civilisations are rupturing under these circumstances, and that is what I want to capture. Only by looking at them, surely, can we proceed to perhaps prevent them from happening again.
Could you talk about your new glitch prints - how you make them and also how you choose who or what to glitch.
The glitch works, in a way I have always been doing that in an analogue way, with how I shred things, cut newspaper, photo collage and manipulate images. Then I discovered this sub culture of artists, they might call themselves post-internet, I’m not sure, and there are some coders who release their code for free on the Internet. There are different types of algorithms that they release for free that create this glitch-like effect, and the one that I finally chose to use was one called pixel sorting, by Kim Asendorf, a conceptual artist. His code, for some reason, has quite a beautiful result that creates sand dune-like effects. Essentially you use a programme called Processing, and you type numbers into either the black or the white values and it shifts the pixels. I sent the code off after a number of years to a friend of mine who works at Google to make an interface for me that makes it a lot easier to use. What’s important about the code is that it doesn’t destroy or copy any of the pixels; it simply rearranges them. Theoretically the pixels could be put back together to form the original image. So for me it was a metaphor for re-ordering, or a new order of things. At the beginning each glitch would take about five minutes to process, and it can be up to four thousand images to glitch the whole thing. So I also went out and bought a faster computer!
When did you start making these?
Four or five years ago. Now I have this interface that allows me to basically make things quickly, and as a result I can respond to news events a lot faster. I think of it almost like a Gerhard Richter blur. His painting method is a way of questioning an idea of history. The blur makes you re-think the narratives of what we are told, a particular line of history. So this idea of realigning the pixels is a way of suggesting history being re-ordered, and for me to question fixed points of history, particularly histories written by victors. So when I choose, for example, Dutch still life paintings, I was led there by the 2008 financial crisis, which led me to look at the first economic bubble in history which was tulip mania. Dutch still lives represent the romantic language of futile materialism and the fragility of life, but also hide the fact that they are really about ostentatious depictions of wealth, power and status. And then beyond that, the framing of how they accrued this wealth is expansionism, colonisation and slavery. So these are hidden histories. In some ways the glitches are about re-framing that genre as a kind of high art propaganda.
It’s interesting as well because that was the first time that art really became a commodity.
They are a mapping of their success. You get different types like the flowers, the breakfast ones, and the really ostentatious ones. They are all allegorical but some are more allegorical than others, usually to do with Protestant ideas of Christianity. For example the breakfast ones, bread and beer, which is a symbol of Dutch nationalism, but of course it was the rise of the merchant classes as well. The merchant classes were now becoming as powerful as some of the Royal classes. So the types of paintings that they would commission would be to do with their trade.
I was thinking about the effect of the glitch prints, and I watched an interview where you described them as being like the sands of time, and I was thinking that, for me, I see them less as a transition and more like a dissolving, or an exposing of the inability of this historical art form to survive in the modern world, so that they are being erased by modern technology. I wondered if you thought you were giving these works a new life, or if you are showing us that they are no longer relevant?
It also has a relationship to ruins. When we look at ruins we extrapolate how that civilisation might have been, so we imagine into the absence of what was there. So it’s a way of creating spaces which you can transport into to occupy those interwoven narratives and hopefully to ask questions about all sorts of histories that are given to us, whether that is a romanticising of something or factual.
A lot of your work seems to be underpinned by a kind of anti-capitalist sentiment, or at least a critique of capitalism, so I wanted to know, how do you reconcile that with being a successful artist whose work commands high prices?
I’m not sure I’m anti-capitalist. I exist in this world, in this society under this ideology. So unless, just because I might be critiquing a particular economic idea, I should be expected to live in the wilderness, off the grid, and only then can I maintain a sense of integrity with the statements I might be making…
Is it that you are taking this capitalist ‘stuff’ and re-packaging it, giving it back to them?
No, it’s trying to look at the world in which we exist, the structures and the architecture that has been built for us to exist within this frame. Being part of that there are of course injustices. We know why people are angry about the 2008 financial crisis, because there was a corruption there and nobody has gone to jail. And the fines weren’t even that big compared to how much was effectively stolen. So these are things that need to be looked at if we don’t want those things to repeat.
But then people don’t question this when the money is rolling in, right. In a way certain people are complicit…
When I have talked to people who work in those industries they say ‘oh but to have those days again’ and I’m thinking ‘what do you mean?’ It was a corrupt system and it wasn’t working and has bankrupted countries which is kind of insane. So it’s just trying to look at that, at how much desperation should a society have in order for a very small minority to have extreme wealth.
I think there are around 2000 billionaires in the world at the moment…
Is that right. I made a top ten billionaires series in 2003, and when I first made that it was in the hundreds.
I read an article the other day about how billionaires made so much money last year that they could end extreme poverty seven times over. But they don’t, and I don’t really understand that.
I mean it may well be the quality of our leaders, who create this system in which it propagates that. These are things I’m interested in asking. Our leaders seem willing to allow for an intolerable existence for a majority of people when it might not need to be like that. That’s not advocating communism or something like it, but there are different forms of capitalism that we could have and there are certain rights that people have fought for that have been good. So only by taking a long hard stare at our reality and the miasma of narratives that are given to us can real change be possible. I’m just an artist, and I try to draw inspiration from those types of realisations, these sorts of moments of revelation that you have, and to translate that into the work.
So then how do you translate that into the work? How do you choose what form that then takes?
You find a way to somehow translate that into the techniques and processes that you use. So the way that I layer, the way that it looks like something from a distance and then when you come up close it reveals itself to be something unexpected. And then the process, or the way you perceive, introduces a third element which is the combination of the two. Your first perception now has to change via the second. So it’s trying to create images of multiple realities, I think of them as being like refracting crystals that when you look through you see multiple viewpoints of something. I try to constantly create those sorts of spaces through the materials that I use.
Is that why you use sand in the paintings?
Well sand has a lot of clichéd romance to it as well. Everything turns to sand, so you have this time element. But also the way that I use it, I can create these moonscape-like effects. I always think of the poem by Shelley, Ozymandias, in which, again, it’s the ruins of a civilisation and a civilisation that was once great but now there’s a broken visage of a giant face in the sand. We are invited to think about how can a great civilisation ever collapse? There comes a great existential question about, if everything eventually becomes sand, then what is important? When you stand on the edge of a sublime image, one of the reasons it’s sublime is that we become a very tiny figure in the landscape. It becomes a spiritual question about what it means to be in this world and it brings into sharp focus what it means to exist, what does it all matter, when our dominant ideology is consumerism on a global scale, for example. Are these the values that really matter?
The paintings are quite beautiful. So why do you make them that way, because you could make them look horrible, for example.
I’m always asked this question and in a way I never really know. Just because I see beauty.
So you have these dystopian-type feelings but you still see beauty through that?
Yeah. It’s not hopeless. It’s not a binary thing. Just because things are shit, doesn’t mean that it can’t change. And just because I see shit in the way our world can be, doesn’t mean that I don’t also see the beauty in the things that we have and the things we have built, and that we are, innately. It’s not a dualistic attitude that I have to these things, it’s entangled and messy and complicated and nuanced. I’m searching for a balanced view in which I don’t go into sheer pessimistic nihilism.
Do you ever go there, though, just to see what might happen?
What into nihilism? Well I did make some images of the Abu Ghraib torture in which I used a laser cutter to burn the images. For me they were modern day images of Goya’s The Disasters of War, and so that series was called The Disasters of Terror. And that was really hard actually, to look at and try to digest those types of images, because what they represent is a horrifying attitude towards creating trophy images of torture victims. That’s why they took those images, because they wanted a memento of what they had done to another human being. You also have to think about how you arrive at that point as well. It’s an extreme condition of war, but they don’t even acknowledge that it was war - it’s ‘terror’. It’s a war on terror. So you have all these levels of cognitive dissonance at a state level. Who is the real terrorist here, where is the humanity in this? Especially when you say that you are fighting for good. And of course in all the films we watch there is only ever one ‘good’ side. And when you see an image like that you are heading towards a Heart of Darkness. To try to grasp that is not comfortable. It’s these sorts of contradictions that I’m fascinated by, and I feel it is important to see those different facets of the same point.
Do you ever feel there are certain images that you can’t use, because of issues around cultural appropriation, for example, or because you are too removed from the political situation? How do you decide when you can use those kinds of things and when it’s just too…
Well that was probably one of the tougher choices but I thought it was too important not to make something from it. I’m always trying to test my parameters in that way. Why should I limit myself, whatmoral framework am I using, what ethical reasoning? When you are making decisions at those edges of what you should or shouldn’t do, yeah, you are weighing up what that means. Ultimately it comes down to whether you feel that the reasons you are compelled to make the work are important enough to you, and then you make the decision from there. There was this period of time when I was looking at images of war, and some of the more difficult ones would be the images of dead children. Those I couldn’t use. Or decapitated, fragmented bodies. Part of the reason I looked at this is because there are images the media don’t show you, for good reason, but because they are so real it bursts the glossy presentation of news. We exist now in an age where everybody is uploading stuff, and you get situations where military snipers will be shooting at civilians, and they will be filming it and posting it. When you see stuff like that you just think, that is so messed up, because we are meant to be going in there for good reasons. You see this fog of war and the work is about seeing realities and seeing through the things we are told our reality is. It’s like when you hear that kids are scared of blue skies because of drones, it is a very different reality to what we experience. I think that all of this information expands your horizons as to how you see the world and the way we construct our realities through stories.
Do you have a particular attitude towards wealth?
Well, I want to make as much money as possible.
Do you actually?
Well, because I can’t make art otherwise, it’s as simple as that.
Well you only need a certain level…
Yes you just need a pencil and paper, but I would like to continue to use the stuff that I do and I don’t want to be worried about putting food on the table. But I think I have addressed some of that, how we need to question how concentrated wealth should be, and why do we have a system in place that allows for that to happen. Why are some people seemingly more above the law than others? Why if you can afford a creative accountant can you get away with not paying your taxes? How can companies that are earning billions not pay any taxes into the economy they are based in? These are grotesque distortions of the system that we exist within. So it’s not that I am against wealth creation or wealthy people. But just because someone is wealthy doesn’t mean they are complicit in all of the problems with our system. These are far bigger issues than I can possibly answer.
Do you think that art should be political?
I think art is political. Whether an artist is apolitical, is their prerogative. In a way all of our actions are political, from that point of view. I’m not saying that all art should be…
Exactly. Art is about so many things and there is room for it to express every aspect of our humanity, whether that is pure poetry, pure spiritualism, pure politics, it can also be a mix of all those things. It depends on how much an artist wants to convey their inner realities through their work. But I do think that it is pretty much always political, even if it sometimes is about hiding political issues. That doesn’t mean that the artist is deliberately doing that, but history can choose to define it in such a way. If we just take a recent example of the Leonardo painting, there is this enormous cultural value and prestige given to the person that owns that painting. That’s another thing, at the moment we seem to worship the price tag of art rather than the art. That’s a question about how history will pass and how we will convert art into symbols of our civilisations. That doesn’t always come down to what the artist intended for that artwork to be. Through history it transforms and becomes a symbol.
Do you think then that art, the world of art, should be more democratic? In terms of access to being an artist as a career option which, especially with the increase in tuition fees, is becoming quite elitist. And then owning art again is quite an elitist occupation.
In a way art is democratic because anybody can pick up paper and a pencil and make art and they can find the pure pleasure in that. You don’t need to tell a child to make a drawing, they will do it for pure pleasure and with joy. But then when you start overlapping that with the art market and the art world then yes, it becomes a less democratic world. Most of the art world is probably full of wealthy people of privileged backgrounds. Very few of them would have been from the working class and risen through. But the compulsion to make art is so strong amongst us. None of us chose art to become rich or famous. There are other avenues through which it would be better to do that. So there are much more compelling reasons for anyone to pursue a journey into becoming an artist and I think that will remain. Whether it should be more democratic, of course. Idealistically, of course. Should Western societies that call themselves democracies actually be democracies? Yes they should be.
Do you think artists could play more of a role in making the art world more democratic, for example, once they achieve a certain status?
Being an artist is pretty radical anyway. You are kind of existing on the margins of society, trying to eke out a living and still make the thing that you are compelled to make. No artist can maintain a production of art unless they have very real reasons to produce it. It’s only with the crushing weight of making money, holding down a number of jobs, bringing up a family and so on, that they have to give up. But yes, I think most artists are, by the act of being artists, already being quite radical in society. It’s the reason we are seen as people existing in the margins. We are often even romanticised as the socially accepted mad people. We are like a mutation in the genetic structure. We are the dreamers of our civilisation and we will form the core identity of our society for the future, the present, as well as mapping the past. We do all of those things, so whether we should be advocating for democracy, I think we are already doing enough!
Do you ever make abstract works?
I used to make abstract works and I do make abstract works. I’m making some at the moment. I’ve been working with this material, it’s newspaper, that I’m turning into window frames.
They’re like stained glass structures?
They are based on a book of disappearing windows in China. They are disappearing because of accelerated urban development. The old buildings are being torn down and so this guy went around recording some of these windows.
Why are they round?
They make them round in China. They don’t just make round windows but I chose to use the round ones because it is a very complete form. These happen to be a style called the ‘broken ice lattice’. The window also represents a definition between interior and exterior, it is a portal that you look through. The frame is created using newspaper so the gaze transforms through this financial frame.
I’ve noticed that images of women rarely feature in your work, is there a reason for this?
Gosh! That is true. I mean I made some mother themed works. I’ve used the Madonna…
I’ve seen a Marilyn Monroe…
Oh yes that’s top ten dead celebrities still earning. But with the top tens, it’s because those top ten lists don’t have women in them, really. Recently I made the top ten senators funded by the NRA. There aren’t many women in those top positions of power. So it’s not that I am avoiding painting about women. Top ten billionaires, I don’t think there are any women. Alice Walton, maybe. I guess I was looking at hierarchies of power with those portraits. I also did the top ten hackers. They were shown in New Art Gallery Walsall, and they were shown in three different levels. There was this idea that you had sun gods at the top, and in the middle was earth - which happened to be zombie-like because they were the top ten dead celebrities still earning, and then the hackers were the underworld. I do remember talking about the fact that it was just Marilyn, but it wasn’t that I was looking at the demographics of those groups, it was more a way of giving a shorthand ridiculous way of illustrating a hierarchy of our world. I mean top ten lists are so stupid! And yet we are attracted to them because they summarise something, but they don’t really, either.
How do you see your work progressing over the coming years?
Well I bought this 3D printer four or five months ago, but I haven’t unpacked it yet. So I am constantly thinking about new technologies and somehow using them and adapting them to my work. But whatever space or opportunity comes up I will fill it. If that means adapting to new technologies then I will, whilst constantly building and progressing and developing each of the bodies of work. The exciting thing about making art is that there is an unknown aspect. You have an inkling about what you want to do in the back of your mind, and a feeling, something that compels you. But it never comes out in the way you might imagine it. Then even when you are making, say, the paintings, you deliberately introduce elements in which there is an unknown factor, because then you have something to grapple with. It’s that which becomes the seed for future works. I can’t plan that far into the future but I’m making as much effort as possible to ensure that I will always feel compelled to make something.
What would be your key pieces of advice for recent graduates and emerging artists in terms of how to build a successful career?
Firstly you nurture and remember the reasons why you became an artist in the first place. That feeling of, ‘I’m going to become an artist now.’ Remember that, because you will come into collision with the art market at some point and then all the different pressures that brings. One of the ways you can navigate your way through it and not compromise is by remembering the very real reasons as to why you make art at all. And then… yes. Work hard. Eat healthily. Live long. Be the last person standing.