Gordon Cheung at Alan Cristea

Alan Cristea was host to an Exhibition of Gordon Cheung’s new work that was subject to a talk that took place on the 29th September. The talk featured ‘historian, writer and broadcaster Charlotte Mullins, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Theory at Chelsea College of Art and Design Dan Smith and Professor Karin Moelling whose research into viruses sheds light on ‘Breaking Tulips,’ a plant virus that causes tulips to blossom with stripes’ – Art Map London. There was also a fifth panelist whose name I believe was John Hawkins, but can’t sure.

The first question put to Gordon asked about his inspiration for this set of Tulip paintings, to which he replied how the 2008 financial crisis, which has affected his work quite heavily, holds similarities to the Tulipomania financial crisis in Holland in the 17th century which is often thought to be the first recorded example of an economic bubble. This crisis also shared a cause – that of unsustainable futures trading.


These first images are based off of the watercolour illustrations that were given as speculation as to what the tulip’s would turn out looking like. This was effectively the promise of what the tulip would look like when it was sold as a bulb.

Cheung then continued about how he believes the market for Chinese antiques will be where the next bubble would be found.


Karen Moelling then explained the manifestation of the ‘breaking’ (striping) of the tulips was caused by a virus from the potyviridae family which causes each tulip to look different. These broken tulips were the most desirable but due to the nature of their colour not being genetic but as a result of the infection, it would have been impossible to predict the outcome by breeding, thus causing the extortionate prices, up to 10* that of a skilled craftsman’s salary.


The virus is a very stable one however, and thus causes no harm to the plants and would have been spread by insects and the gardeners that flew around the plants as they grew.


Moelling also mentioned Maria Sibylla Merian, a dutch artist who stole some tulips from a neighbour aged 14 to draw them. She spent the rest of her life drawing and painting plant-life and the insects that surrounded them, especially noting the metamorphosis of the butterfly which has proved invaluable in the study of entomology.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) - Garden Poppy & Bellflower with Goldfinch
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) – Garden Poppy & Bellflower with Goldfinch

Dan Smith’s addition in this introduction was a small passage he’d written about Cheung’s work. He mentioned how the pieced were a hallucinatory overview of the present, seeing critical structural links to science-fiction, citing how the metamorphosis of science fiction makes us look at the world differently and this construction has been made manifest in Gordon Cheung’s paintings.

These flower works extend the ideas of cultural and economic value that Cheung has previously explored, thinking through cataclysmic events and historicising the constant shadow of disaster.


Cheung replied on the topic of catastrophe and apocalypse, expressing his interest in the fragility of mortality and the futility of materialism. He expressed his idea of how the flowers symbolically stood for virtue and how that played against their effect of Holland as a country.


Karen Moelling chipped in with her thoughts about the futility of the culture of the tulip mania: the flowers only show for a period of 2 weeks, so there was almost no time to enjoy the commodity that could cost more than a house. The most expensive and desirable of these tulips was the ‘Emperor Augustus’ of which there were only 10 known flowers. Finally the real killer for all these tulips was the fact that after 2-3 generations of breeding the tulips would be colourless, worthless and then a mass extinction would occur as no-one would replant them.


It was remarked how the virus therefore adds the value to these works and Cheung was asked what significance and relationship he saw that having with the glitch pieces he was presenting, having taken the 17th century dutch paintings of tulips and modified them so. Cheung talked about how he had used the code of Kim Asendorf, a post internet conceptual artist that I have talked about and admired before to glitch these images, highlighting the move towards a liking of faults in systems that has occurred with the post-internet generations. These distortions in code are an interruption in the illusion of life, it disrupts normality and gives us an experience of multiple possible realities.


John Hawkin’s pointed out how value is a human invention, referencing the world of stamp collecting and the prices commanded there, and how this human element is completely missing from Cheung’s work, set as it is in barren flat wastelands. This wasteland idea was picked up by Dan Smith who compared it to Baudrillard’s Desert of the Real as a representation of contemporary capitalism before questioning about the idea of a desirable commodity as being ubiquitous and yet rare at the same time, for the tulips, everyone had flowers and tulips but some tulips just happened to look a bit nicer and were hard to obtain, making it a rarity in a ubiquitous product and agreed with Cheung that this reasoning would imply a similar thing could happen with Chinese pottery.


Asked where he begins with making work, Cheung replied by talking about how he starts ideas from: his last body of work, existing in the virtual landscape, utopia, disasters/technology, the accumulation of symbols of culture or power. He mentioned that he wanted to paint without painting, to respond to the world when western painting discourse was too insular, that he was painting with information and saw the way things were presented similarly to Baudrillard, that there was no gulf war that it was a media war instead and how he was influenced by the Chinese repatriation of their history as an expression of their new found power.


The panel discussion ended there and opened the floor up to questioning. I was desperate to ask what exactly Gordon Cheung had done to claim the pictures on the walls as his work. He had taken some old dutch masterpieces, and used a code he didn’t write to manipulate them, having messed around with the code myself, I know its capabilities and how much it can transform a piece on its own without outside help. Furthermore, having seen Kim Asendorf’s work, I know the quality of image that can be achieved with the technology. This question I feel was fair – all artists should have to provide an argument as to what is their input and how that input is art when dealing with appropriation.

I was not that impressed by his answer, he said he had glitched the images 4000 times and then echoed them in adobe after effects and smoothed out some of the lines. Since the code itself has within it a function to loop the glitch through the image multiple times, I am not sure what exactly he meant by glitching them 4000 times. However I do not know his whole process and considering making work digitally will always have a trail of steps to follow, I am sure he is reluctant to share.


The works themselves, I really like as images. I liked them more when I thought he had written his own code, but I still very much think they are strong work, just with a shadow that is unanswered.

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