On the geopolitical landscapes of Gordon Cheung’s latest exhibition

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On the geopolitical landscapes of Gordon Cheung’s latest body of work; Tirion Jenkins reflects on the current exhibition on display at Edel Assanti, a contemporary gallery in the heart of London’s Fitzrovia.

As a geography student I have of course spent a lot of time thinking about connections – the international connections of globalization, the transnational interconnections of people through technology – and how these connections are formed through networks, flows, movements and shrinking time and space. The latest exhibition at Edel Assanti The Abyss Stares Back showcases a new body of work by Gordon Cheung and has caught my interest for the painter’s geopolitical themes and how Gordon represents the changing spatio-temporality of the digital age.

A first glance at the exhibition identifies iconography from traditional landscape and still life paintings with flowers and mountain scenery, however a closer examination instills a feeling of unease as distorted twists in the artists’ representations are identified.

Gordon’s landscapes invert the tranquility associated with landscape painting from art history; romanticized depictions of natural wilderness are replaced by scenes of dystopian futures. The sublime becomes derived from a sci-fi fantasy and the compositions are manifestations of a surrealist meditation on present day political tensions.

Gordon’s piece Living Mountain (2015) is seemingly a detailed portrayal of a majestic Chinese landscape. However, Gordon strays from realist painting techniques, the artist embosses the surface using sand and pumice and painstakingly dries brush strokes of acrylic paint separately on plastic which he adds to the canvas individually.

Living mountain

In Living Mountain, the mountains rise from a bed of Financial Times newspaper that he has collaged as a visual metaphor for the information age and the mountainous strata are saturated with an eerie purple hue. A singular house juts into the foreground standing solitary against the land. What you might suppose is a foreshadowing of the development that is to come is in fact the opposite. The backdrop depicts a section of the Yangtze River where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, flooding villages, cities and historical monuments in the name of development.

The house in the painting is therefore a ‘nail house’, Gordon references the absurd scenes that the nail houses create in China, these can be a shack amid a freeway or a wooden home tucked next to a multistory shopping arcade. These bizarre dichotomies occur when landowners have refused to be bought out or move and developers are forced to build around the structures. The stubborn nail house has become a political symbol of resistance in China as it stands juxtaposed to its surroundings in defiance. The Chinese government has censored these images in China, adding a further twist to the warped representations of reality in late modernity. Gordon Cheung’s reference to the monumental landscape painting of the Chinese dynasties becomes a scene injected with anxiety.

His landscapes represent a distended perspective of gravity, space and time, as though a demonstration of trying to render imaginable the intangible cyberspace our lives are constructed around in the digital age. Gordon’s scenery is timeless yet ephemeral, abstracted yet material. In his work, Gordon maintains the idea that history is repeating constantly, there is a sense of the present, past and future in his paintings, which provokes a reading that is prophetic yet retrospective. Is this an apocalyptic future we see or is this a reflection of what has already passed?

The premise of Gordon’s second solo show at Edel Assanti is that “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” (‘Beyond Good and Evil’, Aphorism 146, 1886, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Perhaps we have become the monsters we were fighting but haven’t stared long enough into the abyss for it to reflect on what we have become.

Perhaps that’s the environmentalist in me talking.

– Tirion Jenkins
BA Geography (International Programme)

“The Abyss Stares Back” is on view at Edel Assanti, London, closing this Saturday Nov. 21, 2015.

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