The Financial Times and a vitrine led the English-Chinese artist Gordon Cheung to Frieze London


Live bee-hive bull skull permanent public sculpture installed at Camley Street Natural Park

A bull’s skull surrounded by living bees in a vitrine. Does this make you think about a new artwork by Damien Hirst?

Gordon Cheung’s vitrine, called “2012” as this is the year of the Mayan Apocalypse has been installed in Camley Street Natural Park, next to St. Pancras.

The Apocalypse takes place at the end of a 5,100 year period of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which was used by the Maya.

It is indeed a piece of art but, it is not one of Damien Hirst’s latest creations.

“2012” belongs to Gordon Cheung’s latest projects.  However, it is undeniable that it strongly reminds one of “A Thousand Years” (1990), a dead cow encaged in a vitrine with a dozen of flies in it, by Damien Hirst.

“My work is different, of course it is about the cycle of life and death but I do not kill any animals. I use bees, a symbol of society, and a bull’s skull which represents the stock market,” Gordon Cheung tells me while we are having something to drink in the middle of his studio, surrounded by his latest paintings. His cozy studio is located next to Victoria Station.

His work is site-specific to the wildlife part juxtaposed to the booming King’s Cross property development. Bees are symbolising society and the bull skull the stock market merges two mythologies to reflect a sense of current events. Such as, the Occupy Wall Street movement, nature versus progress and society versus city. It can be seen as a convergence of these ideas into a living sculpture that grows with the bees.

The live bee-hive skull permanent sculpture installed at Camley Natural Park is open to the public. “All are welcome to visit as it evolves with hive built around skull,” says Gordon. By adding an educational aspect to it he wants to give kids the chance to see bees at work in the park among natural surroundings.

It seems like as if contemporary artists are preferring to work with vitrines as it enables them to depict finite space, trying to make people understand that the idea of the glass box is referring to society as a whole.

The observers of the vitrines are taking on the role of looking at an artificial small living microcosm.

The subject of death and life addressed by the content of vitrines has been ever present since.

In the past, artists addressed the finite cycle of life in the form of traditional still lives, which had originated in the Middle Age. Fish, skulls, candles, (rotten) fruit, vegetables, vases, dead animals, blood, cheese, bread and so on have been the typical hidden motives in still lives.

Today’s vitrines are visualizing a cycle of life as well; with the only difference being  the life cycle of the 21th century art is live, real and variable in dimensions.

Damien Hirst’s as well as Gordon Cheung’s vitrines are growing in a sense – as well as decaying. Never ever before has art been able to depict the cycle of life so clearly.

Contemporary art is a product of our throw-away society. It addresses the issue of the fast pace development of new technology which we are experiencing at the moment.

The development of financial markets and technology go hand in hand.

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in London, Gordon Cheung, 37, has critically examined the relationship between the economy, finance and technology.

Hence, he has been occupying himself with creating a visual depiction of our financial world. He has materialized this in the form of art, which will sooner or later depict the world’s history – notably, in the field of History of Art.

He started off working with stock listings from the Financial Times (FT) as  a background for his paintings back in 1995. Thereby, he is aiming to show that the ideology of capitalism and spiritualism has become global.

“When more and more people started to use mobile phones and the digital revolution took place, I wanted to make paintings about that.”

Through his paintings people are able to see how society has changed and that technology and the economy have played two important roles in the 20th and in the 21st century in the future.

In the second room of his studio he shows me his collection of the stock listing collage paintings and his collection of old editions of the Financial Times. We are looking at first pages of the FT back in 2008, when Lehman Brothers and other companies had seen the value of their shares dropping to zero.

Comparing older editions of the FT with the latest ones, neither the layout nor the content have changed significantly, it is – as usually – all about the troubles taking place in the financial world.

However, now the focus is not purely on the US or on Europe. What has, however, changed is the enormous prevalence of the cyber world, which the financial sector takes advantage of. This dystopia is invisible for most of the people living in our society.

Gordon’s artworks represent his personal view about of our virtual dystopia (gr. landscape, space).

“The idea of dystopia came about through the tech stock crash in the 90s. Global villages and cyber spaces were blurring and then it was kind of “Oh this is not going to enable us to do what we want to achieve. Then there was the millennium bug the hysterical fear of having computers exploding into your face. So we entered the new millennium with the fear that the world is going to collapse because of your reliance on technology,” he says.

Being fascinated by this, he has created his collage technique combined with twisting colours when he was looking for a way to paint without traditional paint during his time at St. Martins College of art in the heart of London.

Damien Hirst and Gordon Cheung, share more than just the idea of depicting the cycle of death and life in virtues, even their backgrounds explain why they are creating art in the way they do – namely, without paint.

Instead of common art techniques, they use materials which emphasise the art’s subject.

When I asked him if there is a link between his beehive and Damian Hirst’s vitrines Gordon starts citing Pablo Picasso’s: “Good artists copy and great artists steal.”

He adds that placing restrictions on yourself stops you from growing.

Interestingly, Gordon as well as Steven Jobs are referring to Picasso’s quote this quote when being interviewed.

This statement must not be misunderstood, because even in art you develop your style and learn how to draw by copying old masters and well-established artists. Otherwise, progressing would require a longer amount of time and more effort.

When Gordon creates his stock listing collages he does not think about a specific market, he sees the economy as a whole – as one space.

When asking him about the critical situation of the art market due to rising prices for art works, Gordon starts laughing out loud and says, “it is called the last unregulated market”.

Interestingly, he compares an economic crisis and financial bubbles to an earthquake, “it is a natural event. So strong is its effect, it affects the whole world.”

Combining this economic event with still on-going digitalization and the fact that people are becoming more and more glued to the screens of their iPhones and iPads, our daily life and values of life have changed dramatically.

Who needs to socialize and have face-to-face conversations in the age of Skype or virtual Social Networks?

Gordon Cheung remembers that no one in the past has thought that texting would be so popular and technology would progress so exponentially. Now should be the time to reflect that “the Internet was one of the biggest revolutions ever. The iPhone and the iPad made the new technology cool.”

Are we in favour of the direction towards which the world is moving

Born and having grown up in the UK, Gordon has experienced the wave of new technology in heart of London.

If you were just listening to him, without seeing him, you would not think that he is actually of Chinese origin, as he has a perfect British accent.

Hence, it is no wonder that his art is shown in Chinese galleries in Hong Kong, in the US and all over in Europe.

In his parents’ home country, China, the cultural understanding of European and American art is still in its development. Gordon himself has never experienced any cultural misunderstandings, but he is aware of their existence.

“I have tried to create art which has a universal meaning due to its colour, its materiality or you could also call it the visual poetry. But you have to consider that contemporary art is a Western language. It is a Western product, and as it merges, other cultures will develop their own version of it.”

During his stay in Pakistan he got to see that artists from the Middle-East and other nationalities do know European and American Art very well, while the European education system in art schools focuses only on America and European art.

“The art market is so strong here. The same artists are shown again and again. Only now, are people becoming more and more aware of other artists and this has only changed because China has become what people foresee as economic power in terms of money. I mean it makes business sense to look at other art now,” he says and laughs light-heartedly.

The latest exhibition of this British artist will open on the October 24 at the Edel Assanti Gallery in London, where his very latest collages with the Financial Times stock listings and animal symbols depicting the troubled financial world will be displayed.

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