How do our unconscious and conscious memories impact on what we see, or what we think we see, even if our vision or memory is imperfect? How do we respect the cultures and traditions of the past while enabling civilisation to move forward to give us the future of tomorrow?
Though distorted images with paint dragged down through the canvas, the composition, the hair, the facial wrinkles, the shadows, the fabrics, the jewellery and the colours provide keys into our memories to enable us to recognise some of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings.
Gordon Cheung (born 1975) crosses cultures in his work. Of Hong Kong origin, he lives and works in London and his work bridges across east and west, yesterday, today and tomorrow, tradition and modernism, idealism and discord. The title of his exhibition at Edel Assanti in London, “Unknown Knowns” is taken from the Serbian philosopher Slavoj Žižek who asserted that Donald Rumsfeld’s famous theory of knowledge containing three elements “known knowns..known unknowns.. (and)..unknown unknowns” had a major omission, a crucial fourth category: “unknown knowns” – things that we don’t realise, or have forgotten, that we know, yet which subconsciously influence our perceptions and actions.
Photographic images of acrobats from Chairman from the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution have been taken apart and reworked as if in time-lapse photography, providing a contrasting appearance of either a healthy sports activity and a reflection of the soft power used by government as part of its political agenda. Which of these you recognise will depend on your unknown knows.
Apparently beautiful vases of flowers sit in front of a shadowy background of columns of financial data, reflecting the world in which we live where, behind everything, the financial markets are at work, manipulated by individuals, corporations and governments, for good and for bad, and resulting in the financial crash of 2008.
Taking centre-stage are two monumental works, highlighting the tensions between the past, the present and the future. A traditional Chinese image of a mountain landscape is broken by “nail houses”, a now-censored term used in China to refer to properties whose residents defied developers’ demands to sell and were then forced to remain and suffer as the surrounding area was destroyed in a noisy chaotic mess of demolition and building contractors. The shadowy new buildings are also formed of columns of figures from the financial pages, highlighting that such developments may be driven by financial and political reasons, rather than for the benefit of the communities. (There is a link here to the ongoing debate in the UK about developments of luxury flats for absent owners, while there is insufficient housing for local communities). A beautiful landscape is being destroyed for the sake of future prosperity. Why can the two not work hand in hand for future benefit?
In the other work, the artificial islands being developed by the Chinese in the South China Sea, the “One Belt One” initiative, are depicted in the style of old maps, drawing attention to the fact that maps are often the result of political history and ideology and, also, that future generations will believe that these islands have always existed as they will have no knowledge of anything different. History will have been erased.
In these works, Cheung raises important questions about our society today, the influence of politics and economics, and how past culture and new development should create a better future, with harmony rather than conflict.