Multiple Lives

by Simon Soon +

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Simon Soon (b. 1983, Malaysia) is a researcher based between Kuala Lumpur. He is a writer and researcher interested in modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art. He is currently completing his PhD at the University of Sydney where he examines the spatio-visual practice of left-leaning political art movements in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and The Philippines from the 1950s – 1970s. He is also a participant of Ambitious Alignments: New Southeast Asian Art Histories, a series of seminars for early career scholars funded by the Getty Foundation’s ‘Connecting Art Histories’ initiative. He will be comparing the architecture and landscape of Nanyang University (1955-1980) and Chinese University of Hong Kong (1963-present), two Chinese-language institutions of higher learning in former British colonies.

Dec 2015

As a principal object in Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling novel, Against the Day, the calcite mineral known as Iceland spar possesses a power, more supernatural than the optical quality of double refraction. Pynchon, who writes with a postmodern flair mimicking early 20th century sci-fi pulp, imbues the aforementioned mineral with the property of physical doubling, allowing his characters to bilocate or split into two, with the help of the magic stone.

Crystal_on_graph_paper.jpg

 

A calcite crystal displays the double refractive properties while sitting on a sheet of graph paper.

Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Crystal_on_graph_paper.jpg

 

One could speak of this splitting of an individual into two halves as metaphorically symptomatic of schizophrenia in psychiatric terms. Another way to look at it is to consider how the mineral speaks of multiple personalities or realities. The Iceland spar draws our attention to the complexity of an individual human profile. In this manner, there is an uncanny parallel between Pynchon’s imaginative characterisation of the Iceland spar and the conceptual premise from which Gan Siong King’s The Horror, The Horror, proceeds.

The exhibition setup is simple. A much smaller white cube is constructed inside an empty warehouse to facilitate the viewing of the paintings. The scale of the white cube is dwarfed by the much larger space in the warehouse. Each of the twelve paintings shown inside, which exhibit qualities of repetition and sameness, are faithfully painted copies derived from the same photographic image available on Wikipedia of Alan Turing. Turing is variously known as a pioneering computer scientist, code breaker, and gay icon.

Alan_Turing_Aged_16.jpg

 

Passport photo of Alan Turing at aged 16, 1927.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alan_Turing_Aged_16.jpg

 

One could speak of this splitting of an individual into two halves as metaphorically symptomatic of schizophrenia in psychiatric terms. Another way to look at it is to consider how the mineral speaks of multiple personalities or realities. The Iceland spar draws our attention to the complexity of an individual human profile. In this manner, there is an uncanny parallel between Pynchon’s imaginative characterisation of the Iceland spar and the conceptual premise from which Gan Siong King’s The Horror, The Horror, proceeds.

The exhibition setup is simple. A much smaller white cube is constructed inside an empty warehouse to facilitate the viewing of the paintings. The scale of the white cube is dwarfed by the much larger space in the warehouse. Each of the twelve paintings shown inside, which exhibit qualities of repetition and sameness, are faithfully painted copies derived from the same photographic image available on Wikipedia of Alan Turing. Turing is variously known as a pioneering computer scientist, code breaker, and gay icon.

One could speak of this splitting of an individual into two halves as metaphorically symptomatic of schizophrenia in psychiatric terms. Another way to look at it is to consider how the mineral speaks of multiple personalities or realities. The Iceland spar draws our attention to the complexity of an individual human profile. In this manner, there is an uncanny parallel between Pynchon’s imaginative characterisation of the Iceland spar and the conceptual premise from which Gan Siong King’s The Horror, The Horror, proceeds.

The exhibition setup is simple. A much smaller white cube is constructed inside an empty warehouse to facilitate the viewing of the paintings. The scale of the white cube is dwarfed by the much larger space in the warehouse. Each of the twelve paintings shown inside, which exhibit qualities of repetition and sameness, are faithfully painted copies derived from the same photographic image available on Wikipedia of Alan Turing. Turing is variously known as a pioneering computer scientist, code breaker, and gay icon.

Sisyphus-M.jpg

Sisyphus, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 80cm.

(Collection Rosemary & Dr Sreve Wong

In many ways, Gan’s fascination with the history of science, the speculative dimensions in which the sciences intersect with contemporary art, parallels Pynchon’s fascination with the Iceland spar. For the concept of refraction is also central to the process Gan has undertaken, which is to work from a digital image and replicate this by hand as photo-realistically as possible with the aid of a Camera Lucida he constructed.

 

Gan’s processual inquiry is also a reflection on the connection between shifting identities and painterly representation. On this note, it is a continuation of his abiding fascination in the way we experience visual culture. For The Horror, The Horror, Gan directs his attention towards the artistic use of repetition, as both theme and strategy in painting. This preoccupation is one that may at first seem counter-intuitive to an artist’s creative process. Repetition here is employed as a vehicle to convey ideas of perception and memory. The show moreover touches on the broader themes of fluidity, recognition, and the way an individual is often understood through different labels and identities that society has placed on him or her.

 

Each work spells out an attribute that casts Turing in a certain light. For some, Turing is defined by his professional achievements. For others, aspects of his biography determine Turing’s persona, his moral strengths and failures. We see the figure of Alan Turing fall easily into any of these categories; at the same time, repetition of the image produces a kind of resistance to absolute identification with any. He is after all, more than these single categories summon forth.

 

Gan, in a sense, suggests that multiple identities are a given to any complex psychological profile. A paradox therefore emerges, in the seeming sameness of the image; the pictorial replication of Alan Turing reveals, when studied closely, slight variation. They collectively constitute a thesis against a reductive form of essentialist identity.

 

Bringing the subject closer to home, perhaps what Gan is asking also pertains to a very local concern. Why do people identify with a certain kind of identity, when it is a construct? Very often, some of these identities, racial or religious, are predetermined. Many of us have very little choice in how we identify ourselves. But equally, another way of looking at the issue is, when it comes to things where one doesn’t have a choice, how does the individual by his or her very individuality slip out of this collective identity?

 

A closer examination of the exhibition title is instructive. The title references the well-known phrase that escapes the lips of Kurtz upon his dying breath in Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. There is also a cinematic refraction, in the form of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. In both instances, Kurtz’s deathbed whisper, ‘the horror’ is repeated twice.

 

The phrase provides dramatic closure to an exhausted search for meaning. It seems that in Kurtz’s case, it annuls the certainty that accompanies the imperial project. The intimate admission reveals a conquered Kurtz, consumed by a sense of dread and nihilism, which underwrote the larger moral failings of colonialism. It speaks to the exploitation of the weak by those in power, driven by the cold instrument of reason. In the end, all one is left with is a sense of meaninglessness.


In an attempt to speak to a different context centered on the strategic use of repetition in art, Gan’s The Horror, The Horror operates on a similar vector by touching on the depletion of meaning through repetition. At the same time, unlike Heart of Darkness, the epistemological rupture is viewed here as liberating rather than with dread and pessimism.

 

Refraction, doubling, replication, repetition, all constitute the complex make-up of human experience. In this line of thinking, the portrait as a format advances rewarding psychological depth. It suggests that even if one’s identity cannot be essentialised, what we gain is not inherently meaningless. One’s identity emerges gradually, through a web of inferences, which could embody irreconcilable and at times contradictory profiles. We might take stock of more accommodating forms of imagination that tell us who we are, and why we think we are who we are.

 

In this sense, the exhibition demonstrates a critical inquiry into how each painting contributes to a larger narrative about the human condition, sustaining tensions between singularity and complexity, the particular and the whole, the fictive and the real.