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Painting In The Age of Post-Digital Reproduction

by Wong Hoy Cheong +

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Wong Hoy Cheong was born in Penang, Malaysia, in 1960. He received a BA in literature from Brandeis University, Massachusetts, in 1982, and an M.Ed. from Harvard University in 1984. In 1986, he received an MFA in painting from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and in 2011 was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Creative Fellowship. In an attempt to escape the solitude and stasis of painting, Wong now employs mediums that he considers collaborative, and which effectively mix historical depth with human immediacy; he works in drawing, photography, video, installation, and performance. During the 1990s, he developed an interest in the migration of plants. This inquiry led him to investigate human migration and the related subjects of race, colonization, and indigeneity.

In his installation Re:Looking (2002), Wong blurs the divide between fact and fiction in a deliberately unreliable representation of so-called history. In a living-room setting, viewers watch what appears at first to be a factual documentary about the impact of the fabricated former Malaysian Empire on postcolonial Austria. Rooted in deliberate misinformation, the work addresses the media’s influence on public opinion and riffs on the clichés of colonialism. Days of Our Lives (2009) is a series of six photographs exploring contemporary European identity. In these manipulated images, Wong has customized domestic scenes from French paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, to depict migrant populations from former British colonies: Muslim Nigerians, Iranians, Turks, and Burmese. Adapting familiar images of mother and child—as well as Henri Fantin Latour’s La Lecture (1877)—Wong traces the changing face of ordinary life in Europe while excavating the obscured cultural histories of marginalized communities elsewhere in the world. Days of Our Lives thus deconstructs the systems of power that underwrite historical narrative.

Wong has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (1996 and 2004), and at other venues around the world including Kunsthalle, Vienna (2003); Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (2004); NUS Museum and Gallery, Singapore (2008); and Eslite Gallery, Taipei (2010). His work has also been included in group exhibitions internationally, including Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane (1996); Art in Southeast Asia: Glimpses into the Future, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (1997); Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, Japan (1999 and 2009); Venice Biennale (2003); Liverpool Biennial (2004); Guangzhou Triennial, China (2005); Asian Contemporary Art in Print, Asia Society, New York (2006); Naked Life, Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (2006); Istanbul Biennial (2007); Taipei Biennial (2008); Lyon Biennial, France (2009); Negotiating Home, History, and Nation, Singapore Art Museum (2011); and PhotoEspana (2011). Wong lives and works in Kuala Lumpur.

Dec 2014

Our contemporary relationship with art cannot, therefore, be reduced to a “loss of the aura”. Rather, the modern age organizes a complex interplay of dislocations and relocations, of deterritorialisations and reterritorialisations, of deauratisations and reauratisations. What differentiates contemporary art from previous times is only the fact that the originality of a work in our time is not established depending on its own form, but through its inclusion in a certain context, in a certain installation, through its topological inscription…


We are as unable to stabilize a copy as a copy – as we are unable to stabilize an original as an original. There are no eternal copies as there are no eternal originals. Reproduction is as much infected by originality as originality is infected by reproduction. By circulating through the different contexts a copy becomes a series of different originals. Every change of context, every change of medium can be interpreted as a negation of a status of a copy as a copy – as an essential rupture, as a new start that open a new future. In this sense, a copy is never really a copy – but rather always a new original in a new context.


Boris Groys, The Topology of Contemporary Art, 2008


Locating Gan Siong King’s works within the current bravura of gesture, image and scale in the topography of Malaysian painting is difficult, if not altogether futile. His paintings stand terribly apart in so many ways. There is no parallel. They are curiously cerebral and do not solicit a consumptive spectatorship from the viewers nor the discriminating yet disinterested gaze proverbially seen at painting exhibitions. Lavish with details, and clarity, the surfaces of these works are rendered in soft but confident glazes. However, these paintings are not photorealistic in any conventional manner. In the exhibition, The Pleasures of Odds and Ends: Landscapes, Figures & Still Lifes, Gan opts for images that lay out of the visual scope and experience of most people. While often striking familiar chords, both subject matter and titles remain obscure and demand the spectators to work hard in accessing their meaning. ‘What are they?’will be a recurring question.


First, he reels you in with whimsical and enigmatic allure, then shuts the door on you and sends you on an elliptical journey of interconnected paths, hunting for signs and entry points which then loop you back to the start, albeit one with new coordinates. To Gan, his paintings and what he chooses to paint are ensconced within a feedback loop of knowledge and meaning-making, both of which exist in a constant flux and along a continually shifting historical horizon and space-time continuum. He has chosen not to take the well-trodden path of celebrating the intuitive act of painting and passive spectatorship but instead, he interrogates painting as a conscious act and spectatorship as reflexive and dynamic.


Such are his quixotic preoccupations and propositions.



In 1978, Redza Piyadasa appropriated a painting by another artist, Chia Yu Chian – which depicted some boats by a jetty in a village painted in the fractured and flat pictorial planes of Nanyang, post-cubist considerations – and it within his own work. On it was stenciled: Artworks never exist in time, they have “entry points”. He proposed that the existence of an artwork was not contingent on its location within chronological time; on the contrary, “entry points” was the keystone, the linchpin to an artwork. Without it, an artwork collapses and is rendered meaningless, and since the spectator has no access to its raison d’être, for all intents and purposes, it does not exist.


Redza Piyadasa, Entry Points, 1978,

Collection of National Visual Arts Gallery, Malaysia

Having just returned with a postgraduate degree from the USA in 1977, Piyadasa clearly articulated some of the international art discourse that was current at the time: entry points define the pathways into artworks; time is neither linear not definitive; appropriation is not plagiarism but accepted strategy; reflexivity in image production is privileged over spontaneity. (Some of this discourse still exists today.) The iconography and socio-cultural context of Chia Yu Chian’s painting would have functioned as a conduit and paradigm to understanding Piyadasa’s own work. Cognition and cognisance were instrumental in meaning-making and socio-cultural constructions; they constituted the entry points. The propositions of Piyadasa were highly obscure and difficult for most audiences of 1978 unless they had prior knowledge of such discourse. But such knowledge existed in closed systems and the gates to them would have remained shut unless the spectator had the means, privilege and time to unlock them. For most, it must have been rather infuriating and alienating.


(1) Fountain (a.k.a inside this vessel, a magic drug is brewing), 2014, Oil on Canvas, 30.5 x 38 cm

Fast-forward thirty-five years.

Standing in front of Gan Siong King’s Fountain (a.k.a inside this vessel, a magic drug is brewing), I see a realistically executed painting suffused in elegant cool and warm grays. It is a simple painting of an object, a ‘vessel’ I am informed through the title. Its shape is quaintly familiar – a rectangular receptacle with an upturned curious neck – but nevertheless remains obscure. The delicately painted surface reveals patina of wear and tear. On the top right edge of this object is written ‘M.6668’.

Confronted with such impenetrability, a host of questions arise as I attempt to find entry points to the work. Is ‘M.6668’ a cataloguing or reference number? Is this odd-looking object from an archive or museum? What was its use? Is the ‘magic drug’ a hallucinogen? Is it a vessel for some bodily fluid since Duchamp’s urinal was also titled Fountain? An ancient bedpan perhaps?

On the exhibition label are two QR codes. Curiosity draws me to scan these codes with my smartphone. With 4G connectivity, I am hyperlinked within seconds to YouTube. The first link is to a video titled: Untitled film showing penicillin production (nd). It is a silent film of a remote gothic world which depicts a man in a science laboratory transferring liquids in and out of archaic glass instruments, many of which bear some semblance to the ‘vessel’ in the painting. The second hyperlink takes me to a video, in full colour, of art curators standing beside Duchamp’s Urinal and discussing its iconography and history. I see for the first time, and in close up and fine detail, the shape and scale of this urinal. Curiousity led me further along the cyberspace trail, so I google various keywords: penicillin, penicillin vessel, penicillin production. Within sixty seconds or less, I find the exact digital image of the porcelain penicillin vessel the artist downloaded and copied-painted. And as I wandered further in this virtual vastness, I learnt that penicillin was the first modern antibiotic and those porcelain vessels, like the one painted by Gan, made possible the mass production of penicillin. This antibiotic saved millions of lives and transformed the course of medicine and healthcare forever. I asked myself: is this is why Gan painted the penicillin vessel, much like how Duchamp’s appropriation of the ready-made urinal transformed the dynamics of art production forever?

As I release my mind from this timeless and mesmerising digital web of infinite tunnels and paths, lifting my thumbs off the virtual keypad and raising my head, I am looped back to the painting before me and I see it with new clarity and permutations. I have found entry points. This image is not merely an inert ‘M.6668’ locked in the cabinet of a science museum. It is a receptacle that cultured a ‘magic drug’, one which changed the world forever. Through a continuous cognitive feedback loop between the virtual and real, the time-less and time-bound, the intellectual and the sensorial, Gan’s painting of an innocuous vessel assumes an aura, giving it an elegant profundity it previously did not possess. The initial opacity has given way to luminance, much like the glowing depth of cool and warm grays made vivid through layers of glazes and washes.

An experience like this would not have been possible standing in front of Redza Piyadasa’s Entry Points in 1978. The world that Piyadasa practised in and critiqued has radically changed. It was an age where such entry points – in the instantaneously accessible, entertaining, multilayered and intertextual world of cyberspace – did not exist, let alone imagined possible by most. Closed analogue systems of knowledge access and production have given way to radicalised and porous systems through digitisation and interconnectivity. Knowledge, discourse and its production are no longer bound by geography or distance nor isolated in silos of books and libraries, archives and museums nor merely legitimised by professors and universities. The public now has direct access and, with a bit of curiosity and effort, is both mediator and interpreter. Internet has engendered this agency, and empowered the public in ways thought inconceivable not too long ago.


(2) Leviathan, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 66 x 90.5 cm


As images, Leviathan and Sisyphus are less enigmatic. The former is of a mechanical contraption made of metal with a large rotating wheel connected by armatures to a series of pumps. The latter, resembling an embroidery or tapestry, on closer look, is actually some kind of electrical circuit board. Both look antiquated. Again, I am lured by the QR codes. For Leviathan, I am transported to the 18th century – a documentary on James Watt and the Steam Engine. Surfing this virtual playground, I learnt how the steam engine fuelled the industrial revolution; I learnt of its use in factories, trains and ships; I learnt how it transformed production and productivity, changing notions of power, speed, time and distance. Even today the steam turbine drives nuclear power stations. Through the fluid matrix of hyperlinks, windows and sites, I further learnt that Leviathan alludes to many things: it is a large sea-monster referred to in the Book of Job in the Biblical Old Testament: ‘Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds. His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth’; it is also a book on the statecraft and social contract by Thomas Hobbes. William Blake, the romantic poet, railed against the industrial revolution and considered the mammoth coal and steam engines which propelled factories that spat fire and brimstones, ‘satanic mills’.


(3) SIsyphus, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 80 cm


The Sisyphus QR codes led me to two YouTube videos. The first is a BBC documentary on human development, cognition and memory. Memory, in the human brain consists of complex cognitive and neurological processes of receiving, processing, storing and retrieving. The second is an instructional video by the US military in 1961 – during the height of the Cold War – on ‘magnetic core memory’; the video was used for data processing such as in communication and cryptography equipment. Intrigued, the Google-reflex gene in me triggered a search for further information. Wikipedia’s entry explains that this technology became obsolete in 1975 and has been replaced by smaller and more efficient memory devices – the most recent being our thumb-sized SD cards. It is comprehensible why the artist used this image of an obsolete magnetic core memory to allude to Sisyphus – the myth of a Greek King who was eternally condemned to carry a large boulder up a steep hill, only to let it drop and roll down just as he reached the peak. Like Sisyphus’ absurd task, the magnetic core memory made up of repetitive and endless coils of wire rolled around endless magnets eventually became obsolete and useless. Both allude to a relentless futility. And perhaps even alludes to the artist’s grimly laborious act of painting this work.

If there is a stoic restraint, a tethering of effusive bravura in Gan’s paintings, he more than compensates for it in the playful heuristic devices he contrives for the audience. He begins by positing two worlds which fold into each other: the work we see is an original painting but it is also a hand rendered copy of a digital image he retrieved from the internet; the digital image, on the other hand, is the original image from which the painting was copied but it is also a digitised copy of an original object, be it a magnetic core memory or a porcelain penicillin vessel. In Gan’s proposition, copy and original are inter-exchangeable and exist in both the virtual and real worlds. The copy is made an original; the original is made a copy. The present informs the past; the past informs the present. The there is here; the here is there.



A nuanced understanding and appreciation of Gan’s paintings necessitate this: the folding of the real and virtual worlds, which are in constant tension and flux. This foldedness-of-experience, i.e. the experience of being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) vis-à-vis the overcoming of subject/object dichotomy in real time and space, recognises that the slippages in the real-virtual continuum are integral to contemporary life. In this day and age, negotiating through social constructions and meaning making – entry points as such – are contingent upon this ‘foldedness’. Subject and object connect with and transform each other in a continuous feedback loop. The two key devices that Gan uses which allow for this foldedness-of-experience are the QR (Quick Response) codes and titles to the paintings.

QR codes are graphic matrixes in which information is embedded in a grid of square dots. When scanned and analysed by the optical reader in a smartphone, they are optical labels that are auto-linked to websites. These pictorial codes are wormholes; they puncture real time and transport the spectator to a virtual world of information, opening up pathways of exploration. By using QR codes, Gan posits that a more complete experience of his works necessitates both digression and diversion to knowledge – entry points – beyond the edges of his paintings and the walls of the gallery. Like performative Brechtian devices, the QR codes momentarily pull the spectator out of the experience of ‘identification’ in the act of viewing the paintings in the present within the bounds of four walls to a different space-time continuum. This temporary ‘estrangement’ in the virtual web allows for a revision of understanding and critical reflection that then enables the spectator to loop and fold back to the present moment equipped with a reflexive and deepened appreciation for the paintings.

The titles to Gan’s paintings are mostly oblique. They do not reflect or describe the works. Instead, they allude. An image of a magnetic core memory is titled Sisyphus, a steam engine is Leviathan, a penicillin vessel is Fountain (a.k.a inside this vessel, a magic drug is brewing), a heart-shaped diamond is Bodhisattva, a prehistoric stone axe is Excalibur, a moon is Terang Bulan, and so on and so forth. The last example, Terang Bulan, exemplifies the most complex layering of allusions. One QR code links us to ‘Terang Boelan’, a compilation of jump-cuts of an array of voices singing this Indonesian song. The other QR code leads us to ‘Dark Side of the Moon: Stanley Kubrick and the Fake Moon Landings’, a mockumentary of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and his apparent involvement with the US government in creating a fake moon landing. The allusion to an Indonesian popular song – also the tune for Malaysia’s National Anthem – evokes the occasional recurring disputes of cultural ownership and Nationhood between Indonesia and Malaysia. The allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s film, Pink Floyd’s music, NASA, the Cold War, the USA and Soviet Union in the fake documentary encapsulate the slipperiness between fact and fiction, history and conspiracy, dominance and impotence. Viewing Gan’s Terang Bulan will never be the same again after these excursions. A small and simple painting of the topographical surface of the moon has become a site and an embodiment of the contestation of history, politics, art and culture.


(4) Terang Bulan, 2014, Oil on board, 80 x 80 cm


Are such devices and excursions necessary or do they merely circumvent the visual and sensorial experience of viewing painting or art? On the contrary, these diversions – the act of being online, of being connected to a network – are no longer auxiliary experiences. The digital revolution is over; it is no longer disruptive. It is now fundamental to our being. Being connected is at the tip of our thumbs and fingers; the phone is an extension of our limbs and kinesthetic proclivities. Straddling between the real and virtual has become second nature. If surfing and social networking are no longer disruptive to daily life, why should reading up about penicillin or Leviathan be at opposition to the experience of viewing painting?

This foldedness, as I have argued, is reinforced by Gan’s choice of subject matter and process. The images are of scientific and historical inventions and discoveries that propelled human development. They are digital images downloaded from the internet and re-aura-tised as paintings, as originals. His re-aura-tisation of the digital copies are suffused with wonderment of human tenacity and will, much like his manner of painting. There is visual detail and indulgence: the eyes rove over the surface, enjoying the delicate resonating textures, admiring how the pigments and tints and are patiently glazed in layers upon layers to reveal not only physical structure, but a glowing translucence. Gan’s paintings are not hard-edged photo or hyperrealisms. His painted images float in colour and spatial voids – like meditative dreams – rather than tangible or realistic contexts. The contexts or the entry points for these ‘voids’ lay in what we discover in our temporary ‘estrangement’ in a parallel world – the digital online.

In our post digital contemporaneity, the matrix of visual splendour, endless entertainment and information and heightened emotions are fluidly criss-crossing media and contexts – real and virtual, analogue and digital. We are constantly moving, and the horizon line constantly shifts as we move. The dualities and contradictions that not so long ago were viewed as disruptive and alienating have been absorbed and interwoven into our daily existence – the negations negated. In-der-Welt-sein is here-now-real and here-now-digital inextricably conjoined.

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