Gordon Cheung does it big. Cheung does it large.
The Chinese Arts Centre has some of the biggest new works you’ll see this year. Subtle they are not. They’re fists in the face reminding us how the centre of world power is shifting east.
There was this optimism about the technological revolution, it seemed to be offering a Utopian world. Then came the dot.com crisis, the Y2K threat, September 11, the war on terror.
The canvases can be as large as 3 metres by almost 3 metres. They pile image on image, tower blocks, storms, apocalyptic skies, deserts, mountains, oceans, fields and cities. The colours are the same as you get on gift calendars in Chinese take-aways. There's usually an individual (or individuals) lost in huge landscapes and trapped within momentous events – like the familiar looking little guy in the centre of the work reproduced here, look carefully on the rock in the middle. Instead of the tanks on Tiananmen Square, he’s facing a wide sea through which an acrobat performs on a tower between spreading phoenix wings. The huge structures in Cheung’s work are China, surging ahead, flexing its muscles, but the acrobat here suggests that a balancing act is being performed or some illusion is at work.
This Chinese renaissance is central to Cheng’s work. He told Confidential, “The country is mutating. It’s creating a new mythology where individuals can make fortunes, as in the capitalist world, yet it is still an authoritarian country as far from democracy as ever. Communist propaganda is being subverted as commercial potential grows but the country is still ruled by the Communist Party. Nothing is as it seems.”
“Because,” says Cheung, “I like to be overwhelmed. And the changes in the world are overwhelming and complex, too much for a single person to take in.”
The title of the show and of the image here, Death by a Thousand Cuts, refers to the ‘slow slicing’ method of execution in the years before abolition in 1905. This might refer to the death of the communist ideal in China, the death there of any official notion of democracy, even potentially the death of the existing world order. It also refers specifically to a more recent demise.
“In the nineties,” says Cheung, “there was this optimism about the technological revolution, it seemed to be offering a Utopian world. Then came the dot.com crisis, the Y2K threat, September 11, the war on terror, and that optimism deteriorated, vanished. It proved fragile. This is my response.”
Big ideas, big canvases - not always totally successful given the competing elements on each work - but intriguing and as the artist says, definitely overwhelming. It’s worth taking a trip to Thomas Street.
Death by a Thousand Cuts by Gordon Cheung, until 23 March.
Chinese Arts Centre (Market Buildings, Thomas Street, Manchester, M4 1EU
Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-4pm
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