Gordon Cheung on Using Tulips to Critique Capitalism

Artsy Editorial
Sep 29, 2015 3:55PM

Courtesy Alan Cristea Gallery, London. Photo: Peter White

A tulip is an unusual visual metaphor for economic corruption, and the business pages of a newspaper are unlikely canvases for art. In London-based artist Gordon Cheung’s new works, both are employed to raucous effect. Cheung’s new bodies of work, titled “Tulipmania,” is now on view in “Breaking Tulips” at London’s Alan Cristea Gallery. The pieces employ decoupaged newspaper scraps and a dominant, painted floral motif and could be misunderstood, if analyzed in fragments and devoid of context. Upon close inspection one may realize that the pages of the Financial Times used in these works depict matrices from specific financial bubbles. Meanwhile, the tulips represented and referenced in the series’s title refer to the 17th-century phenomenon in Holland when the price of a solitary tulip was 10 times the annual wage of a skilled worker.

Through “Tulipmania” and three other fresh series—including still life paintings inspired by Dutch Golden Age masterpieces at the Rijksmuseum and photographs of said works executed in a trippy glitch aesthetic—Cheung comments on capitalism, zeroing in on economic recessions of the past and present. We spoke to Cheung on the occasion of the new show, about the impetus behind these works, the 2008 economic crisis, formative teenage museum visits, and reading between the lines of the William Blake’s poetry. 

Artsy: Can you talk us through the stages in your process?

Gordon Cheung: In “Breaking Tulips” there are four distinct groups of works: paintings, glitched photography of paintings, “Tulipmania” and the “Auguries of Innocence” series. Within each body of work I explored a different set of techniques and processes; it’s difficult for me to really pin down where any one work begins as it all starts with an idea that grows into something I am compelled to make physically. Often new ideas start germinating as the works are being completed.

Before any work is physically produced I spend a lot of time on a computer where I work through many decisions before I commit to work in the studio. Once all the computer work is ready an archival inkjet image is printed onto pre-prepared collages of stock market listings and is then cut and pasted to form the multilayered paintings.

With the archival inkjet prints in “New Order” series, the original images are from the Rijksmuseum’s open source library. I selected several still lifes and used an open source algorithm to render the photographs of the paintings into a kind of digital quicksand effect. The algorithm essentially re-orders the pixels resulting in over 4,000 images; I choose four as the final works.

Artsy: You borrowed fragments of text from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence for one of the series. What significance does this piece of literature hold for you?

GC: Sometimes a title for a work can come before the work is made but in this case I drew a blank, right up until when the work would be exhibited. I was using sand and paint in these works and I suddenly remembered Blake’s poem that began with “To see a World in a Grain of Sand.” From there I looked up the rest of the poem and knew this is what the works should be titled. It is a poem that contains a series of paradoxes which speak of innocence juxtaposed with evil and corruption.

Courtesy Alan Cristea Gallery, London. Photo: Peter White


Artsy: When did you first encounter 17th-century Dutch still life painting?

GC: When I was around 14 years old I saw an incredible vanitas painting in the National Gallery, London. The name of the artist escapes me but the sheer beauty of light and dark around the objects mesmerised me. I made many drawings and paintings of still lifes when I was at school. When I went to art school I wanted to radically change direction, so I became an abstract artist and abandoned all figuration.

It feels like I have come full circle. I have since learned that the romantic narrative of still lifes represents the futility of materialism in the context of the fragility of mortality, and that it also has a wider political, historical, and cultural dimension regarding power and status. The still lifes express the enormous trading power of Holland and how the new social classes wanted to show off this wealth. The tulip became an icon of this impulse; those who could not afford the real thing could have it rendered in oil paint. (At the peak of Tulipmania it was cheaper to commission a painting of a tulip than it was to buy one tulip.)

Jan Davidsz. De Heem I (Small New Order), 2014
Alan Cristea Gallery

Artsy: Why did you choose to focus on Tulipmania now?

GC: The 2008 credit crisis was a global apocalyptic event in recent history. Although I have experienced a financial bubble before, such as the dotcom and tech stock crashes, the credit crisis shook capitalism to its core and the media were projecting a shell-shocked voice, asking if the apparent corrupted system could carry on. I wanted to search for the roots (no pun intended), for a way to understand; it led me to explore the first financial bubble in recorded history, which was Tulipmania.

To me, it is a surreal metaphor of the madness of crowds, to spend the price of a house on a tulip bulb. Despite believing ourselves to be rational and part of what we call an advanced civilisation, the same human feral impulses of greed that take hold of the minds of many are lessons we have yet to learn despite all the bubbles that have come and gone since almost 400 years ago.

Anna Furman

Breaking Tulips” is on view at Alan Cristea Gallery, London, England, Sep. 11 – Oct 6, 2015.

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