Interview by Helmi Yusof for The Business Times Singapore
Your paintings combine a wide spectrum of images and influences. Could you talk about how you came to be fascinated with
1) graphic traditions and culture of Japan
When I first visited Japan it was to visit my father (who was residing there for work), and I had no previous interest in the culture. After several visits over a few years, something of the place seemed to take root in the very kernel of my being, and since then I’ve developed an incredible attraction to it.
This is particularly true of graphic traditions; indeed, the visual experience of Japan as a whole. Some part of this fascination has to be related to the sense I found in Japanese culture of living comfortably with in the reality of appearances, having a lack of suspicion towards the ‘surface’ of things, and having a very advanced engagement with fiction. These widely sustained interactions with ‘surface’ made a wonderful impression on me, and each engagement with Japanese culture became a store of lessons for my own understanding of art. In my years studying at Sydney College of the Arts I chose to focus a lot of my time studying Japanese ukiyo-e prints in particular, and my exposure to these works formed the basis to a lot of my work in the past couple of years.
It’s interesting to me how my work has often ended up translating into ‘punk’, because it wasn’t such a deliberate thing. Maybe something of a spirit of that ‘punk’ abrasiveness came out from my personal tastes. Musically, metal subgenres are closest to my heart, and I think metal shares a lot of this antithetical spirit with punk, although metal has always been more comfortable with fantasy, which opens it up to things that are more interesting to me. I’ve also always felt a strong affinity towards the cyberpunk aesthetic, now past it’s heyday – or maybe in today’s digital eye the ‘cyber’ part became inconspicuously ubiquitous, even banal – so maybe it is just punk now. Japan is very cyberpunk, and that interests me a lot.
3) Classical European imagery and traditions
I couldn’t make work out of a vacuum, and I had to begin with a common language of imagery to be able to begin making, or even thinking of work. In approaching the vocation of painting, as a tradition that went through much development in historical Europe, I believe it is invaluable to have knowledge of its history because for me the starting point of work comes out of an awareness of the historical ‘dialogue’.
– There’s a strong performative aspect to your works. Do you happen to also do or watch a lot of theatre or dance?
Absolutely, there are so many things I like to watch that take their place on various stages: from musical performance, to kabuki theatre, and my favourite of all musical dramatic works, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen cycle of operas. I believe in the stage as the place to play out our life’s meaning, it is the site of our spiritual catharsis. It’s embedded in my thinking to visualise art in terms of a kind of stage, elevated from and drawing out the essences from life. When I make work, I regard the canvas as a stage of sorts, ready to contain an action, a thought played out.
– There’s also a lot of gender subversion going on. What interests or irks you about gender? Do you also happen to be fascinated with transgender issues?
My interest in gender stems more from the realms of art; I’m fascinated by the Japanese tradition of onnagata (male actors specialising in female roles) in kabuki theatre, which has a lot to do with the embodiment of an ideal form through art. Of course in my thoughts, this also connects to the imagery of the androgyne in western esoteric traditions, such as in alchemy, and eastern religions. This is an important symbol in my work because it represents transformation, from separation to coagulation, which is a foremost principle of my artistic process.
I could also add that my feeling for ‘gender subversion’ (though I wouldn’t be quick to announce my work as subversive) also came somewhat out of my interest in music genres like Visual-Kei (a Japanese metal subgenre) and J-rock, and here this also intersects with a vast amount of theatricality. I think there is something innately ‘gendered’ about performance itself, at least in both Japanese and Western cultures, and it is not insignificant that gender intersects with theatrical performance so readily.
– In the past decade or more, there seems to have been a revival of the so-called figurative painting (if, of course, you accept that term – or do you prefer a different term?). Popularity of and recognition for people like Peter Doig, Neo Rauch, Marcel Dzama, Elizabeth Peyton, Marlene Dumas, etc seems to suggest that trend. Do you have any thoughts on that? Has that affected you in any way?
Having loved the work of historical Western painters like Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco from my earliest childhood memories, there was never much of a challenge against so-called figurative painting in my development as an artist thus far. Modern and contemporary movements I became familiar with later, but I never lost love for those earlier artists, who for me had already achieved the ‘everlasting work’. I can accept that greater abstraction lends itself to universality for a lot of people, but my bias has always been towards art that ventures into a heresy of specificity and ‘gets it right’ in some way.
Personally, I’ve had potential buyers shy away from imagery that may have been somewhat ‘scary’ or grotesque, but I consider it all part of the lot of making work that is not only decorative, or comes out of some specific sensibilities. It has never troubled me however as I believe there will always be a certain, enthused audience for this kind of work, and I plot my antecedents consistently along in history. As for trends, to passively lend authority to the micro-trends in contemporary art would be a lapse of criticality, at least in my perspective.
The Business Times Singapore, 10 January 2014