An Interview with Ian Woo – Beth Harland

Beth Harland: Your paintings invariably present us with multiple things, brought together with a sense of wanting to make connections, between disparate elements, to talk about relationships in some way. As such they make me think about Deleuze’s philosophy, which is very much concerned with connections, and replaces a sense of a unified plan with an unlimited plane where one can move from a point to many others; one needs to engage in making connections as they are not already given. Does this reference have any resonance for you in your approach to your work?

Ian Woo: Yes, I think what draws me to make these desperate connections goes back to my preference to be able to be surprised by the way opposing elements form their way around each of my paintings. I see myself as making structures in a painting by creating a set of problems (hence the initial un-connectedness), and my ‘sickness’ is to find a way of solving them. It’s as if I am entering into a forest (or any space), implying elements into its density and at some point I am asking myself what am I conjuring? I then say to myself, “Perhaps I need to find my way out of the forest.”

The final result, if I should ever make my way out of its jungle, references back to that word ‘ unlimited plane’ that you used. What an ideal situation! Its probably a fantasy, of creating a never-ending painting, something that you cannot stop looking at, where you just find your way in and out, get lost, go back in again.


BH: In his book ‘The Fold’, Deleuze talks about multiplicity not as that with many parts but as that which is “complicated”, or folded many times and in many ways, one fold opens and implies another. He contends that complexity can’t be taken down to simple elements and their combination but must be ‘thought’ in a different way, using a different kind of approach to structure and continuity. How do you think about structure and connection in the paintings?

IW: Yes, I do agree that painting as an activity is like a foldable or even collapsible system, one expression of paint suggests another and so forth. But I think it’s how it’s being made to connect and to converse that makes each one different in form and structure.

Solving by finding connections…what kind of connections are we looking at? One can think about colour harmony and line work, background and foreground relationships, but I am more interested in getting an overall disintegrated whole, where the parts are made up of combinations of connections and gaps. In terms of connections, I try not to pre-conceive the final result of the whole, but rather, make mental appropriations of applying bits of paint to weave up the resulting parts of the painting at a micro level. As an analogy, it’s pretty much like how we make decisions in our day-to-day activities, but we only realise the sum of its parts at a particular point.

Complications and even confusion are rather useful tools as far as I am concerned; I actually need them as an initial platform to bring forth a desire to be involved. Otherwise, there is nothing to paint about; there is no need for me to get entwined. Complications can be structured to allow engagement, it just needs more time and it really depends on whether one has the time to look at paintings!

About the gaps…it’s really about rest from the activity of rhythm. Or should I say forgetfulness! Seriously, discontinuity has its place to suggest another dimension or even time. In terms of continuity, I think the frame of a canvas is like the frame of a day or two, it allows the body and mind to realise the form of the sum of all activities in its place; that would be the realisation of its inherent continuity.


BH: The phrase ‘disintegrated whole’ seems to be a contradiction, but is perhaps peculiarly realisable in the arena set up by painting? You seem to be concerned to test and explore paintings potential to relay experiences of time and space, often shifting conventional figure/ground relationships unexpectedly. Actually, the conventions I’m referring to here are not universal but come from the tradition of Western painting, which could be described as tending to erase as it adds and to set up distinctions between solids and voids, insides and outsides. Chinese painting, conversely, could be said to be much more concerned with notions of friction and passage. What are your thoughts on these kinds of distinctions, and how have different pictorial traditions informed spatial organisation in your paintings?

IW: Firstly, there are certain Edo periods, Korean silk as well as Chinese paintings, which I have found fascinating in terms of their floating qualities. Time and space in much of these works seem to suspend, where the ideas of a beginning and an end revolves around the subject matter. Some even possess layers of decorative repetitive ideograms, which punctuate the ‘whole’ pictorial frame. I have at times imagined that certain sections of my paintings possess these slow qualities, but with the viscosity of oil, I am drawn to use the traditional methods of painting interiorities and exteriors. Somehow, I think the value of the flexibility of painting to represent the language of light and presence allows me to relate to an experience that is immediate. I have to say I do at times think I am doing a particular section of the canvas in the style of Hiroshinge before shifting to an outline of a El Greco look alike cherub… But I am referring back to the whole, how its taking shape, I am tempted to say I try to forget about a certain area as soon as it’s done. I am interested in how it’s all broken up, or coming together. I think of it more like editing, like a filmmaker cutting up strips of background light and just moving it around, once in a while, the light gives shape to a form of a matter. At the end of the day, the distinctions really concern themselves with how language works, how I am attempting to redefine the representation of an image, to redefine by manipulating amounts of light and space, adding words to refer or pull its contents to another level of reading, to allow stoppages. Aspects of the fast and slow congeal to manifest a formless mass. What interest me is to get a thousand frames and sequences all on one pictorial frame, allowing a moment of suspension and disintegration to occur right before you.


BH: You refer to experience that is immediate, and earlier you mentioned day to day activities and I wonder how the use of text  in the paintings relates to these things? I have the feeling that the paintings attempt to reflect something about the dialogue, and perhaps difference, between sensation and cognition in our experience. Perhaps the inclusion of text plays a role in this, do you think this is the case? What do you mean by the idea that words allow stoppages?

IW: My use of text came about with my putting together a box of 300 text panels a couple of years back. As with any amount of time invested in anything, I got interested in how words, when singled out, provided sound, shape, which depended on the grain of the voice uttering it, and sometimes image. Many of these words came from domestic situations and settings which were brought forth particularly by a set of fridge magnets that decorated my kitchen fridge. I saw within the collection, photos, and words of comfort and was interested in how sentiments were used as memorabilia. The juxtaposition of them and the awareness of the moment and setting brought about the possibility of how I could capture that similar experience in my paintings. It’s been a difficult and hesitant process about the inclusion of words in my paintings, I think it’s still a clumsy metaphor, too much conditioning and the idea of description between image and text, but I felt at that point in my life that this had to be done. So painting and writing became one big act, to and fro, until the cohesion of each was satisfactory.

While putting words in painting, I thought of Stephane Mallarme’s use of fragmented typography in his poem about throwing dices. It then dawned on me that words just have a tendency to stop us in our tracks, they give us the immediate message and image. This brought the idea of words as punctuating spaces within my other intangible paint imagery. The experience is like having a word placed within an array of painting gestures and seeing how it momentarily gathers all that is within the painting, sucking it to another plane, before releasing its hold.  Another key influence to this methodology came from hearing pianist Glenn Gould’s oral tone poem from ‘The Idea of the North’ in which were basically layers of recorded interweaving voices dialoguing about life in the North of Canada. When I first heard it, I felt that it was a ridiculously clumsy way of conjuring double time plots, but the idea never left me. Listening to them later, I realised I was really drawn to the stamina and endurance of the multitude of voices in its element of philosophical disarray.


BH: The analogy of editing film might be worth elaborating on. Do you think there is a particular affinity between film and painting, perhaps in their respective relationships with time, which may make the analogy more productive for you than that of other practices?

IW: Yes, it’s all about compressing and suspending that imaginary epic film onto one single frame. Well, jump cutting, I am thinking of Fellini’s juxtaposed perspectives that drift from a close up of a dress to a scene in a beach, a kind of manipulation with the texture and interiority of matter with that of nature. But at the same time, I am also moved by film credits, how they swoop in and out or perhaps the way the calligraphy that is layered onto a cherry blossom in a movie of Ozu. I also like the way garden entrances and portals in Chinese gardens are framed and shaped. I think they provide a visual equivalent to the feeling of extending structure, nature in time, giving you a sense of peace and discreet surprise between frames of activities.


BH: This notion of drift between close viewing, a sense of interiority, and a broader more extended viewpoint is reminiscent of another epic, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The novel preserves the fragility and ambiguity of experience and memory through the intricate delicacy of Proust’s narration, in which one feels the unfolding of time and the force of forgetting. A sense of the fragmentary is central in this, and I wondered if you could say something more about the fragmentation and fragility of time in your paintings, which seem to be almost on the point of dissolving as we view them. (The sense of time in the paintings is very different however from that of Proust’s novel, as the paintings seem to range across extremes, time moves occasionally agonisingly slowly and at other times the movement is rapid to the point of being vertiginous.)

IW: I think Proust’s sense of time came from an era where there were not as much distractions and options. I am not sure whether it’s fair to say that, but it’s probably how he had the time to ‘search’ for lost time and to write 15 novels based on this idea of remembering and forgetting! But, Proust would be important in its proposal for us to just slow down, to allow the details of memory to settle or even fizzle out. I guess we are comparing and equating the flux of memory in context to the speed of the everyday here. I have too many distractions, I live in a small city that echoes every other city’s engagements to the world, I mean we are getting hooked as well as getting on each other’s nerves. Perhaps, I can relate to the experience of extreme ‘jump cuts’ a term that was coined by the idiomatic changes in the music of John Zorn. I actually feel the pressure of speed when I glance and concentrate on a still object. It’s just this consciousness and awareness of the elements of the fast. The consciousness of speed tempers with stillness, it disturbs its time, I find I can relate to this sense of moulding a porcelain vase and breaking it. I mean after you break it, it becomes alive; you actually relieve it from its fragility!


BH: That’s interesting, the idea of breaking something to relieve it of it’s fragility – perhaps that also relates to thinking in the sense that it needs to be shaken or shocked somehow to be able to think in news ways. The experience of making (painting in this case), works in fits and starts, and may be similarly described wouldn’t you say? I’m not sure that Proust’s search is as far removed as it might seem, there’s a ‘virtuality’ in it which, like the experience of thinking/making, inevitably runs up against what Blanchot called impouvoir – an “incapacity” which thinking both requires and which it can’t quite overcome…

IW: I can relate to the word ‘incapacity’ as it deals with the history of limits and the human desire and dimension of perfection. I see it as an exploration to recover in the form of what we think or assume to be a perfect state. This assumption only serves its purpose within the frames of a set of incidents leading to ‘the moment’. After which, we need closure, moving to another work, (painting) looking for its own sense of momentary structure.


BH: Maybe it’s not so much that the making process suffers from the pressure of lack of time/speed of life that we might perceive in our situation (how much time is there after we’ve answered our emails each day?) but rather that ‘shaken mixtures’ of fragments, and the moments when they settle for a time, are productive?

IW: Yes, I would hope that my practice would not fall into a category of an excuse about the pressures of time in my life. But really, I spend far more time looking at the painting than actually painting it. This act is like looking and trying to locate a way in and out of painting before I actually execute. The action of painting and the exchange of my gaze hypotheses between the notion of form and formless that gradually appears before the surface of the canvas. There is a reluctance to dictate a form as a whole as it is never interesting once it’s reached, instead it gets boring really quickly and I have to just break it.  But I guess you are referring to the after effects of the breaking down. That would depend very much with the entirety of the canvas and the state of possibilities it encourages. Yes, shaking the fragments and dispersing them allows my gaze to seek and locate a set of possibilities, to insert a part of my body into the painting’s formless state, again and again.


Beth Harland studied Fine Art at the Royal College of Art and Ruskin School of Art, Oxford. She is currently Director of Graduate School at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.