Guo-Liang Tan Interviews Ian Woo

Guo-Liang Tan: Your exhibition begins with a pairing of two paintings – ‘Before I Give An Answer I see A Flower’ (1995) and ‘Two Flags’ (2011). I thought the juxtaposition showed a real consistency in your visual language and pictorial concerns despite the years in-between. Did that surprise you?

Ian Woo: I am not surprised especially if you look in terms of my interest in painting as a pluralistic device to give a sense of spatial and structural momentum. However, there are inherent differences in the way the painting has begun to reassemble itself, in search of possible space, of resemblance.

This search for resemblance begins with my feelings that the classic notions of Abstract gestural painting as a composition device can often be seen as a historical cliché. However, I am somehow attracted to these references as starting points of enquiry towards an enigmatic gravity. The search for this enigmatic resemblance could be exemplified in the way in which hybrids of an emotive painterly mark can be juxtaposed with ones that are strategically unresponsive or even hesitant.

To further illustrate my point, I tend to find ways to arrange painting idioms so as to provoke our sense of perspectives. The earlier work (‘…Flower’), which I see as an early archetype, functions like an unfolding page from some picture book, coming to life in three parts. While the latter painting (‘Two Flags’) has a perspective that suggests a single space, a kind of horizontal plane, where painting elements are in various stages of change and formation.

So even if the these works contain similar forms of painting devices, the final interplay between the modulation of space and perspective between the two paintings pose two different forms of representational questions.


GL: Yes, it is as if you have knowingly adopted this all too familiar gestural language in painting by twisting and transforming it into something entirely your own. I see your painting process as a kind of intuitive dialogue between different types of mark making which subsequently unfolds into spaces, things and even landscapes. In paintings like ‘The Clearest Symbol’ (1997), the marks appear to cluster and hover, shifting between objects and signs. How does language come into play in your work, or to borrow Barthes: ‘Is painting a language?’

IW: You know that Spielberg movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’? When they play that five note tune to communicate to the alien like a Morse code? I think my painting is a bit like that in that there is a return to the foundations of language, which in this case is this mark, one that takes off to become form, perhaps to communicate with the alien in us. It’s a language that starts from the back of my head rather than the front; it’s a way to reach for the unfamiliar in me and eventually to the audience. At the core of this, I really do make work for the people, but its not that kind of communication that gives the people what they want, rather what we did not know we could have.

In terms of painting as a language, with ‘The Clearest Symbol’, I think I was into Wittgenstein at this point; his writings about the limitations of language in its relationship to the things of this world. I believe I understood them as little anecdotes that inverted the structure of sentences. So I think I was trying to do the same thing to this painting, You can see I was finding ways to paint like these sentence structures, pretending to make objects appear from the tweaking of paint on the surface of the canvas, revealing forms that have reflexive characteristics.


GL: Painting is a language in the (un)making then? While the Abstract gestural cliché often situates the mark as being authentic to the self, your relationship to the process of mark making appears estranged (is that right word?) and at times, doubtful. But I think this is what is interesting about the paintings – they may acknowledge painterly syntax but they also point beyond language. This makes it impossible to read the paintings in a purely expressionistic or symbolic way. Is it in anyway a conscious effort to challenge these binaries and perhaps to discomfort the viewer’s expectation?

IW: I feel like I am always starting from the beginning of language. Painting or drawing as if the act or the materials were discovered for the first time, a bit like uttering one’s first sounds. It’s a bit of a Beckett thing, where instead of moving forwards, we start all over again, and again, each time welding different results. You mentioned painting as expressionistic or symbolic, two words which I tend to relate to ideas about representation; its connection to knowledge compared to pre-knowledge, the primal, which in my position falls under the issue of non-representation. These shifts between the primal and knowledge pretty much sustains my interest, switching between modes. Working between absolute abstraction and its potential towards subjective forms of representation, resulting in various subversions from flatness to spatial suggestions. These attempts turn into pictorial puzzles that are waiting to be unfolded as the painting process progresses. Note that I have diverted the meaning of these words expressionistic and symbolic, which is commonly associated with abstraction to something that is representative. I think I just confused myself!


GL: There are definitely instances in your paintings in which you build up these opposing modes of representation almost to the point of collapse. Perhaps none of your earlier paintings come closer to this threshold than ‘The Moving Finger’ (2006). The overlapping of marks appears to be cancelling each other out, blurring the space between foreground and background to point of almost being schizophrenic.

IW: The ‘Moving Finger’ takes its reference to Rembrandt’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ at the National gallery. It takes its narration of a mysterious divine hand that appears and writes in mid air, consequently telling in the form of an encoded language that leads to the story that King Belshazzar’s time is up. I really liked the idea of an image of a metaphysical finger giving a sign, a warning. So it was mid way through making my painting that I felt that there was a collapse right in the middle of the composition which somehow had triggered this relation in shape and form to this moment in historical painting. I believe there was something about the background mood and colour in particular that reminded me about the religious paintings of the past. Again, it’s the painting that informed me of this influence not the other way round. It is in no way an abstract citation of any sort, which could be hilarious.


GL: John Berger once wrote about how in Rembrandt’s paintings, there is often a serious dislocation in his representation of the physical world. He argues that Rembrandt is in fact much more interested in the subjective corporeal space than ‘real’ space. When I stand before a painting like ‘The Moving Finger’, I am drawn into and pushed out of the pictorial space intermittently and my body becomes highly aware of this affective space.

IW: Yes, an embodied experience. Paintings after all comes as mark and trace from our state of being, so its mind, body and spirit or dare I say the horrible word ‘culture’? It’s an acute awareness of the body’s ability to translate substance into air and space within a two dimensional space. I also do think of the body’s relationship to the act of looking at paintings a lot. I once mentioned given a choice, I would rather not talk about my paintings but instead stand/sit and make bodily movements or some even guttural sounds to an audience. Of course with some of my work, I would need more than one set of heads and eyes, very grotesque. I really believed that that would be a better kind of communication.


GL: Do you think this more visceral form of communication has something to do with your interest in sonic improvisation? It’s not very fashionable these days to relate painting to music but Kandinsky, for example, was very influenced by Wagner and approached every point, line and plane with a kind lyricism.

IW: Two of my favorite books are ‘Improvisation-its nature and practice in music’ by Derek Bailey and another publication of writings by the composer Morton Feldman (I cannot remember the title). The later takes many references from the history of modern music and painting to make comparisons towards notions of aesthetics. These two musicians think of music more in the vein of Fine Art than your usual stuff out there. These two works were highly influential to the way I built my painting structures, especially Feldman’s slow modulation of sounds being stretched across infinite time. Feldman was notorious for writing music that were highly impractical to perform, like his ‘string quartet number 2’ which last for 6 hours!

My problem is that I have too much reverence for music’s form and function to try to make any demands in putting them together. These days, when I work in the studio, I make sure that there is no music but just the sound of natural ambience. Perhaps I know that it is suspect to this relation between the aural and the visual. However, historically, I could site various examples of visual artists using music as an accompaniment to working like Richter listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. But perhaps this situation could be kept a secret or private one, because of it’s a subjective nature. The sonic is the sound of memory of one’s place. It allows you to fill up your picture or sense. So maybe a picture suggests you fill up your sound to accompany it, if you like.


GL: Was that your approach in works like ‘House’ and ‘Terrace’ (2007)? There is a visible shift in the series of paintings from this period. For one, they operate on a much smaller scale compared to the paintings before and although you are still working within your usual painterly lexicon, the point of departure here appears to be a sense of place – or should I say the memory of a place?

IW: The smaller works are physically less intimate and working with them is actually more alien to me. It’s almost unnatural for me to manipulate the kinds of intensity of the larger works mainly because it’s not so much about the body but the mind? I have not really figured it out yet. But it’s really important for me to understand that the processes of working from large to domestic sizes do require different attitudes and mentalities. The way one holds a brush changes and the cognitive suddenly has a limited field of vision and foresight to play with. These pieces you are referring to are like miniature worlds that only the mind can dictate its presence. The body is too clumsy to deal with it. So perhaps you are right that memory plays a bigger part, memory of place. Place as an abstract entity. I would say that the only thing that is a constant between the larger and smaller works is this idea that painting itself is imploding beyond the edges of the picture frame.


GL: In the larger paintings, the marks are brought very close to the surface and the experience is more physical and immersive whereas for the smaller works, the marks appear to sink further back into the pictorial space and the idea of picture making becomes more explicit. It’s something that cannot be experienced through reproductions, like the ones printed here in this catalogue. A lot of artists today work with the projected image where scale is only considered after the image is constructed. For painting, this decision has to come before the making because the size of the canvas has such a direct effect on one’s relationship to the image itself.

IW: One important aspect of looking at the paintings is the importance of distance. There is a cut off point looking at the medium to larger works where they start to have this spatial shift. But when one takes moves closer, the materiality takes over and you realize it just coloured debris. With the smaller pieces, you do not need to adjust as much and one can get an overall feeling of the physics of each picture. What I mean is the variance between pictorial space and materiality has a level playing field in the smaller works compared with the larger ones.


GL: I do see some relevance of this slight ‘detour’ to your more recent works, like ‘The Garden’ (2011). It almost reminds me of Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’. While the earlier works might appear almost formalistic, the unfolding of space through mark making here seems to give way to a renewed sense of the historical by giving a nod to the ‘picturesque’. I know you do not usually work from visual references but was there anything you were consciously looking at?

IW: It’s a painting where the diagonal divider was a conscious device to disorientate one’s longing for the sublime in landscape. In terms of the Classical influence, its actually more like my take on ‘Indian miniatures’ but it went off at some point, but what I want to emphasis is that it is important for artists to have this focus of a kind of mental state in his or her head as a spine when making art. It’s an imaginary sense of direction, which in this case is that of a place. I wanted to paint a place I would have encountered for the first time. It’s always like the first time for every painting; the first garden at the moment I was painting, like the beginning of language. So it is possible for abstraction to have a narrative quality.

Its also not surprising your reference to history painting in the new work as I feel that I am using not just a pluralistic mark making device but perhaps shades of colour, form and space that proposes different historical homages. I do think about Borsch at the sides and maybe some Hiroshinge waves at the bottom half. A bit like how a Deejay would sample to arrange different sounds, have you seen someone like Christian Marclay work? He prepares records in a way that changes the production of their sound ever so slightly or drastically and weaves this amazing array of improvised sound collage. I also believe that the idea of multiplied time being represented by compartments in the earlier work has evolved to become that of this palette of histories, which morph in and out of spaces. Dare I say no colour and form is innocent?


GL: On one hand, your work plays with this palette of painterly history; on the other, there is this deep fascination with a return to the beginning of language, of image making and ultimately of painting itself. As such, you appear to be working yourself into/out of history at the same time. I can’t help but be reminded of a quote by John Cage:

‘When you start working everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.’

IW: Yes, Cage was obviously interested in removing the personal in any work of art and he did using very extreme gestures like the ‘silence’ 4’ 33’ piece. It’s a wonderful quote, a parable within its time, but I believe in practice, one needs to play games in order to form distance from the private. The private is tricky business; it gets complicated with fleeting emotions, emotions are like temporary concepts. Any concept from reality needs to be suspected if taken as an immediate transfer to a work of art. Otherwise you are looking at a private journal. That is all together another story. Literally. So I like the idea of the practice of art as an equivalent to a removal of private associations of history layer by layer and I believe that the end where Cage talks about having nothing left but the work of art deals with his interest in indeterminacy.

I see painting and drawing as the element that is a carrier of history. My role is a viewer and negotiator, which is why I tend to use the term beginning of language because I am constantly waiting for painting to reveal itself as a starting point towards the reframing of our cognitive desires. These are developments within contemporary painting that have been taking shape the last 20 years especially if one were to take Richter’s denial of photorealism painting as a act of confusion, using this sense of disorientation as a starting point to deal with the crisis of representation. I believe these kinds of awareness provides a kind of affirmation that skepticism in painting as a reflexive language would be an on going process to do with the renewal of looking at ideas of representation and memory in painting, resulting in different ways in which the culture of recognizing and forgetting becomes a key criteria in reading the phenomena of any sort of constructed image.


GL: I might be wrong to say this but this crisis of representation you are talking about, particularly in the context of painting, could be said to be a very Eurocentric one? It would appear to me that for many, it is still possible to paint in this part of the world without acknowledging the problematics of representation, or without a kind of postmodern skepticism. Historically, painters from the region are more concern with developing a pictorial language that has much more to do with visual style than in being self-reflexive. In some ways, the ambiguity in your paintings isn’t simply pictorial but also cultural.

IW: Perhaps I will start responding to this question by referring to Malaya and Singapore’s early modernist painters like the Nanyang artists. Here we have early examples of artists that had opportunities to travel to Europe and were using the vocabulary of western painting to express regional matters. A good example would be the artist Yeh Che Wei who was a very good realist painter in his early years but as soon as he could travel, he suddenly became curious beyond matters concerning representation. He later returns to Singapore making paintings that had a strange mix of cubist and symbolic content. But more importantly, the painting became more about paint, texture and visual poetry. The issue of representation became less of burden; instead what we have is a kind of pictorial play that suggested the concept of a visual question rather than providing the viewers with simply an answer. Like how he would paint figures and objects using their forms to intermingle and suggest ambiguous relationships between the subjective and objective.  So in a sense to move out of the country was a critical thing that challenges what one believes in. Knowledge and experience makes you reassess your responsibilities and awareness to your art. The idea of education and archiving that I know of is a Western model and I cannot refuse it once the apple is partaken. Perhaps that is where much of its skepticism comes from. But I do not see these qualities as associated to skepticism when I make work, but rather a quest of pictorial language between the primal and the contemporary status of being and time. I also feel that the idea of information being available electronically these days are changing the way we are influenced, one could access a range of artistic information, examples and I guess when you mention post modernism, this is what I am thinking about-the speed in which we can see and understand information within compressed time frames. So as long as one is an artist that uses the net as a source, you cannot avoid being naive about what has happened before and around the world. I also feel that if one is interested in contemporary art practice, then one needs to be familiar with some stop points as references. This may not simply be about looking at current art works, but it could be films, music, philosophy, fiction, the newspapers, your bedroom, backyard, etc. Of course, to be unaware is not a bad thing and it would be unfair to say a Sunday painter is not aware of contemporary art, the question is whether they feel it is important to their lives and if they would like to risk spending time, asking these questions about their art. By the way, isn’t painting still life’s a reflexive thing? Its quoting history again and again. There is a term ‘semi abstract’ that actually refers to what you stated as the problematics of representation, it’s a term used loosely without really going into intellectual territory. Many leisure painters use this term, perhaps in reference to being semi conscious! So, we are familiar with the situation but perhaps are not interested in pondering or articulating its relevance to the way we see images. We simply have no time for such things! I am have told by friends that when you have too much time on your hands, you start to make this thing called contemporary art! I don’t know, perhaps if I was not involved in art education, I might not be thinking about such matters.


GL: I think we should all spend more time going beyond the ‘semi-abstract’! Perhaps it is unfair to pose the question of geography to painting alone since many contemporary modes of production in the region often mirror those in the West. It’s not about dealing with this burden of history and culture superficially on a representational level but going right down to the fundamental level of making. In painting, you can’t escape this burden. It’s there even before you paint and yet, the work demands that you work through it, with a careful measure of remembrance and ignorance.

IW: ‘Careful measure’ to forget-I am thinking of your earlier Cage quote, I think when I start a piece of work- the blank canvas, I would rather like to have a mindset of; ‘the sooner I forget (history), the better’. But once I start work, it slowly comes back haunting me. Then it’s really a matter of setting up the right mouse traps in the right places.