DOUBLE MIMICRY, OR, THE PLEASURES OF GETTING THERE AND NOT QUITE
by Tan Zi Hao
‘I don’t consider myself a painter,’1 said Gan Siong King. Yet, how elusive is this statement, when presented as a prefatory remark, it risks understating his oeuvre? It is all the more mystifying when the works exhibited in The Pleasures of Odds and Ends are all painted. But they are paintings only as they can be called ‘paintings’, and Gan is a painter only as he can be called a ‘painter’. Likewise, as suggested in the subtitle — ‘Landscapes, Figures and Still Lifes’ — the classical trinity of standard painterly genres is similarly assaulted, since, these genres are proper only to the extent that each can be called as such. Gan navigates through all of them as if they are undifferentiated.
A figure in a landscape presenting a still life, 2014, oil on canvas, 68 × 93 cm
By way of introduction to Gan’s painterly subterfuge, we skirt along his semantic manoeuvrings in a painting’s title – A figure in a landscape presenting a still life. This is a painting of Carl Sagan presenting a prototype model of the Viking lander in Death Valley, California. The descriptive title states the obvious, it de-historicises Sagan’s frustration with NASA’s Viking mission,2 and at the same time, dissolves the classical taxonomic excessiveness of paintings by blatantly reminding us that his figure, his landscape, his still life, constitutes one plane of visualisation. As such, these genres are equally, simultaneously, urgent. With Ancestor a.k.a Non-Bumiputera, Gan gets into mischief again. Is his painting of the skeletal fossil known as the Turkana Boy a ‘figure’ or a ‘still life’?3 Gan’s sarcasm is more pungent than mere semantics. The classification of paintings determines the ontology of the subject. To this end, he makes a speculative exhortation: the intrusive parenthetical ‘Non-Bumiputera’ beseeches a political sensibility that calls for no hasty response – is the ‘Non-Bumiputera’ a figure, or figurative, a still life, or a living stillness not unlike the Turkana Boy, a death awaiting to be museumised?
LEFT: Ancestor a.k.a Non-Bumiputera, 2005, mixed media on paper, 26.8 × 21.3 cm
RIGHT: Excalibur, 2014, oil on canvas, 30.5 × 25.5 cm
In the act of classifying, lies a corresponding act of falsifying. Gan’s paintings are serious but candid, his titles are literal but suspicious. As a painter, he refuses to be a proper one. His verisimilitude is a way of distortion, posing an unexpected warning as our gaze closes in without hesitance: representational veracity is a sham, realism is unreal. Gan’s painterly pursuit plays out these ambivalences, he articulates the pleasures of getting there and not quite.4 Gan wavers: ‘I have a bad relationship with paintings.’5 His allegiance towards painting is his treachery against painting.6
Creativity, the most dreaded task of artists, withholds many from creating. But Gan is inured to this sacred fancy: ‘image-making is not always creative.’7 Whereas the paintings are of Gan’s labour, none of them could be considered as his creation. By a degree of intention and chance, each image was stumbled upon on the Internet via Google Image, Pinterest, Getty Images, Twitter, and many more. Choosing and replicating the images become his sole ‘creative’ process. Creativity becomes relative, experiential, and the rights to creation are democratised and Google-fied. Gan’s creation is a recourse to mimicry marked by an interdependence between ‘imitation’ and ‘originality’.8 It is a form of camouflage, a redefinition of creativity as specious and cunning.
To acknowledge a creation, to appreciate creativity, is a mere convenience of thought singling out a product from a process, divorcing the ends from means. The ‘invention’, the ‘discovery’, the ‘breakthrough’ are subjective points isolated from a nexus of contingent reactions. As a painter who is hesitant to admit his trade, whose paintings are hostile to painterly classicism, Gan postulates a critique against creativity. Painting found images, his creations are non-creative. But Gan’s creativity need not be truly inventive.
It is no coincidence that several pieces take up the subject of creation. There is a conflation between Gan’s artistic form (of creativity) and content (of creation), specifically in Excalibur, In search of meaning in faraway places, Leviathan, Sisyphus and The productive drudgery of simple, repetitive functions. These are paintings that denote moments of technological advancement; and these advancements are manifold. Triangulating the prehistoric hand axe in Excalibur, together with Watt’s steam engine (circa 1780s) in Leviathan, and the magnetic-core memory (circa 1950s) in Sisyphus, the old and new ‘creations’ speak to each other. If a ‘creation’ is meant to be new, the technological advancements from the past that are shown here are no longer ‘creative’ as they are no longer new today. The old and new are but intermittent exposures of a temporal continuum, positional and as-of-today. What was new is old, what was old can be new – as is pursued in this exhibition with a new attitude in the medium of painting. It is in this spirit of perceiving the painting medium itself as a project9 that Gan’s act of painting is creative, in that he creates.
Even now, as it was in the past, the ability to create (out of nothing)10 is an anachronistic belief. It presupposes that nothing exists before ‘creation’. Creationism is reductive reasoning. As replications of Internet images, Gan’s mimicry de-actualises our identification towards an original ‘creation’. Esteemed denomination such as ‘invention’ — which connotes a preoccupation towards an original new — while conveys a sense of the potential of a thing in linear time, detaches the object from the history where it first emerged.
Gan questions our notion of inventiveness, either scientific or artistic, with his (non-) creations centered on close renditions of images downloaded elsewhere. Creations imitate. Creativity mimics. Any invention, any newness of thought, is a condensation of erstwhile knowledge then bursts forth against its shadow. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn contends that a scientific revolution is invisible, gradual, and new creations are by-products of counteractions resisting episodic anomalies in scientific truths.11 The basis for a paradigm shift is equivocal: out of crisis, we create; out of doubt, we contrive a novelty. If Kuhn demythologises sci¬entific inventions, Gan demythologises creativity by mimicking (and thus mocking) the representations of inventions. Form and content converge into one in Gan’s mimicry of mimicry: his paintings are re-representations of representations of ‘creations’.
Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964 . Source: http://www.warhol.org/education/resourceslessons/Aesthetics--Arthur-Danto/
Through double mimicry, Gan stages a camouflage not very dissimilar from Warhol’s Brillo Box.12 Yet, where is the ‘art’? What exactly is the artist painting? Gan is not painting an object per se, he is painting a pho-tograph or a photographic image of an object. But we commit a mistake once we presume Gan’s paintings is anti-illusionist. For illusionism remains through a short-circuiting of the gaze in a ternary entrance, formulaically expressed as 1 (1.1 [1.1.1]):
1. The inaugural gaze (illusionism): the viewer sees through the painting and perceives the painted object as the object itself;
1.1 The analytical gaze (anti-illusionism): the viewer, upon knowing that the painting is a representation of the object itself, sees the painting as the image itself, thus bypassing illusionism (here, the viewer encounters Magritte’s ‘This is not a pipe’ conundrum);
1.1.1. The returning gaze (re-illusionism): the viewer who realises the tricks of illusionism in the representation of the image itself, falls further into illusionism because the painting is an image of a (photographic) image, only painted, which is in itself an image-object proper, a screen, a pure painting.
Subverting illusionism with illusionism, ‘creation’ (i.e.: a product, an invention, a painting) redoubles and implodes. Illusionism is camouflaged through exaggeration.13 The viewers are almost always getting there, about to achieve a new subjectivity through the apprehension of the paintings, and (still) not quite. What exactly is the artist painting? The object itself? The image itself? The image-object proper? Gan’s artistry compels us to scrutinise his painterly surface.
LEFT: Switch, 2008 . RIGHT: Socket, 2008
A similar complication was headlined in several works among Gan’s impressive showcase in The Painting Show (2008) and The March Surprise (2009).14 In both exhibitions, he demonstrated how a painting could be a sculptural object, made possible through a manipulation of the canvas surface, chiefly, in It’s ……show time, Long and Short, Switch, Socket, and I was once told “It’s not what you show, but where you show, that matters”. The texture and materiality of the depicted objects, such as a light switch or a piece of wood, are meticulously painted on the surface. Moreover, the paintings were hung at a specific height from the viewing public (especially It’s……show time., Switch, Socket and I was once told…) so as to make-believe a realistic semblance of the actual objects (a clock, a light switch, a socket, a label).
Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept,1949–1950
Despite his playfulness, Gan’s tactic always provokes a pressing question: Is painting not always already anti-painting? Parallel to the anti-illusionist rhetorics of the Italian art movement, Spatialism, the surface of the canvas itself can take on sculptural qualities. In the case of Lucio Fontana, the canvas is subjected to the violent gestures of slicing and puncturing. Paraphrasing the words of art critic Joan Rothfuss on Fontana: ‘…there was no illusion anymore. It’s almost like painting as sculpture, painting as an object.’15
Means Becoming an End a.k.a. 5 Colours, 2008
Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965
On the other hand, Gan’s paintings remain illusionistic because he is not fixated with the question of whether his art is categorised as ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture’. Instead, his works toy with the limits of our classification. His paints can either add dimensions to the flatness of surface, or, flatten a dimension through pure representationalism. In Means Becoming an End a.k.a. 5 Colours, he re-painted paints, reminiscent of the humour in Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes series. Yet, his depiction of brushstrokes tends towards realism, which, despite being antithetical to the comedic flatness of pop art, endorses and exaggerates its rhetorics. Paint as the material substance of painting is demoted in Gan’s simple gesture. Means Becoming an End a.k.a. 5 Colours, while paying tribute to Lichtenstein’s pastiche, it also revisits the exuberance of Abstract Expressionism’s gestural mark making. In this double mimicry (a double mockery?), Gan celebrates and challenges the painting medium, in connivance with, and in defiance of, its hypothetical death.16
Could the minor anarchy in Gan’s paintings obliterate his purpose to paint? A detour after another, Gan’s conceptualism and representationalism override his formalism. His paintings suffer a double-whammy: with each gaze, his paintings vanish not once but twice. For a gaze could see through and cut across his paintings, to identify straightforwardly with the represented (without ever resorting to the returning gaze and to confront the painting medium in a formal sense); but once bitten, twice shy, illusionism makes a come back as an image-object proper. Gan’s paintings (mis)guide the viewers through an illusionist trickery in three acts as abovementioned: (1) illusionism, (1.1) anti-illusionism, (1.1.1) re-illusionism. From double mimicry to double transparency, Gan’s re-representation of representation is almost invisible and may seem futile.17 At this juncture, Gan’s paintings can appear redundant, a product of repetition, a mere seductive decoy to our scopophilia.
The above difficulty should hark us back to understanding Gan’s artistic practice, one of which is about repetition itself.18 The act of repeating and re-painting is creative as Gan anticipates change ‘only against a background of sameness.’19 That Gan’s replication is redundant is true only if we regard, a priori, the gaze as convincingly truthful. The truthfulness of sight, however, is not a passage to truth.20 As a part-time videographer, Gan is most aware that ‘what one chooses to show or not to show is equally important.’21 For this reason, a closer inspection on Gan’s paintings is never really satisfying because his paintings never elucidate despite being ‘realistic’. The irredeemable pleasure from our scopophilic drive prompts us to repeat our failure towards achieving it. Our insistent pleasure to see ‘what exactly is the artist painting?’ reiterates Gan’s repetitive and redundant act of double mimicry. His realism serves as a distance we could never bridge. Desire, in a psychoanalytic sense, lies precisely in this gap between the real and symbolic. “The Pleasures of Odds and Ends” speaks to the pleasures of getting there and not quite, for our gaze can only see what is visibly available, and what is available, has existed, long before he chooses to paint it.
Objects of desire, 2014, oil on canvas, 150 × 150.5 cm
Desiring the real calls for futile but necessary repetition. Desiring comprehension of Gan’s paintings brings about re-illusionism. Our insistence of pleasure is repetitive, so as the various creations, inventions, discoveries or voyages Gan has depicted – they are likely products of vain repetition; the pleasures of odds and ends we never admit to. At the same time, should we choose to recognise this desire, we also fear being removed from the pleasures of desiring. Consider this point in light of Gan’s Objects of desire, which shows a magnified depiction of neodymium magnets.22 Widely used in various electronic devices, these magnets are the ones made out of alloys that make up rare earth minerals so tena¬ciously sought after by Australian mining giant Lynas in Malaysia. Profit-making notwithstanding, their business is also connected to our collective desire for electronic devices. This is a complicity of the consumer culture often imperceptible to the middle class. We desire the electronic devices but we protest against the extraction of rare earth materials, essential to the devices’ mechanism FIG. 1. The Lacanian objet petit a is transcribed in Gan’s Objects of desire.23 Through our scopophilic drive, we see only what is readily, symbolically, available – that is, the magnets as desired by a duplicitous other (Lynas), and from which we — the hypocrites — relin¬quish ourselves from the ecology of desire. In the same manner, the failure to locate an answer to ‘what exactly is the artist painting?’ speaks of our hypocrisy and the failure of our politics.
FIG. 1 The objet petit a splitting the desiring self who refuses to acknowledge the complicity in the pleasure of desiring, astutely pointed out by a protestor in a protest rally against Lynas (held in February 2012 at Maju Junction Mall): ‘Among the 17 rare earth elements are used for smartphones, laptops, camera lenses. Shouldn’t we start thinking of our CONSUMPTION NEEDS TOO?’ Photo from author
If in the act of classifying, lies a corresponding act of falsifying, then, upon seizing the real, one encounters symbolic castration. Our desire to create, to identify, to apprehend, is an impossibility that leaves us to continue wanting and to repeat our failure — in total redundancy but for the pleasure of pursuit — inasmuch as Gan’s double mimicry gets us there and not quite.
1 Through personal conversation with the artist.
2 David Morrison, ‘Man for the Cosmos: Carl Sagan’s Life and Legacy as Scientist, Teacher, and Skeptic,’ Skeptical Inquirer 31.1 (2007), pp. 29–38.
3 Discovered by Kamoya Kimeu in a team led by Richard Leakey, Turkana Boy (also known as the Nariokotome Boy) was the most complete skeleton of Homo erectus to date. Since 1984, the discovery has led many scientists to speculate the life of subhuman species.
4 Hereafter, ‘there’ in the phrase ‘the pleasures of getting there and not quite’ refers to an unnameable destination, or in psychoanalytic convention, the unattainable real.
5 Personal conversation with the artist.
6 Gan: ‘The most rebellious thing I could do was to go back to formal painting. The form is not dead. It’s how you look at it. Just as you cannot say history is dead.’ Quoted in Yee I-Lann, The Painting Show, exhibition catalogue, The Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2008.
7 Personal conversation with the artist.
8 ‘Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is left behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage. It is not a question of harmonising with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled – exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare.’ [Emphasis mine] Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977, p. 99
9 Simon Soon speaks of a shift in the thematic direction of Malaysian contemporary paint¬ing, of which Gan is a part: ‘Painting, in this sense, even when it becomes the primary medium or the only medium [emphases original] in which the artist works with, is seen as expedient to a greater social project [emphasis mine] rather than a medium with its own set of knowledge models that can be hermetically explored.’ Soon elaborates: ‘This return [of painting to painting] does not signify a regression towards institutionalised formalism. Instead, it can be read as a method of rethinking formalism as a complex body of theoretical models that allows us to expand upon what we understand of paint¬ing as well as employ these models to create more sophisticated modes of expressing or responding to our experiences.’ This context is important to yield a fruitful discussion of Gan’s work. Simon Soon, ‘Returning to Painting as Painting,’ Tukar Ganti: New Malaysian Paintings, exhibition essay [online], Valentine Willie Fine Art, Singapore, 2008, retrieved from: http://www.vwfa.net/tukarganti/ (Accessed 5 November 2014).
10 According to OED, the English ‘create’ stems from the Latin ‘creāt-’, which can be com¬pared to the Anglo-Norman “crier”, that is, to produce out of nothing. OED definitions of ‘create’ include: ‘To bring into being, cause to exist; esp. to produce where nothing was before’ or ‘To make, form, set up, or bring into existence (something which has not ex¬isted before); to produce (a work of imagination or invention; an artefact).’ [Emphases mine]
11 ‘Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science.’ Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1962, pp. 52–53.
12 Danto’s seminal thesis ‘The Artworld’ (1964), which he employs Warhol’s Brillo Box as a case study (pp. 580–584), is dated today, but nevertheless provides a much-needed re¬minder about the dynamics of an artworld so deprived in Malaysia. To Danto, the artworld constitutes the ‘atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art’ (1964, p. 580) as well as ‘historical beliefs’ (1994, p. 7) — in the 21st century, I hasten to add: the art scene, the art market, and the cultural or culture industry (the former imbued with a neoliberal disposition, and the latter, neo-Marxist) — necessary to substantiate new conversations about arts, to postulating a Hegelian aesthetics of meaning (as opposed to an aesthetics of form), and perhaps, one that could serve as a divertissement from the Malaysian market’s fetishism for the painting medium. Malaysia needs a Brillo Box! See Arthur Danto, ‘The Artworld,’ The Journal of Philosophy 61.19 (1964), pp. 571–584; Arthur Danto, Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic Meditations, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994; Arthur Danto, ‘Symposium: Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty – Embodiment, Art History, Theodicy, and The Abuse of Beauty: A Response to My Critics,’ Inquiry 48.2 (2005), pp. 189–200.
13 Amidst the ‘end of painting’ debate, Thomas Lawson advocates a return to the painting medium as a subversive form for appropriation: ‘…the idea of tackling the problem with what appears to be the least suitable vehicle available, painting. It is perfect camouflage, and it must be remembered that Picasso considered cubism and camouflage to be one and the same, a device of misrepresentation, a deconstructive tool designed to under¬mine the certainty of appearances. The appropriation of painting as a subversive method allows one to place critical aesthetic activity at the center of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble.’ Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit: Painting,’ ArtForum 20 (October 1981), pp. 40–47.
14 The Painting Show (2008) was a three-painter show curated by Yee I-Lann, featuring Hamir Soib, Phuan Thai Meng and Gan himself, held at The Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. The March Surprise (2009) was a solo exhibition, held at the Project Room in Valentine Willie Fine Art, KL.
15 Joan Rothfuss (Associate Curator of Visual Arts, Walker Art Center) commenting on Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale – Attesa (1964–1965), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present (1999) held at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Retrieved from: http://www.walkerart.org/collections/artworks/concetto-spaziale-attesa-spatial-concept-expectation (Accessed 5 November 2014).
16 Douglas Crimp, ‘The End of Painting,’ Art World Follies 16 (Spring 1981), pp. 69–86; see also Footnote 11.
17 That is, if we were to follow Scruton’s conservatism (what does this mean?) in his photo¬graphictransparency thesis, for the sake of discussion. Roger Scruton, ‘Photography and Representation,’ Critical Inquiry 7.3 (Spring 1981), pp. 577–603.
18 See Yee I-Lann, op. cit. and Karim Raslan, The March Surprise, exhibition essay [online], Project Room, Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, 2009, retrieved from: http://www.vwfa.net/kl/pgProgrammeDetail.php?ppid=50 (Accessed 10 November 2014).
19 Gan’s personal statement from Yee I-Lann, op. cit.
20 ‘…gaze defies understanding as surely as it resists the eye.’ Maria Scott, ‘Lacan’s “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a” as Anamorphic Discourse,’ Paragraph 31.3 (2008), p. 327.
21 Personal conversation with the artist.
22 The magnification and dramatisation of ordinary objects resonate with Gan’s constant quest for the ‘epic in the banal’. See Yee I-Lann, op. cit.
23 Objet petit a, literally, the ‘object little other’ represents an object of the lack, a source for the unattainable desire (the real) signified as a tempting ‘other’ that can be pursued (the symbolic).