Multiple Lives
by Simon Soon

As a principal object in Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling novel, Against the Day, the calcite mineral known as Iceland spar possesses a power, more supernatural than the optical quality of double refraction. Pynchon, who writes with a postmodern flair mimicking early 20th century sci-fi pulp, imbues the aforementioned mineral with the property of physical doubling, allowing his characters to bilocate or split into two, with the help of the magic stone.

One could speak of this splitting of an individual into two halves as metaphorically symptomatic of schizophrenia in psychiatric terms. Another way to look at it is to consider how the mineral speaks of multiple personalities or realities. The Iceland spar draws our attention to the complexity of an individual human profile. In this manner, there is an uncanny parallel between Pynchon’s imaginative characterisation of the Iceland spar and the conceptual premise from which Gan Siong King’s The Horror, The Horror, proceeds.

The exhibition setup is simple. A much smaller white cube is constructed inside an empty warehouse to facilitate the viewing of the paintings. The scale of the white cube is dwarfed by the much larger space in the warehouse. Each of the twelve paintings shown inside, which exhibit qualities of repetition and sameness, are faithfully painted copies derived from the same photographic image available on Wikipedia of Alan Turing. Turing is variously known as a pioneering computer scientist, code breaker, and gay icon.

These paintings flank, six on each side, a still life painting featuring a microchip. The still life was shown in Gan’s previous solo exhibition The Pleasures of Odds and Ends – Landscapes, Figures and Still Lifes. Outside this intimate enclosure, on the back wall opposite the entrance, hangs a single painting. This time, it depicts a different Alan Turing, as played by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the historical drama, The Imitation Game. Nearby is a viewing station, where three videos related to the subject matter at hand are screened. 

An adjacent workstation reveals how the paintings were executed. To arrive at the level of calculated and clinical photo-realist precision, Gan tells us that he has constructed his own version of the Camera Lucida, an optical apparatus relying on the principle of reflection, which allows the artist to duplicate, with a degree of accuracy and precision, key attributes of a scene on the drawing surface.

In this instance, Turing is a particularly apt icon. As the author of the 1952 paper The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, Turing attempted to explain the way in which differentiation in nature (such as stripes, spots and spirals) could arise out of a uniform and singular state. The research focuses on a process of replication that takes place on a cellular level and resonates with Gan’s larger painterly inquiry into questions of multiplicity and representational variance brought into relief by the near-sameness of the image being painted again and again. A close examination of the paintings seems to suggest that the process of repetition not only introduces slight variance. When viewed collectively, a non-uniform pattern also emerges. 

In many ways, Gan’s fascination with the history of science, the speculative dimensions in which the sciences intersect with contemporary art, parallels Pynchon’s fascination with the Iceland spar. For the concept of refraction is also central to the process Gan has undertaken, which is to work from a digital image and replicate this by hand as photo-realistically as possible with the aid of a Camera Lucida he constructed.

Gan’s processual inquiry is also a reflection on the connection between shifting identities and painterly representation. On this note, it is a continuation of his abiding fascination in the way we experience visual culture. For The Horror, The Horror, Gan directs his attention towards the artistic use of repetition, as both theme and strategy in painting. This preoccupation is one that may at first seem counterintuitive to an artist’s creative process. Repetition here is employed as a vehicle to convey ideas of perception and memory. The show moreover touches on the broader themes of fluidity, recognition, and the way an individual is often understood through different labels and identities that society has placed on him or her. 

Each work spells out an attribute that casts Turing in a certain light. For some, Turing is defined by his professional achievements. For others, aspects of his biography determine Turing’s persona, his moral strengths and failures. We see the figure of Alan Turing fall easily into any of these categories; at the same time, repetition of the image produces a kind of resistance to absolute identification with any. He is after all, more than these single categories summon forth.

Gan, in a sense, suggests that multiple identities are a given to any complex psychological profile. A paradox therefore emerges, in the seeming sameness of the image; the pictorial replication of Alan Turing reveals, when studied closely, slight variation. They collectively constitute a thesis against a reductive form of essentialist identity. 

Bringing the subject closer to home, perhaps what Gan is asking also pertains to a very local concern. Why do people identify with a certain kind of identity, when it is a construct? Very often, some of these identities, racial or religious, are predetermined. Many of us have very little choice in how we identify ourselves. But equally, another way of looking at the issue is, when it comes to things where one doesn’t have a choice, how does the individual by his or her very individuality slip out of this collective identity? 

A closer examination of the exhibition title is instructive. The title references the well-known phrase that escapes the lips of Kurtz upon his dying breath in Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. There is also a cinematic refraction, in the form of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. In both instances, Kurtz’s deathbed whisper, ‘the horror’ is repeated twice. 

The phrase provides dramatic closure to an exhausted search for meaning. It seems that in Kurtz’s case, it annuls the certainty that accompanies the imperial project. The intimate admission reveals a conquered Kurtz, consumed by a sense of dread and nihilism, which underwrote the larger moral failings of colonialism. It speaks to the exploitation of the weak by those in power, driven by the cold instrument of reason. In the end, all one is left with is a sense of meaninglessness.
In an attempt to speak to a different context centered on the strategic use of repetition in art, Gan’s The Horror, The Horror operates on a similar vector by touching on the depletion of meaning through repetition. At the same time, unlike Heart of Darkness, the epistemological rupture is viewed here as liberating rather than with dread and pessimism. 

Refraction, doubling, replication, repetition, all constitute the complex make-up of human experience. In this line of thinking, the portrait as a format advances rewarding psychological depth. It suggests that even if one’s identity cannot be essentialised, what we gain is not inherently meaningless. One’s identity emerges gradually, through a web of inferences, which could embody irreconcilable and at times contradictory profiles. We might take stock of more accommodating forms of imagination that tell us who we are, and why we think we are who we are. 

In this sense, the exhibition demonstrates a critical inquiry into how each painting contributes to a larger narrative about the human condition, sustaining tensions between singularity and complexity, the particular and the whole, the fictive and the real.


(i) A calcite crystal displays the double refractive properties while sitting on a sheet of graph paper, 30 December 2011. Source: wiki/File:Crystal_on_graph_paper.jpg
(ii) Screenshot of exhibition layout (work-in-progress) by the artist. File: 08102015.skp
(iii) Sisyphus, 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 × 80 cm, Collection of Rosemary & Dr Steve Wong
(iv) Passport photo of Alan Turing at aged 16, 1927. Source: https://commons. Aged_16.jpg