Gordon Cheung’s most recent body of work on display at Alan Cristea, ‘Breaking Tulips,’ is both aesthetically alluring and conceptually rich. Comprising three distinct series, at first glance the works appear quintessentially beautiful; floral imagery, delicate ceramic work, and a saturated, acidic colour palette combine to seduce the visual senses. One is struck by the elegant precision of the show as a whole. But first impressions can be deceptive.
The earliest series, ‘Tulipmania’ (2012), features twelve bold prints of fluorescent, near-neon tulips whose cast shadows cause them to hover, acquiring a three-dimensional quality. The pieces are inspired by 17th Century catalogues advertising the coveted commodity of cut tulips, and reference directly the economic boom and bust of the European tulip trade of the era. The tulips are seductively repulsive; their colour scheme renders them flashy and attractive, yet chemical and dangerous in appearance. Enticing? Indeed. A closer inspection reveals, though, that each flower emerges from a background of stock-market pages from the Financial Times, and our reaction becomes tainted with suspicion.
Two more series, subtitled ‘New Order’ and ‘Small New Order’ respectively, are shown together. Cheung again appropriates floral imagery, this time inspired by bouquet paintings originating in the Dutch Golden Age. Digital images of six paintings have been altered thousands of times using an algorithm that repositions pixels individually. The resulting images appear eroded and decayed, and each conjures a sinister sense of motion; at the hands of time the images disintegrate before our eyes. Dutch still-life paintings of the 17th Century were concerned with communicating a moral message of the ephemerality and transience of life, while cut flowers also symbolised wealth, luxury and fashion. As these art-historical images of power and impermanence dramatically yet quietly dissolve one is reminded not only of the fleeting nature of life but also of the futility and fallacy of material desire.
The final series on display, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, comprises several large pieces that also feature stock-exchange records as their background. Here Cheung paints his own hyper-active, technicoloured bouquets, held in Chinese ceramic vases and positioned in desolate, possibly post-apocalyptic wastelands. The flowers are neon and flashy, their vases finely detailed. Backlit with iridescent light, the bouquets energetically emerge from disturbing pools of three-dimensional, vibrating, rippling sand at their bases. In keeping with the title of the series, these works refer to the ultimate fate of consumer culture. The economic boom in China that marks our modern age persists, and materialism continues to play an accelerating role in our collective human experience but what purpose will luxury and materialism serve when there is no one left to indulge in it?
A small show it may be, ‘Breaking Tulips’ comments powerfully on the futility of materialism and the unsustainable nature of consumer-driven economic growth. Cheung carefully integrates symbols of economic prosperity and collapse, with timeless imagery of consumer desire to effectively convey, elegantly yet severely, the danger and folly of shameless materialism and consumer indulgence.