Closer to the Surface: Questions and answers about the function of painting and that which implodes (A conversation between Ian Woo and Ian Woo)
IW: What is the function of image in your paintings?
Ian Woo: Static memory.
IW: What does it represent?
Ian Woo: The image represents the memory of embodiment; imploding and suspended.
IW: But there is no body in your painting.
Ian Woo: Yes, metaphorically there is, traces of it. Remember, it is a painting; it cannot be a body again. You are the body looking at it. Maybe the painting functions as a mirror when I am painting it. But, hang on, if it is a carrier of memories and trace, then maybe it is also a body? An alien body, a machine perhaps, one with its own time and space.
IW: Is your work chaotic? It seems like there is an impression of abstract objects and spaces but it just goes off tangent within the picture. There are parts in the painting where the logic of illusory space collides and surprises, there is also a sense that there are many levels of the reading where changes in the development of spatial logic are challenged and complex.
Ian Woo: It seems to be chaotic, but the process of making them is not. I paint close-up, consciously negotiating placement of substances. I believe that I am packing and unpacking things. Sometimes these things carry weight, they are at times light and may dissolve while unpacking. But more importantly, they reflect light against each other. I think when you suggest that it is chaotic, you are referring to the whole of the painting. It is perhaps formless; it questions the viewer in us. Inviting you to be a part of it, to fulfill its formlessness, to enter a relationship with it.
IW: So in the process of picture composition, you are not conscious of how it looks as a whole? That seems impossible, it is as if you negate any sense of proximity or visual judgment.
Ian Woo: It’s a game of indeterminacy. I would say I have a subconscious reliance on the memory of the overall painting structure when I am painting up close or zoning in on certain parts. I only become conscious of the whole when I step back, when the details start to lose their criticality. Distance and awareness are momentary. I use this to-and-fro mapping device to find new gravitational structure between matter and space. This happens most with the medium- to larger-scale works and with the smaller works when this separation starts to merge. I once heard that the painter Monet painted very close to his canvas nearing the end of his life. At a certain point, he would step back and the painting would be completed, which suggests that he never stepped back to check his composition. I do not know how true this is, perhaps it is fiction, but I love it. I would like to believe it is true.
IW: It takes you to the other side?
Ian Woo: Yes.
IW: What is the function of painting?
Ian Woo: I would like to think its initial function would be as an phenomenological mirror that is placed on the walls suggesting a framing of our visual aspirations for private domestic spaces, then perhaps the institutions, like the church and the temple. I then think about the early cave paintings, which in a sense makes me think of the frame as the physical presence of the cave itself. It is found that the denser and more populated the cave paintings were, the more resonant the sound and echo in the cave where the paintings were found. This was a suggestion that the people who painted them were singing or making some kind of body sounds. So there is a correlation and impact of sound and space, which triggers how the body desires to draw or make semblance of the things of the world. But if we are to say that painting came before the camera, then, painting is to capture time and space. Of course, history has revealed that the idea of a painting as picture has become really fluid, curving outwards and concaving between the illusory semblance of a portal to that of an absolute plane and finally returning as an object itself. In the last 15 years, we see this in the form of the above hybrids, restaging the various historical characteristics of painting as a conceptual framing device.
IW: So is your painting a hybrid of these characteristics?
Ian Woo: I like to think that it is about picture-making, one, which draws upon the influence of boundaries that govern the way, we look at modern paintings. The flat plane acting as a page-turner, as static motion, a portion of still-life, of a place and perhaps makes its way back to the realization of painting as an object.
IW: Don’t you think this is demanding of the viewer?
Ian Woo: No, I do not think it is essential that the audience sees and understands these ideas to appreciate the work. In fact, these ideas are my problems, the audience does not need to know my problems to appreciate the work. They are separate responsibilities. These are simply ideas that keep me focused on the process of painting; they are like routes that one takes as a kind of meditation, routes that constantly change their course.
IW: Change as in modulation?
Ian Woo: Change as in modulation of colour, tweaking its tonality, seeing how it affects the overall scheme of the picture. It relates to what Cézanne did early on with his still-life painting where he was searching for a fictitious light, not representing what was light which lasted for a couple of hours. Instead he kept changing the painting’s appearance, which had nothing to do with illustrating reality. The painting had its own inner logic, a life of its own. It was also a search for non-colour, subtle shifts in colour combinations that resulted in various greys, almost like colour was only hinted and dissolving back into the picture space. Change in my painting is sudden, slow and at times hovering, suspended. Taking me on a trip.
IW: It strikes me that your painting seems to resemble a machine that takes the viewer on a journey, which uses the fragmentation of memory as a signaling device that at some point resembles parts of reality and then disappears.
Ian Woo: Signaling device? I used to be a signaler in the army, but at this moment I am thinking that it is a bit like swimming in unknown waters and then getting up to the surface and realising where you are. Or you think you know where, so there is this constant adjustment due to momentary disorientation.
IW: It is interesting you mentioned about water. Your interest in the body also relates to the beginning of the memory of the body as a form in the womb, which is an environment associated with water. Do you feel that this has anything to with your obsession for a constant return to the beginning of language whenever you make art?
Ian Woo: It is a nice idea and one that situates memory in its most abstract sensuous form. I see the womb similar to a cave; it has its own sounds. But this is still a mystery, a good thing though. Perhaps we should stop here before we get too close to the surface?
IW: Not yet. Why is upholding an element of mystery a good thing?
Ian Woo: Perhaps, it is mysterious only in relation to the language we understand. If I could use other faculties of the body to communicate the work I would probably do so.
IW: Perhaps you should.
Ian Woo: But I think the faculties of my body are limited. It would conjure other sets of language problems. There would be a misunderstanding that the painting or drawing represents my body. Which it really doesn’t.
IW: But your work deals with abstraction and re-combinations of representations, perhaps you cannot avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations. The work does veer towards strangeness.
Ian Woo: I like misunderstandings. I think the world is one big misunderstanding. Remember we talked about the experience of being under unknown waters and then emerging to a different reality? I think the two realities are actually similar in that they are both strange, and the difference is that we are used to one more than the other.
IW: Lets talk about the works on paper. They contain parallel ideas in terms of the mark-making and shifting between forms and the formless, but the medium does make them have a fragile quality, which is emphasized in opposition to the paintings.
Ian Woo: I think paper is a problematic material. It just has a shorter life span and it buckles and has its own life in terms of dealing with this weather, so I just went with the way it is; just work and present it in all its inconsistencies. The mark or drawing on paper really extends beyond the pictorial, you see where the marking leaves and affects the paper curvature, especially with water. In the graphite work, no erasure is used, no corrections. So there is a kind of adding on focus to how the structure is coming together. There isn’t much of a surprise at the end. While the paintings have a kind of shift and morphing towards the point of resolution. The works on paper are immediate and kind of stay that way until embellishments make them look right.
IW: But they are also monochromatic, like they are from another time. Are they fossils of the paintings?
Ian Woo: The larger drawings are monochromatic because colour just did not work. I tried several versions and then the greys just worked with the paper. It’s the memory of this hypothetical draft or schematic I am making in reference to the painting structures. But you realize that they are only one structure smack in the middle, not multiplied, like they are samples or may be like you said fossils of specimens.
IW: The works on paper contain specimens from another time, making the paintings have a presence, a currency.
Ian Woo: Mummified structures.
IW: But the coloured water colour and gouache pieces do contain some erasure.
Ian Woo: Yes, they function more like the paintings, but lighter. Dreams. Domestic convergences and disruptions, I was reading Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” as well as listening to the composer Toru Takemitsu during the period between 2002 and 2003. I was also thinking about design in an organic way, like typography done by hand. I like the idea of the handmade. Believing that I was making posters for some unrealized movies, with an unrealized score.
IW: Interesting relationship between a Japanese composer and a writer both influenced respectively by early Modernist European music and American writing. Takemitsu went against the grain of the Nationalistic and had a hard time with the Japanese artists, especially those younger than him. But the Japanese are so extreme; they can assimilate anything and yet still find themselves in it!
Ian Woo: Yes, speaking of which, I am still a sucker for Edo period paintings and all that decorative idealisms. I think you experience an extreme take on the function of art with them. Always extreme. I remember my first trip to Tokyo, where we (my family) landed in the night and proceeded to travel in a car, where I looked out at the city and saw all these strange signs and black grey buildings. It was a mixture of bewilderment and fear. I felt I did not have to travel out of planet earth to find alien culture, that was it!
But I think your question has to do with identity and influence. So how does one keep getting interested in so much art? I mean you need to find your own style?
I will say, stop lying to yourself that you are original. I think it’s just a shifting of frames. If I did a copy of the Japanese Edo painting, even if it is an extreme copy, there must be something that is different. It is like those Asian bar bands that play copy versions of popular tribute bands from the West. It is always at some point a bit perverse. The closer it is, the more perverse it becomes.
But no, I do not intend to do a copy of Edo period paintings, at least not now.
IW: Is your work perverse?
Ian Woo: No, it is not my intention. But if it were, it would be an after-thought rather than intention. However, if one were to think about the idea of abstraction as a borrowed idea and taken away from its context of absolutism, perhaps then my work is perverse in that I have made them to be representational of things; things of strange realities.
IW: I think that would be my last question. Thank you for taking the time to do this.
Ian Woo: No. Thank you for spending the time to do this.
* The assemblage of questions and views discussed in this interview were based on actual questions and responses that have some point of time been posed to the artist by various individuals ranging from curators, collectors, dealers, journalist and audiences in the last 16 years.