A conversation with Ian Woo, painter and program lead of MA Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, based on his lecture for the TC participants.
THE MYSTERIOUS IN THE ABSTRACT
Ian, the last slide you showed in your lecture was Saint-Exupéry’s elephant eaten by a boa constrictor. Was it meant as a metaphor for your artistic practice? The elephant in the snake represents a possibility for the evolution of physical shape. By eating the elephant, the snake has become a dinosaur. This, to me, shows one of many possibilities of transformation that we can dream about. As artists, we play with contradictions and with the „what if“.
Your lecture was titled „Streaming the Trace“. What’s your notion of trace and streaming? Streaming generally designates the electronic transportation of information. But if we think of it rather in relation to a person’s body and mind, it speaks about how we cannot help but behave in an interplay with the space that we are in. In a fast urban space like Hong Kong’s our minds and bodies will necessarily absorb its characteristics. Now, streaming traces means that I like working with the left-overs. A left-over is always a sign, it bears a meaning. But you need patience in order to find out where it came from and where it can lead you.
Is that how collage and rearrangement became important tools for your work? As an abstract painter, usually, my paintings are metaphors. For me, the collage is an interesting way to approach this. When you put a cut image on a canvas it takes a while for them to connect. Sometimes I need to paint it over and layer it in order to achieve a connection. Connecting the separate – that is an in-between space that I find interesting and quite mysterious.
Would you say that, despite the mystery, your paintings still represent something? Yes, next to being quite private spaces and an expression of the internal, my paintings represent things that are floating. There is a certain tension about the floating that is intriguing, at times, even disturbing. But beyond representation, I’ve always been more interested in the sensory, physical and experiental level. When I was young I was more drawn to the feeling of certain things, their shapes, texture, smells. The smell of blood or of drying skin for instance. My grand mother used to blindfold me and make me guess what she was feeding me. That way, she helped me develop my sense of taste – with some nasty surprises of course. I was brought up to be aware of the less evident, you could say.
THE OVERLOOKED IN THE CITY
In an urban context, how can you experience the discreet, hidden and unspoken? An artistic gaze can. Anyone can, really, but you have to have faith in the things that are left behind or supposedly insignificant. Looking at everyday life with this lens, you can encounter it in a more real way sometimes. But within the familiar it is really difficult to gain awareness of what is, by habit, overlooked. In 1938, John Cage once went for a walk with the painter Marc Tobey. It was a route that he’d walked many times before. But together with Tobey and his habit to stop and observe the seemingly ordinary, a relatively short walk turned into an hours-long stroll. The experience transformed Cage and influenced his notion of silence. So you need a bit of time to experience the space around you. In Singapore, I always take the back streets. I believe that in the back of things it’s easier to encounter the traces of real human behaviour.
Do you find a lot of traces in Singapore? Singapore is all about control. In a city like that, it is always more difficult to find the hidden. Sometimes I’d prefer living in a place where there is more natural, less constructed environment. But at the end of the day, I believe we are where we are for a reason and to stay with it and find out how to make it work is our challenge. The in-between is everywhere, you can’t escape it. For that reason, any space is interesting even though it has its limitations.
Could a stranger see things that the local cannot? Of course. The stranger is new to the space so they immediately see the place from a different angle. When you’re too familiar with something you sometimes stop seeing the evident and the whole picture. Thus it’s always good to maintain a communication between the alien and the familiar. Both are relevant. And in fact, as an artist you need to play both roles. One is the maker that needs to „know everything“ and be intimately familiar with the work. But that way, the maker knows the work too well in a sense. Therefore, the stranger is needed – the person who doesn’t know anything about the work and comes to the gallery for the first time. While the maker insists on reading the work in a certain way, the stranger is free to interpret.
THE ALTERNATIVE IN THE SYSTEM
In your lecture you mentioned that you have to know the box before you can think outside of it. Could you expand a little on this? For me „thinking outside the box“ is management talk. It is taught by the system. It’s almost like talking about freedom but without any context. You need to know what kind of box you are talking about. The box is interesting. To stay with the system and learn to understand it. Once you know its limits, you understand how those limits are useful for the living conditions or not. Only from there you can consider to find a way out. And maybe it’s not fully out, maybe it’s just the back street. For me this is the essence of the „alternative“ – it’s another way. But it still connects back to the system.
In what way? If you think of the system as a skeleton, it’s parts can be rearranged, reconstructed, but you need it. Boxes always have openings, they’re never fully closed. It is about creating a different structure with the given conditions. Systems are all about structures and transformations. You need the system for a particular thing to transform. But certainly there are systems that behave more aggressively than others and are harder to influence.
You began your lecture by stating that the world is made of misunderstandings. What could be an artistic way to tackle these? We can only hope to reach understanding by talking and working together. And working together is hard. If you are on the same level of experience, it can be highly interesting and educational. But if you are forced to work together with someone who doesn’t share your experience, then you need to readjust. It’s not about being smart but about staying with the misunderstanding. If you stay with it for enough time you can arrive somewhere. The crucial question is: Can we still do something together when my truth and your truth are different? I believe that truths that can be shared…
…and maybe filtered into some sort of grey. Yes, grey is very fascinating to me. Hong Kong is quite grey sometimes and so is Singapore because of the smog. To me, the whole world is a bit grey. But there’s a misunderstanding around grey being dull and colour dynamic. They aren’t separate, in fact, they are totally correlated. Grey is a mixture of all other colours.