Stock listings newspaper, ink and acrylic on canvas
200 x 250cm
Gordon Cheung: The Sleeper Awakes
How could one be in this world without feeling dismayed by it? Even if one paints flowers and gingerbread
One of the most overlooked literary works in science fiction is H.G. Wells The Sleeper Awakes (1910). A reason for this oversight may have to do with it being written in the wake of Wells’ most famous piece of prose, War of the Worlds (1897). The latter concerns an attack on Earth by invading Martians and is considered part of a genre called Invasion Literature. Much has been written about this story in how it metaphorically mirrors the historical and political context of its time, including Britain’s imperial rule over India, present day Pakistan, Bangladesh, parts of Burma, as well as parts of Western Africa. In The Sleeper Awakes, Martians invade the coast of England, and to some scholars, the extraterrestrial onslaught is symbolic of the non-White, colonized subject returning to the land of the Empire. This would not be an altogether implausible reading of the story, for Wells was a socialist and had disdain for the Throne and was highly critical of Britain’s imperial expansion into non-European lands.
Most science fiction, then, is not only about storytelling and imagining the impossible possible: travelling to other planets, discovering and communicating with other life forms whether they are hostile or benign or inferior or superior to human intelligence, as well as the possibility of multi-dimensional existence, for example. Memorable works of science fiction, whether they are in literature or cinema, address political questions concurrent with their milieu or often grapple with lofty ideas including philosophical problems such as the nature of mind, the body, free will and so forth. The Sleeper Awakes also seems to convey elements of the West’s tumultuous economic and political history during the early twentieth-century, and was strangely written with an ostensible oracular purview of what our collective future would hold for humanity. Topical phenomena that this visionary tale alludes to include the rise of financial cartels and the exportation of the banking industry to international markets, rapid technological advancement especially in the development of modern weaponry, Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, and other aspects within the social, political and cultural arena of an ascendant European modernity. The downside, in regards to the West’s economic, Nietzsche-like “will to power,” would soon manifest some years later in the U.S. with “The Great Depression” and the U.K.’s “Great Slump.”
The plot of The Sleeper Awakes revolves around a man named Graham who falls into a catatonic sleep in London in 1897 and awakes 203 years later. While he is sleeping he becomes wealthy through compound interest in his bank account that has accrued for over two centuries. Yet those who had managed his money are more than just surprised by Graham waking up. In fact, these so-called financial guardians or trustees have used his wealth to finance a governmental world order. Upon hearing news that “the sleeper awoke,” a general unease and paranoia haunts the body politic; for Graham’s two centuries old slumber created mystique and aura around his phantasmagoric existence, a condition so otherworldly that there was a kind of specter of mystery as to the man who had fallen into such a deep, abyss of sleep.
In the exhibition The Sleeper Awakes, Gordon Cheung uses Wells’ tale as narrative touchstone to address conditions of contemporary globalization but in a multilayered fashion. Cheung’s artistic interpretation is not the equivalent to a graphic novel that visually parallels plot, character, etc as found in Wells’ story. Nor are the works in the exhibition inspired by the famed, albeit under appreciated science fiction masterpiece. A few of the works in the exhibition have been presented in other contexts, but within this exhibition thematic they are absorbent of Wells’ story all the while updating it by situating it within a contemporary backdrop of global disasters: financial fiascos including multinational corporate collapse, political hijacking of democracy by special interest groups, an exponentially accelerating technology and so forth. But what may even be more captivating that reveals much about Cheung’s artistic intelligence, is that it is not only the content of the artworks that are engaging Wells’ myriad narrative strands, but the formal strategies that constitute the works as well. It is very difficult for a painter to treat technique and materiality as signified rather than only signifier. In other words, the meaning of a painting or its signified is created through color, composition etc and these artistic elements are aggregates of the signifier; that is, these things congeal in the work to convey meaning and are not the meaning itself. It is very much a challenge and rare for an artist, and even more so for a painter, to conflate these two together. A few examples may suffice here in order to understand the formal and conceptual complexities of Cheung’s work.