INTERVIEW WITH RUBEN PANG/ALBANO MORANDI part 1
C: Good afternoon and welcome to MoCa Centre in Brescia, Italy.
Today we're interviewing 27-year-old Singapore artist Ruben Pang to find out more about his artistic practice and stint as one of the participants in the Mechanics of Wonder show, which is coming up in Brescia in February 2018. Hello Ruben!
And besides Ruben Pang, today I'm here with another most welcome guests: Albano Morandi, hello Albano! Albano Morandi is a conceptual artist and "the brains" behind the Mechanics of Wonder show, which has now reached its 12th edition.
So, I'm going to ask some questions to Ruben.
Ruben, we would like to find out something more about how you got involved in the Mechanics of Wonder Show, so can you tell us a little bit about it.
R: Sure. So, I got involved with the Mechanics of Wonder through Stelva Artists in Residence and my first time in Italy was in 2015 to do an Artist in Residence and I got to see the Renaissance Art and the Mannerist Art in the flesh. GianVirgilio, who was my host with Stelva Artist in Residence would introduce me to different people and see what I'm most receptive with and one of them was Franco Piavoli two years ago and this year earlier he's introduced me to this project with Albano. It really struck me, I think, the theme of the Mechanics of Wonder, because it's trying to figure out the physics of something that's so intangible and I think that's the great challenge, it's certainly interested me and I'm glad we have this affinity.
C: And can you tell us something about the triptych that you have made for the Show?
R: Right. I think the first thing I'd like to talk about with regard to the triptych was that it made me confront something that I was self-conscious about and that's the idea that when I create a painting there is the need to be impressive so there's this ego involved and I've always regarded that with a degree of ambivalence. There's this ego and also the positive aspect of creating something impressive for lack of better words, which is an internal empowerment and so I was looking for a sort of energetics, an idea of being ridiculously pure as if the painting was really being projected out of your psyche that's something I try to put into the painting process.
The work itself I think, it's very much about the physicality of painting and I think that the narrative is a physical narrative going out and in because I paint and I send things down and it's a negotiation with the ambivalences, with the tensions that come with any creative work. I think the point is that I try to make my process clear in some ways, but also obscure in other ways, so it is a game about dualities, it is a game about tensions.
C: Okay. And are you pleased with your work, with what you have made for the Show?
R: Jeah. I think it's a strange thing: a month ago I was unhappy with it, okay and I managed to revise the final surface tension and it's mostly a varnish thing so now I'm especially happy, small wins!
C: On a more general level, could you give us some insight into your creative process?
R: Yeah. I paint on aluminum. I think that's something I take for granted and I forget about. I paint on aluminum and I think for the first two or three layers everything looks like a stain and so I think the game that I play with myself is that there's a late return on investment so unlike canvas where if you paint early on, the nuances start to be captured and then you want to preserve the vitality of the work that's something an artist I admire greatly, Francis Bacon, he always talked about, preserving the vitality of each stroke and for me, I think my paintings start off very dread...
C: What do you mean by "dread"?
R: Everything looks like a stain, you know, it doesn't feel artistic even to me, it feels like I'm dealing with an industrial product and it feels like it's a very "faith driven" process, that you're going to build up several layers without overloading the material to the point where it falls off the metal. So you have to paint thin and yet you're trying to create depth, so there's always this in the material sense, there is this tension, this thing you want that's not going to happen unless you believe in it and that's something that I think now I have the technical ability to capitalize on that but when I began it was just a hunch that I thought it was possible, yeah...
C: Are there any circumstances that allow you to develop brighter ideas, you know, or maybe are more conducive to inspiration?
R: Yeah, absolutely. I think going into the studio I have a set of rules it's probably a little bit superstitious so I tell myself you don't yawn in the studio, you don't complain ever, you don't sigh in the studio so the studio is a place where if I go in there, I know even if things go well yeah that I've made good memories there. In that sense I hope I could create something where it's like a fountain of ectoplasmic energy in the studio as if I left that energy there every time I go in there I just pick something up even if I don't feel like working in a particular way, something will happen so that's the attitude that I try to keep in the studio. And then the attitude that I have towards art in general, especially art history, would be that instead of this, I think from an egoistic point, instead of thinking like how do I set myself a part or how do I find something original I think of myself always as a student or almost everything that I do almost as if they were fan art of musicians or fan art of these heroes in history so the way I take it is like you know these gifts because these artists give of themselves what is alive in them. These gifts that they've made they give us what they're obsessed with, they give us what they sacrificed for. And some of them are unfinished stories, some of them are waiting to be built upon even further so that's my approach towards the development of my practice. I think there's a lot of imitation when I first began and it's not up to me to say whether I've transcended that but I hope that that would be the case.
C: That's very interesting. And as an artist, do you feel your work has a responsibility towards the wider context where you work and live and the world in general ?
R: An artist told me that the fact that you choose to devote your life or a significant amount of your time to a physical act like painting or to be a writer that's a moral act in and of itself and that's something I found comforting and of course I was willing to, you know, to get on with that program. The other thing that I think is important is that, as an artist, I should never try to posture myself as more perfect than what I am and so that's something I try and put in the work. I think I have to be responsible in the sense that what are my vulnerabilities, what are my weaknesses, these things I have to consider and not conceal...
C: So, how has travelling and doing residencies abroad impacted you as an artist?
R: It's made me, you know, confront my assumptions, you know, break stereotypes...
C: Where exactly have you been?
R: Mostly Italy, I love coming back to Italy, I do. Israel, Australia, Seattle, a bit of the US, I'm trying to remember...it's more than I ever dreamed of actually.
C: And how has it impacted your work, what have you learnt from this experience?
R: Well, I've always been quite escapist, I've always taken the painting as a means to "avoid" this reality. The travelling made me more comfortable with being uncomfortable, comfortable with being the other, more comfortable with being answered by and I think in that sense there's a breaking down of any glass ceilings or glass walls between people. I try my best to learn the languages or learn the customs. I don't know if integrate's the word because I think it implies that we are already separate which we are not but I try to connect, I try a bit harder to connect but I've always been shy. It's made me a bit less shy.
C: Okay, so Ruben you must know that the Mechanics of Wonder Show is really Albano's own baby, he conceived it and has been running it since its very beginning in 2003, am I right? I know he has some reflections on your work that he would like to share with us and possibly hear your take on it so now we're going to hear Albano first in Italian and then I will try to summarize his reflections to you in English.
A: Thank you. Recently I've been reading some of your reflections and I've made some reflections myself about the creative process. So my first question is whether you agree that Art cannot be born but of Art because basically the creative process stems from the social context and it's the cultural humus where you've been brought up that really shapes your projects?
R: It's a Yes and No question, isn't it? For me, I would say when I started from a very arrogant place as a sixteen-year-old, I thought that there weren't many good paintings in the world and I think, you know, as you keep doing these paintings with every year you find out how much you're horrible at it so in a sense when I started I would look at the, at 16 years old please pardon me, I would look at these paintings of the books of old masters right or modern masters and I thought I could fix that.
A: Clearly the more you learn and the more you realize how little you know, that's the problem. So, freedom has brought about independence but it has also turned us into "islands", we are therefore more fragile and at risk of new dependencies (i.e. the market!). These new forms of dependencies which, from a certain standpoint, the artist has reached, might be related to market issues. I mean, the artist is more free in his mind, with less "political" problems globally, but this freedom of thought has been curbed by the market itself. What's your view on this?
R: The Sunday painter is the most free, I like to think that the hobby painter is like that. C: Is that how you see yourself?
R: I think right now, the fact that it's so surreal that people buy my paintings but for me when I paint something I do want to paint something, a part of it is something that I want to covet, that is a fetish for its smooth surface and it's a fetish for its punchy colours and this might change but I do acknowledge that Art in the form that I express is an object and there is a part of me that wants this object to be coveted...
C: What do you mean coveted?
R: Wanted or eaten...
A: Yes, the point is that when an artist wants to convey a "pathos" or an idea, very often a commission helps you to express this idea. I'm absolutely aware of the fact that when I was commissioned a specific art work, in the end I created something I probably would never have made on my own but this helped me to develop my creative practise. Therefore, when a Commission is taken seriously, it is just as well a very significant form of artistic development for an artist.
C: Do you agree with that, to a certain extent?
R: Yeah, absolutely, one hundred percent.
A: So, Surrealism is surely an element of the western culture which has influenced your creative thinking, with literary resonances, both of a philosophical and psychoanalytical character, which bring us back to the works of André Masson or Roberto Matta. Can you tell us which Surrealist artists have you looked at with more interest, which have particularly inspired you?
R: Personally, I try to avoid categorizations. Except when I do see it as a lineage, when someone declares himself a painter, then that's a strong category. I think if Frances Beacon was accepted to be part of the Surrealists we would be calling him a Surrealist. And so I would say, for me not just the Surrealists but I would look at the work of Roberto Matta and for me personally it greatly recalls the Abstract Expressionists, it greatly recalls also De Kooning. And, you know, these guys, like the line between these people and hyper figuration, for me it's a very blurred line...
A: Well, no doubt all post war Art such as Action painting and Informal art in Europe stems from the Surrealist lymph so your own way of looking at Surrealism is "filtered" by these trends. I think that currently Surrealism as an artistic trend - which has always been criticised, particularly during the '70s and '80s - is witnessing a rebirth in the works of many young and important artists who have no idea that Surrealism could be part of their background. There has been a comeback and a revamping in recent years...
R: Yeah, in school and in museums, for a while it's been considered a stuff that teenagers like. Not sophisticated. For me it's important not to be bothered whether it's, you know, trendy or not, but it's healthy for me. The part that's most healthy, is for example when you look at Dali's work: you have great sophistication in his stream of consciousness, it's really a stream of consciousness because he's not afraid to put his sexual tensions in there, he's not afraid to put scatology in there. It's real. It's not a "curated" sense of stream of consciousness, it's visceral.
A: Of course, you can see that. Let me just add that when he says that he regards himself as a painter, it's one of the most amazing things an artist could say, especially when we think that one of the most significant artists in Europe and Italy, even though he had Greek origins, such as the recently departed Jannis Kounellis, had never or rarely touched a single canvas in his life but still regarded himself as a painter.
A: I was particularly struck by your definition of painting as "a form of divination". Again, this falls from a certain point of view into the Surreal-Dadaist concept of "giving shape to chance" - something I'm particularly keen on myself - and inside this line of reasoning how can we not mention John Cage's works on I-Ching Chance Operations. I don't know whether you use I-Ching in your works but I'd be interested to know how you incorporate divination into your paintings and if this goes into your work at all.
R: I do consult the I-Ching...
C: So you see, Albano you've unravelled something of Ruben's.
A: I really fancy that, I really do. And I believe that your use of forms which apparently have nothing to do with our practice is one of the elements that can create Wonder in our work.
R: Thank you very much!
A: You're welcome! And finally, a reflexion on your use of polyptyc formats, a practice which has run through my work too: looking at the triptych you've created for the Mechanics of Wonder show, I cannot help recalling Grünewald's Crucifixion or Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, two masterpieces which have always been a great inspiration for my art making. I wonder if you can share these reflections...
R: Absolutely, yes. When we consider a triptych, I thought that it was the most power hungry format, initially. It's a format that you use when you want to have power over the viewer. And for me, I had to confront this within myself in terms of politics: what are my internal politics? As a young artist or as a child I personally had a lot of problems with not being taken seriously, of being dismissed, of feeling as if I'd been on the bullied end of the stick and so I'm in the perfect position to be a very fascist, right wing kind of painter, you know, my personal politics seems to be ripe for being power hungry. I feel like as human beings, you know, we cannot demonize the Right, these are people who could be your neighbours, they could be anybody. It's important to recognize that it's inherent in everybody, out of ignorance, out of lack of culture. But also to recognize within myself that should I have been ignorant or should I have made wrong decisions I could be at the bullying end of the stick. And so, when I make a painting like this, I have to take the parts of compassion and the parts of hatred and I want to put them next to each other. I think that's the responsibility because this way I'm not propaganda.
A: Thank you.
C: Well, thank you very much Ruben. So, I have one last trivial questions now, what are your plans for the future? Do you have any exhibitions coming up? I know you're very busy...
R: I'll be part of a group show in Prime Noctis Gallery, this Friday in Lugano Switzerland. I'll be touring some works in Brisbane, in late October and in November I'll launch a solo show in Singapore.
C: Ok, excellent! Well, thank you very much for being with us Ruben, thank you very much Albano, it's been a pleasure and you've been fantastic! Thank you!