Ataraxy

Solo Exhibition By Ruben Pang

16 January - 8 February 2015

Ataraxy, Ruben Pang's fifth solo exhibition, extracts creative energy from disarray and entropy, thus realising the state of tranquility the term implies. In each painting, various artistic personalities find themselves in psychodramatic scenarios with their subconscious drives personified through figures in constant change, sometimes playing host to parasitic vegetation, other times surgically reconfigured and twisted into conversations with one another and their surroundings.

This series develops on Pang's interest in the introspective creative process. The paintings portray creators in the midst of contemplation, decision making, and other obstacles; for example, the compulsive method actor juggling various states of mind in Holding it Together. In Building the Triad, three musicians trample and contort around each other and a tuning fork, searching for that elusive plum that borders dissonance and harmony. Passenger presents a listless figure in the heterotopic state found between sleep and waking, projecting its dream scenario into the surrounding environment. Using a combination of oil and acrylic on aluminum composite panel, Pang seeks to optimise the strength of each material – acrylic to quickly explore compositions, and oil to create atmosphere and complete each piece.

Pang finds affinities and luminaries in both historical and fictional artists, these works attempt to connect the dots and unravel the underlying significance of and between the subjects he consistently finds himself drawn to. In this sense, Ataraxy can be considered a collection of annotations in which the artist finds sanctuary.

NO LONGER PLAYING WITH GHOSTS: ATARAXY 

by Jennifer Anne Champion

Ataraxy: The state of maintaining tranquility, characterised by freedom from distress and anxiety. 

In other words, the struggle to keep calm and make do.

Ataraxy derives from the Greek word ἀταραξία, meaning “not disturbed”. It is a concept from Epicurus – an often misunderstood hedonist in the pantheon of philosophers – who purchased a large home with a garden view on the outskirts of Athens for his followers to enjoy and ruminate in on what it meant to lead a happy life. 

Epicurus’s grounds give meaning to the axoim ‘to treat one’s home as a hotel’. Yet far from the luxurious connotations of a “Do Not Disturb” sign, Epicurus’s key truths were underpinned by a spare simplicity. The maintenance of conscience and serenity by being detached – from fear, death, politics, marriage, having children, and the gods and their enviable blissful state, to name a few. This condition would be epitomised by some Hellenists with the motto lathe biōsas, meaning ‘get through life, unnoticed’ (Tarrant, 192). 

In his fifth solo exhibition, Ruben Pang contemplates a paradox: What we must notice to live unnoticed, undisturbed lives. Arguably his most narrative collection yet, Pang’s works offer themselves as vignettes. Each work tells a vivid story; a self-contained rumination on the lengths his characters will go to attain (or maintain) their pleasure. However unlike the Epicurean view of happiness – arrived at through the avoidance or absence of pain (Tarrant, 191) – Pang’s work challenges this view of avoidance and detachment as a strategy of getting by. 

Birdwatcher (see right column) is perhaps the most romantic work in the series. In Birdwatcher, a figure examines a bird captive in its hand, while its other hand rest on a cavity in its chest. The symbiotic relationship between the bird and figure is established through the work’s composition. Pang explains that the bird has always nested in the figure (Pang, 2014). In this sense, the bird is a body part and the painting draws attention to the body as a host or vessel. The figure is not unlike a child scraping its knees for the first time, surprised and then curious at its own bleeding. The trajectory of this narrative is completed in its depiction of an epiphany. It is a moment of awareness as well as dependency for the figure – the clasped hand laying claim (or even reclaiming) a part of what is usually hidden. 

Symbiosis and its more sinister iteration, co-dependency, are increasingly apparent themes in Pang’s works, following his foray into multiple figuration. While there are still echoes of ethereal line work in this series – a signature style from Pang’s previous work circa 2013 – Pang’s figures have grown in solidity. 

Pang’s prior work has been described as alchemistic, concentrated on the self-portrait, and “not so much figurative as they are unfolding in form” (Pazzini-Paracciani, 2013), but here the ghostly, ectoplasmic beings are more defined with muscle tissue and creeping flora and fauna. 

This new development in Pang’s practice can be attributed to his recent residency in Italy and Switzerland (July - September 2014), although it should be noted that the earliest explorations in figuration and relationship can be traced to the work Partners presented at Art Stage in January 2014 (see below). 

 

The sense of co-dependency established in Partners is developed further in the Ataraxy series, particularly in the works Building The TriadBinary Stars and End Of The RoadEnd of The Road (see right column) has the most figures in any single painting of Pang’s works thus far and is a complex visual critique on the poem If by Rudyard Kipling published in 1910. 

Kipling’s poem is a piece of paternal advice to a son, composed as a series of anaphora. The repetition of “If” clauses in the poem (eg. “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same” l. 11-12) are permutations of the same guidance – to maintain a calm forbearance – in order to achieve ideal manhood. Pang’s response suggests that prescriptive ideals of this nature can be restrictive and damaging on the psyche. The resultant mood of End Of The Road is restless and pessimistic, reflecting the complete failure to access tranquility in trying to achieve the ideal life. 

Pang explains: “The first figure, the brightest figure is the man on fire – [a] fire of emotion, passion, inspiration, aspiration and dreams – [b]ut also a very hollowed out cavity where the heart should be. He's been shaped by ghosts of his past... [B]ecause memories are not stored... [but] constantly regenerated,... his ghosts are still his own projections. He constantly regenerates problems. The vicious cycle is that it consumes him, it lurks behind him, leaves him with a deep [emptiness]. He also projects a persona forward that comes over his right shoulder... [This tall figure is] what he relies on for strength... It’s a chameleon. It’s a taller, stronger, flexible, adaptable, high-functioning person who can fulfill all the Ifs... The main figure in white is trying to keep up with this standard... He is hard on himself and sometimes confused... He thinks he could be all the Ifs, if only he could slow down time. In the foreground is another bright young thing, a red child, awaiting his turn to become a man.” (Pang, 2014)

This last child figure Pang alludes to is perhaps the key to this painting. Its proportions are nearly the same size as the ‘father’ figure (in suit and tie). Pang’s ‘son’ is birthed full-grown but it is unclear if he is fully emerged or crouching. This ambiguity in form is a testament to Pang’s technical ability in layering and facility with brush strokes – adding dimensions to his story-telling. The fate of this ‘son’ is unknown and it remains to be seen if he will be tied to ghosts of his own or adopt those of the ‘father’ figure. 

However, when asked about how he feels about Kipling’s poem, Pang suggests a revision. “If I were to complete the poem, my last “If” would be “even if you fuck up all this, I’ll still love you, my son.” (Pang, 2014). 

Pang further continues his fascination with the anatomical body and the surgeon’s work from previous exhibitions (Intravenous Picture Show, Lugano, 2014 and Bright Spores, Milan, 2014) in works like Aneurysm and Holding It Together (see right column).

Among his research materials were the memoirs of brain surgeon, Henry Marsh (Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, 2014) and various medical texts on anatomy. Holding It Together is informed by Pang’s understanding of Marsh’s thought process. In this work, the dominant figure is impassive as he holds a secondary figure in a gentle chokehold. The slight smile on the dominant figure is not ominous enough to be a smirk and so lends greater ambiguity to the overall tone of the work.

Holding It Together also has resonances with Faith Healer an earlier work from Pang’s Intravenous Picture Show series (pictured below) inspired by his research on the first recorded use of ether as an anesthetic in dentistry by William T. G. Morton in 1842. 

 

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Both Faith Healer and Holding It Together contain similar elements: A dominant figure in a doctor’s blazer, a secondary submissive figure and a block-like chair. The earlier configuration of these elements in Faith Healer, along with their primary colour scheme, suggest a straight-forward relationship and identity. The doctor stands, establishing authority, assisting a compliant patient.

But in Holding It Together, the new configuration of elements develops the narrative further. The masks present over the faces of the figures in Faith Healer have come off, revealing vulnerable nerve and tissue. This literal reveal is complemented by the placement of the ‘doctor’ figure who – although retains his height and authority – is now also an occupant of the patient’s chair. The visceral detail also add greatly to this vulnerable picture of self-detachment.

It is perhaps with some irony that this series of works by Pang is called Ataraxy. Epicurus’s philosophy of happiness called for safe-guarding the mind from the affects of discontent. However, Pang seems to suggest that although it is crucial to protect the mind, it is all the more difficult – nearly impossible – to do so in our modern condition. Pang’s previous works have focussed on – even delighted in – the over-stimulation of the mind (Champion, 2014) and have been playful in both technique and metaphor produced. But now, it would seem that Pang is maturing. He is no longer playing with his ghosts. He is coming to terms with them. 

Jennifer Anne Champion is a performance poet and writer

Bibliography

Champion, Jennifer Anne. “Intravenous Picture Show.” Switzerland: Primae Noctis Art Gallery, September 2014. Web. 2 January 2015. 

Kipling, Rudyard. “If.” Rewards and Fairies. 1910. USA: The Poetry Foundation. Web. 7 January 2015.

Pang, Ruben. Personal interview. 7 January 2015.

Pazzini-Paracciani, Loredana. “Solve Et Coagula: Charting New Possibilities.” Singapore: Chan Hampe Galleries, October 2013. Web. 2 January 2015.

Tarrant, Harrold. “Epicurus.” The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. 2005. Print.

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