Review – Gordon Cheung: The Garden of Perfect Brightness

Review – Gordon Cheung: The Garden of Perfect Brightness

This review by Kirsty Jukes was originally posted on

Gordon Cheung in his studio with works from ‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’ courtesy Gordon Cheung Studio

Revelling in speculative landscapes hung with ‘luminous auroras of white spray paint’; scholar’s rocks ‘seemingly hewn from zitan wood or dark cinnabar’; and window grilles with ‘geometric patterning reminiscent of Chinese lettering and Zen Buddhist sculpture’, art historian and writer Kirsty Jukes reviews Gordon Cheung’s exhibition ‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’ at The Atkinson, Southport. This new collection of paintings and sculptures by Cheung, which addresses his concerns and ideas about the past and future, is available to view for free until 9 September 2023.

Taking leave of Southport’s famously bustling Lord Street to enter The Atkinson’s impressive sandstone building, I remember an old myth shared with me whilst growing up in the local area. During Napoleon III’s exile to England he is said to have recuperated in many seaside towns, including this one during 1846. Local legend states that his time here was a direct inspiration for the Champs-Elysées during his subsequent boulevard redesign project in Paris. Whether fact or fiction, this tale nonetheless provides an interesting link to Southport’s newest exhibiting artist.

Away from afternoon crowds, the cool, lofty interior of the Atkinson’s interdisciplinary arts space contains many opportune moments for peaceful curiosity. In the main gallery, Gordon Cheung describes his newest mixed media exhibition ‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’ as ‘a poetic exploration of the relationship between nature, culture, and power in the digital age’, positioned calmly amidst reverential spotlighting. Cheung’s first show in the UK since 2020 is a marriage of aesthetic beauty and deep cognisance. This complex range of work features three-dimensional paintings, towering scholar’s rocks and timeless window frames, all of which highlight the span of the artist’s imaginative and practical abilities.

It is an interesting venue for Cheung’s exhibition in that the very same Napoleon III who allegedly spent time in Southport co-headed an Anglo-French army with James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin (son of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and looter of the Elgin Marbles) in the Second Opium War of 1856-60. The wars were the result of the British East India Company transporting opium to China and distributing it through a network of intermediaries, crippling communities throughout the country in a cycle of addiction. In a retaliatory attack, Chinese forces tortured an Anglo-British group for information.

When James Bruce heard of this, he in turn sent a contingent to burn and loot ‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’, or ‘Yuanmingyuan’ (圓明園) in Beijing. Known as the ‘Versailles of the East’ it was constructed throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries and flourished for over 150 years. Viewed as the very pinnacle of architectural achievement amongst Chinese people and used as the Summer Palace for successive Imperial dynasties, its ruin was devastating. After the sack of the ‘Yuanmingyuan’, French officers presented Napoleon III with irreplaceable treasures stolen from the complex.

Gordon Cheung ‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’ installation shot, courtesy The Atkinson

Both wars sealed China’s subjugation to Western interference in a ‘century of humiliation’ after the Treaties of Tianjin were signed in 1860. This opened up the interior of the country to Christian (and other ‘barbarian’) influences, allowed external control of key trade outposts by Western interests and the colonisation of lands. The obliteration of such a cherished edifice in a terrible act of cultural vandalism is still writ large on the consciousness of many Chinese people. Cheung uses the memory of this lost site to create a Summer Palace all his own, an almost-paradise permeated by heavy reminders of loss and wrestling identities. The Atkinson then is a new place of escape, presenting here a culmination of years researching the rise and fall of civilisations, globalisation, nationalism, imperialism, dynastic succession and spiritual enlightenment. In his exhibition, Cheung rebuilds this site into a contemporary utopia, writing a new futuristic chapter and, in doing so, creating frameworks for peace in the face of state violence.

Gordon Cheung Ruling Lightly (Beijing) 150 x 200cm courtesy Gordon Cheung Studio

Six large-scale mixed media paintings in the exhibition contain extensive cityscapes that seem to continue to eternity. According to Cheung’s vision, the burgeoning field of development and expansion reaches far into our futures. A cosmic vacuum reminiscent of sci-fi scenes once a spacecraft emerges into a new planetary atmosphere, the viewer as astronaut, as explorer, as benevolent being, looking down on vast existences for the first time. Cheung combines traditional and contemporary techniques including acrylic and spray painting, newspaper collage, archival inkjet printing and the integration of found objects. This experimental style adds real and illusory depth to all the works, each reaching out into the viewer’s space in a disregard for the traditionally flat planes associated with painting.

One of his works, Ruling Lightly, is richly coloured with imperial purples, deep umbers, vermillion and cochineal reds which punctuate luminous auroras of white spray paint. Deeply grooved textures in each of the city maps loom like a maze above its base layer and the barely visible typefaces underneath turn into ancient texts faded through time. Traditionally, ‘shanshui’ (山水畫) – the art of mountains and water – with its emphasis on distance, height and depth, were meant to provoke a psychic state of dream-travel. Painting benevolent landscapes unchanged by time was considered the epitome of artistic achievement.

In an interview with Dan Byrne-Smith for the ‘British Science Fiction Association’, Cheung discusses his use of LSD and how this has influenced his work, “It blew my mind, literally. Before that point, reality was reality. When you interrupt the processes by which your brain constructs this, with a hallucinogen, suddenly everything appears as psychedelic colours, as patterns forming when you look at the grass, or the dappled light coming through leaves onto the ground turns into hexagonal shapes… That experience opened up the horizon… So, this widening of your perception, of your horizons, is something that I aspire to achieve with my paintings. To look at reality through a multi-faceted view. Not a fixed point. We have multiple ways of looking.” (1) This is more than evident in these works which are certainly trippy to behold, shifting and changing the more time the eye has to explore each idyll.

Gordon Cheung Roots Spring Wisdom 235 x 87 x 75cm courtesy Gordon Cheung Studio

During his studies at Central St Martins between 1995 and 1998, Cheung sought to create a new way of painting by incorporating newspapers in his work which, at the time, were freely available. Tabloids were big business in the mid-1990s, Windows 95 had just launched and the world was yet to be thrust full tilt into a world online. According to UK government statistics, the circulation of newspapers decreased from 13,189,000 in 1995 to just over 6,000,000 in 2017 (with numbers still falling all the time). Whilst Cheung was at university, the average person looked to newspapers for the majority of their information, with scores of publications printing thousands of daily editions. It is understandable that Cheung saw them as sites of exchange and dialogue that could be used as a conduit for his artistic expression. Today, the recycling of a slowly disappearing press speaks to both environmental and cultural concerns in that the disposable can be repurposed with a new meaning. The printed press is fundamental to all aspects of this exhibition, covering historic Chinese symbolism with Western Capitalist texts.

Ten ‘scholar’s rocks’, ranging from urn-sized to towering forms reaching floor to ceiling, are seemingly hewn from zitan wood or dark cinnabar; however, they are created by layering the aforementioned newspaper over a gnarled 3D printed armature. Hyper-modernism meets ancient China, traditional Gongshi (供石), a close relation to both the Korean ‘suseok’ and the Japanese ‘suiseki’, were sources of inspiration for Chinese artists, poets and scholars. Usually placed in areas where study was undertaken, including artist’s studios, they were prized for their aesthetic qualities and are linked to intensely deep contemplation. Standing in front of them means being mindful as the brain works out where things begin and end, a twisting form that must be regarded from multiple angles to be appreciated fully.

According to Robert D. Mowry ‘the rock represented a microcosm of the universe on which the scholar could meditate within the confines of his studio or garden.’ (2) Emerging first during the Tang Dynasty, they indicated spirituality, tying in with the teachings of Taoism and its relation to living in harmony with the natural world. Early Chinese belief hinged on looking inwards for paradise: somewhere in the highest mountains it was believed that there was a cave that exactly represented the world outside and in its centre was a stalactite that lactated the milk of contentment. Any rock that suggests a mountain, cave or stalactite became symbolically important – a world within a world on which the philosopher could ponder life’s greatest questions. The message that emanates from Cheung’s manufactured rocks then is that in modernity we are lost to finance as our higher calling, we worship at the altar of money, capital trumps the spiritual. It is a strong message that rings true in an age where we so readily forsake nature for ‘things’ and will exploit countries like China for their labour and resources without due care.

Gordon Cheung Liu Zongyuan‘s Mountain Window (山窗) 43 x 58cm courtesy Gordon Cheung Studio

The ‘scholar’s rocks’ share spiritual and aesthetic qualities with a series of window grilles alternating between paintings in delineated areas on the walls. They are a view to nothing, or so it seems, revealing and obscuring space with bamboo intersections. Much like “driftwood weathered” (3), the windows suggest a dislocation of both purpose and place. They do not belong here and yet here they are. As if wrenched from their hinges, each window directs the eye over the geometric patterning reminiscent of Chinese lettering and Zen Buddhist sculpture. It is no accident that the Chinese word for window translates to door in English and through every door is enlightenment according to Buddha. The ‘Dharma Gate of non-duality’, also commonly known as the three doors of liberation, constitute emptiness, signlessness and aimlessness. Once conquered, they allow liberation from fear and suffering; they are doorways to freedom.

If one of Cheung’s aims in creating this exhibition is to educate his fellow Britons about the many wrongs of their beloved empire, long since fallen, and the ways in which we can move on from prideful flag-waving to an inclusive and spiritually enlightened society, ready to offer reparations, return stolen goods and right historical wrongs then he has, in my opinion, achieved this. Alongside many artistic contemporaries of dual cultural heritage currently excelling at their craft, Cheung is laying the groundwork for a society ready for change that, together, can imagine new ways of living.

Gordon Cheung spray painting one of his works, photo: Richard Boll

All images: Gordon Cheung. The Garden of Perfect Brightness. The Atkinson. 2023

‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’ runs until Saturday 9 September 2023. For further details, please see:


(1) ‘Dan Byrne-Smith in conversation with Gordon Cheung’, Vector 293, Spring 2021

(2)  ‘Collecting Guide: Scholars’ rocks. The fantastically-shaped stones that have inspired China’s poets and painters.’ – Christie’s, 23 November 2015

(3)  ZOLiMA City Mag, ‘In His First Hong Kong Show, British Artist Gordon Cheung Explores the Meaning of Home’, December 5 2018, p. 1.

Posted on 1 August 2023 under Exhibition, General news

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