Two images side by side. The image on the left is of an oil painting on canvas in which the entire canvas is covered in crimson paint that varies in shade. The entire surface is covered in sinuous lines created by fingers moving through the paint. The image on the right shows an artwork installed in a gallery space. The work consists of multiple digital screens combined to create one large screen. On the screen is an animated creature with a bright red, spiky, serpentine body. Small objects fall through the air and land around the creature. Two people, one of whom is holding up a smartphone, stand watching the screens.

How Did You Two Meet? Uncovering Hidden Connections Between M+’s Visual Artworks

How did you two meet? is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our spin on this recipe at M+. Our How did you two meet? recipe goes like this: Pick two seemingly disconnected objects in the M+ Collections, usually by juxtaposing some of the oldest and newest objects, and narrate a story that connects them.

Pauline J. Yao, M+ Lead Curator, Visual Art, was challenged with connecting two of the oldest and newest visual artworks that will be on view when we open to the public next year. Below, we share the result of this ‘meeting’.

One of the oldest visual artworks that will be on display: Red III (Aka no samban) (1954) by Shiraga Kazuo

Oil painting on canvas in which the entire canvas is covered in crimson paint that varies in shade. The entire surface is covered in sinuous lines created by fingers moving through the paint.

Shiraga Kazuo, Red III (Aka no samban), 1954. Oil on canvas. M+, Hong Kong. © Shiraga Kazuo

Pauline J. Yao: Red III (Aka no samban) by Shiraga Kazuo (1924–2008) belongs to a small group of crimson-coloured paintings that Shiraga made using his body—specifically, his hands and fingers. He produced few of these during his lifetime, and even fewer are known to exist today.

Shiraga Kazuo belongs to one of the most important art collectives to emerge in Japan’s post-war era: the Gutai Art Group (also known as the Gutai Art Association). Their core principle was to engage physically with materials and to create a dialogue between action and matter. Seeking a new approach to painting, they embraced total abstraction by directing attention towards process and the act of making.

Monochrome photograph of artist   in his studio. Holding on to a rope that hangs from the ceiling, he sweeps his feet through paint in the middle of a large canvas lying on the floor.

Shiraga Kazuo painting with his feet and using ropes in his studio. Courtesy: Amagasaki Cultural Foundation

Shiraga became known primarily for making paintings with his feet—one of the few parts of his body, he realised, that hadn’t been trained in traditional Japanese Nihonga painting. Using his feet freed him from the conventions of painting that he’d been taught and allowed him to physically enter the space of the artwork. Similarly, for his performance piece Challenge to the Mud (1955), he immersed his body and thrashed about in a large pile of mud.

Red III (Aka no samban), from 1954, is an early work that Shiraga made using his fingers and fingernails. From there, he moved on to using his palms and, eventually, his feet. These initial works marked the beginning of a lifelong quest to insert his body into the process of art-making.

Close-up of an oil painting on canvas in which the entire canvas is covered in crimson paint that varies in shade. The surface is covered in sinuous lines created by fingers moving through the paint.

Close-up of Shiraga’s Red III (Aka no samban). Shiraga Kazuo, Red III (Aka no samban), 1954. Oil on canvas. M+, Hong Kong. © Shiraga Kazuo

Close-ups show the action and movement of his fingers and fingernails scraping the paint surface—you can feel the energy of his entire body channelled into just his fingertips. You can also see cracks in the painting that he decided to leave in to embrace the idea of spontaneity.

One of the newest visual artworks that will be on display: BOB (Bag of Beliefs) (2018–2019) by Ian Cheng

Artwork installed in a gallery space. The work consists of multiple digital screens combined to create one large screen. On the screen is an animated creature with a bright red, spiky, serpentine body. Small objects fall through the air and land around the creature. Two people, one of whom is holding up a smartphone, stand watching the screens.

Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2018–2019. Digital simulation. M+, Hong Kong. © Ian Cheng. Installation on display in Venice. Photo: Andrea Rossetti [Instagram Andrea_Rossetti_Archive]

Fast-forwarding almost seventy years, we have a work by Ian Cheng (b. 1984). Cheng is a Chinese-American artist who creates computer-generated artworks that mutate and evolve. He’s inspired by video game design and cognitive science, and he merged these disparate fields to create BOB (Bag of Beliefs). BOB is a sentient creature who lives inside a set of screens—a sort of digital terrarium, if you will.

Artwork installed in a gallery space. The work consists of multiple digital screens combined to create one large screen. On the screen is a white space in which mushrooms, stains, and several other objects are scattered. Numerous small points with text are visible on screen.

Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2018–2019. Digital simulation. M+, Hong Kong. © Ian Cheng. Installation on display in Venice. Photo: Andrea Rossetti [Instagram Andrea_Rossetti_Archive]

BOB responds to directives and actions from the audience. To interact with BOB, you download an app onto your phone. The app acts as a shrine, with charms that you can send along with little instructions. Audiences can see the snake-like creature represented on screen as a life form that moves and jumps to grab the different charms. As BOB responds and reacts to these directives, this behaviour evolves and changes. Cheng uses forms of AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning so that BOB’s actions are not fully predictable.

Cheng is, in creating this work, keen to explore the human capacity for change. He also explores the idea of creating a holistic world that starts preprogrammed and then goes in its own direction, walking the line between chaos and order.

How are these objects connected?

These works may seem to be worlds apart. You have something as traditional as an abstract painting from the 1950s next to a 21st-century digital simulation. But there is an underlying thread that connects them: the idea of interaction. Both artists embrace the concept of action and movement as a means to disrupt normal ways of art-making, and both are deeply invested in inventing new visual languages. With Shiraga, the artist physically inserts his body into the art-making process. With Cheng, although the interaction is not physical and may feel remote, there is still a direct sense of touch as you interact with BOB through your smartphone or tablet.

Both artists also incorporate an interesting dimension of playfulness into their works. At the end of the day, they are both taking risks and doing things that haven’t been done before, and, in that sense, trying to redefine the way we think about art.

A video in which two curators, each speaking via video chat, hold a presentation accompanied by a slideshow.

Video of the full How did you two meet? online programme.

Read other blog posts in this series. Learn more about painting and digital art on M+ Stories.

The above talk has been edited for clarity.


Image at the top: Left to right: Shiraga Kazuo, Red III (Aka no samban), 1954. Oil on canvas. M+, Hong Kong. © Shiraga Kazuo. Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2018–2019. Digital simulation. M+, Hong Kong. © Ian Cheng. Installation on display in Venice. Photo: Andrea Rossetti [Instagram Andrea_Rossetti_Archive]

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