Is Ruben Pang A Magical Jellyfish? / Interview with Amnesia

Artist Ruben Pang (b. 1990) is deceptively hypnotic; his near monotone voice, a kind of cosmopolitan aloofness, mixes with an occasional mischievous laugh. Hiding underneath, or above, he is a medium himself. His secret is thus: his love for art, which is categorically transcendental, or to put it aphoristically, both intensely and deeply spiritual. In Pang, perhaps the quiddity of his father, a store display designer and Taoist exorcist mixes with that of his Catholic mother, a professor of fashion design; Pang is, as he puts it, “informed by my ancestors, and my parents are, of course, the central part of that lineage.” Never approaching, but always open, the Tao-like Pang moves effortlessly through the harsh art world like a jellyfish in the sea; two years before his thirtieth birthday, he’s approached an almost isomorphic vibration with every artistic project he pursues, yet the “amnesia of art, the amnesia of painting,” helpfully inoculates him against a distended (super) ego.

Until he was 7 years old, Pang was the only child; another child, the youngest, came when he was 9. Before the birth of his siblings, he says, “I didn’t have a concept of loneliness … I came up with little games to occupy myself. I took little cars, Hot Wheels, and smashed them together. I enjoyed the collision, the creation out of destruction. For example, I would build a castle with woodblocks over the toilet and then fill up a bucket with water and pour it over the castle, watching it crash like a tsunami.” Pang used watercolors early on, “I took all the colors and put them together, very messy. Also, I liked wasting things, especially paper, I loved breaking into a new stack of paper. When I was about 9, we lived on the 9th floor, and I threw an entire stack of paper out the window.” Splashing, wasting, watching, he showed early signs of an artistic comportment. For what is art but excess?  Pang laughs, “yes, I suppose, I loved listening to the sounds of music while drawing dinosaurs; I created fake dinosaurs that never existed; I saw a dinosaur that was an herbivore, I always saw that it was being eaten by other dinosaurs, so I wanted to arm it with sharp teeth and claws.”

Growing up in Singapore, as a teenager, he was exposed to and fell in love with racing video-games like Need for Speed and Fast and Furious. Recalling other games, “Interstate 76‘ and 82,‘ showed me this dystopian America, like Mad Max. I was attracted to movement, the machine guns, I had a lot of fun with that the idea of the road trip, one man in his car against the world.” Gradually, in late primary school, art became a more formal subject in the school.  In Singapore, art pedagogy is not as liberal as the (Dewey-based) ‘have fun with paint’ US curriculum for elementary school students. Pang recalls, “You cannot make what you want. You can’t make a mess. You have to work with the boundaries that the teachers set. The idea of self-expression wasn’t as complicated yet. In fact, I saw myself as finishing homework assignments, albeit fun homework.” Like Wojtek Więckowski, whom I interviewed late last year, Pang, says, “I picked up the classical guitar when I was about 13. I liked that it hurt a little bit; you can get this physical, tactile sensation, and you feel it in your head.” Also like Więckowski, Pang says he moved quickly toward “the electric guitar, and that’s when everything changed! I started to play songs from Guns and Roses, Led Zepplen, and AC/DC. My mom bought me the electric [guitar], only because I said I would play the Blues. But she knew, I think, I would move into harder stuff. I loved Nine Inch Nails.”

“I was in a Catholic School, and I would start to notice, I think because of all this musical dissonance against the system, I noticed people saying ‘peace be with you,’ and then bullying someone, I couldn’t stand this hypocrisy” he says flatly. I ask about growing up with a Taoist father and a Catholic mother, “Interfaith relationships are more common in Singapore, it is not that unusual for a Christian to marry a Muslim, and so on. I was baptized in the Catholic tradition.” As for his father, “Well, his ‘being’ Taoist is like being an artist. Yes, it is like being an artist. You are an artist when you show up. Same thing. In the West, the equivalent might be Stoicism, I think, you can choose to use it when you want to, you experience it, that’s your reality.” Throughout the two-hour Skype interview, Pang moves in circles of delightful tangents; his body and voice are like ambient music; as I make my notes, I am transfixed in a daze. Mystical yet secular, holding back yet open, he puts a spell on all those that find themselves within his assiduously yet effortlessly made shell. A shell-spell overcomes those that approach Pang; I wonder, perhaps this is why he’s been so lucky? Does he act as a medium, conjuring up our collective archetypes while sitting back like a detached alien spirit?

“The Totalitarian Sun” (2017) oil / alkyd on aluminium composite panel / synthetic varnish / Ruben Pang


“At 16, I went into to do my A-levels, between schools ‘I forgot everything,” Pang, still placid, conveys he, “desperately wanted out of that standard track. I would do music, design, anything but going done the standard route. While I have found over the years that using your mouth – if  you use it wisely – is very important, at the time I used the more common phrase, I wanted to use my hands, so I said to my parents, I need to use my hands, I want to work with my hands.” After a brief break occurs, because “the coffee is running through me” (it’s nearly 10pm), Pang continues, “the thing about my brain is that it is always spinning. I like to spin and then shut-off. I have a lot RAM but not a lot of storage space. The way you save this quickness, this amnesia, well it is through an object. I love the amnesia of painting.”  After three years at Art School, which was  “like an anchor,” Pang did his mandatory service for the Singaporean military, as a copy editor. Interestingly, he notes, “I am one person who has always been ridiculously lucky. To a large extent I feel like I haven’t been tested. Someone, I met on the day of my graduation from Art School, I was 19, well he became an owner of an art gallery. He asked ‘would you like to work with me?’ And so I did. Normally, working while you do national service is a no-no, but there are means around it for freelance art-work, and I had people who gave me, even in the highly regimented military, which is a part of an already highly regimented society, a degree of freedom.” Family comes up again, with Pang’s parents teaching him that “commitment meant that you eat, sleep and shit art. It is not just a job. These days I call it a job to protect myself. I need to hide how fucking seriously I take it. This has always been an element of survival. My faith in art and music is something that I downplay. I try to think of it as going by like the wind, and this allows me to take failure and set-back easier.” His first gallery exhibitions and connections to the art world happened through the Chan Hampe Galleries, founded by Benjamin Hampe, the man he met on the day of his graduation from Art School.

“Benjamin Hampe opened a lot of doors for me. He was starting out his own brand, in many ways we started out together and I was 19 years old, he was about 28.”

Later in Seattle, Washington, Pang’s works featured alongside the works of Francis Bacon, William De Kooning, Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Alberto Giacometti and Anish Kapoor. The 2015 exhibition,  From De Kooning to Kapor: The Figure in Process, Pang notes, “well, that was by invitation, and then here is the difficult part: The artistic ego can become inflated, and then one begins to expect that they will be placed next to greats. And then the art not longer is a pleasure but a burden. My family has overcome many things, we don’t ask for a lot of things, my parents don’t ask me to be a ‘great artist’ but to be a ‘useful person,” continuing, “this helped me, because when I went into the art world, I realized that people sought all these things, validation. It is easier because I have experienced validation and I have a firm ground from my parents, and a degree of achievement. I don’t want to defend my position as an artist. Defending a position is always work, bloody torture. If something great, like that exhibition, happens once, don’t expect it forever. That’s my advice to myself, and I guess it could be given to whoever cares to listen: whether you are an emerging or emerged artist, you experience both at the same time, exercise certain precautions; of course, there are what I call formatting issues, in terms of how to present oneself well.” Again Pang flows with the Way, he “shows up for events and I see my friends, and I am just happy to see them, because I wasn’t there to see a celebrity gallery owner, although I did make it clear to them that I wanted to work with them,” pausing he asks for another break, after a few minutes he returns, floating back to the camera, “You should never expect anyone to give a damn about you do … they are free to not give a fuck.” Coming from a place of refrain, Pang lets the world swirl around him, the art world is just a part of a larger cosmos, albeit one that is central to his life.

The piece above, The Totalitarian Sun, is what drew my eye to Pang’s oeuvre. Truly striking, it manifests an alien quasi-intelligibility; uncannily we both know and don’t know what we are looking at. Evoking distant nebula, images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the piece also has elements of Bacon’s deft prestidigitation; Pang’s long nimble fingers (present in the camera) are present in their absence from the work; the piece is a large triptych, the physicality of the artist-in-process fades via a sapient, eloquent felicity with the work itself. Emergent strokes on ground aluminum, the three pieces sit side-by-side. The splashing of youth has been adroitly contoured into what I call The Three Alien Spirits, my permuted title for this piece. Pang explains, “It’s got depth, three dimensional, yes, but also laid out in a linear form. When I was making it, I was reading Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom.  I am very fascinated about what I think is our inherent totalitarianism. In fact, it is our powerlessness as artists [that] leads us to enforce an authoritarian figure. The powerlessness of the artist is what makes them authoritarian. Prestigious institutions enclose this; snobbery is a form of authoritarianism in my opinion.”

“When I was making it, I was reading Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom.  I am very fascinated about what I think is our inherent totalitarianism. In fact, it is our powerlessness as artists leads us to enforce an authoritarian figure. The powerlessness of the artist is what makes them authoritarian. Prestigious institutions enclose this; snobbery is a form of authoritarianism in my opinion.”

Pang resumes, “I intentionally create an effect, and then there is a part of the work where it is totally clueless and honest. Basically, set up the game so that it is even challenging for yourself. A lot of it is first time experience. Like a joke, the first time you hear a joke is like painting; how do you know that something is precious? Totalitarian Sun is a memory of my experiences in painting; an epic explosion, I think that’s what some of us need, an explosion within ourselves; it’s fine to be violent as long as it is not directed at anyone, you know, like smashing two Hot Wheels cars together and pouring water over the castle. Eventually this art piece will sit in modest regional museum in Italy, and that will be its home.” An admixture of dissonance/rebellion and discretion/refrain, Pang’s work, although not explicitly political, draws from the deep well of exposure, engagement and criticism.

Pang is stationed as an artist-in-residence in Vestfossen, a village in the municipality of Øvre Eiker, in Norway. He’s creating a mural called The Mouth for an upcoming exhibition Contemporary Chaos, which will also feature work by the famous Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky; he focuses on industrialism’s impact on nature. Pang floats effortlessly above these effects, although he is embedded in them. Like Burtynsky’s aerial shots of lithium mines in Chile, Pang seems to see the world from a plane, or rather is stationed on a plane, a line, of existence that is slightly out of sync with consensual reality; privileges and power intermingle with spirit and refrain, where one ends and the other begins, I will let the reader decide.

Speaking of activists, Pang notes, “There are artists who sacrifice, who make sacrifices for a cause … and I have great respect for them, they are genuine artists who need, sometimes need, what would you call it, well hysterics, to shock and draw attention to a particular subject matter. I am more in the tradition of Bacon, his tender, vulnerable, sincerity, and I ask where did he have faith? He comes across as a person who is very dismissive about anything spiritual. Because, and I think I understand, from own perspective, like he would say, put so much into one stroke, the sacred touch, that you put life into that touch; there are no amendments; that’s a rule he had for himself; perhaps it is also is expressed in his masochism, his gambling, his desperate quirks. Don’t we all have elements of this, we all have quirks, we all need a means of catharsis.”

Ruben Pang / working on a mural, The Mouth (2018)


Pang expands on his work, “my body wants to be in flow and resistance, instead of pure resistance I attain oscillation.” I immediately note that his body is both there and not there. Is he a magical jellyfish? He continues, “the more I paint, this is something that the language of painting has taught me: it’s like race car driving, the steering wheel is pointed in the wrong direction from the direction the car is going, when you slide. There is an art of presenting yourself, an art of managing your career, and all of that is a very different art than with making a thing.” He laughs, “I just like to tinker. I like to hear my friends tell me this is good, or crap, etc. Because my career is in such a good place, I don’t have to fight for things.”

Motionless, he moves.

. . .



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