Final year degree project, Glasgow School of Art Singapore ( 2015 )
Truth speaks to those who recognise its origins, understand its character and appreciates the irony that lies beneath. Embodied by archetypal figures of international prominence, truth is exemplified by qualities of the colour white when worn. White fabricates truth, into narratives that transcend time, culture and religions, challenging canonical actuality.
“White Truth” is a work about the cultural symbolism of dress and how this impacts on our knowledge about people and the world. Dressing in white has long been a symbol that invests its wearer with recognised cultural virtues, such as purity, chastity and incorruptibility. This explains the role of white clothing in the traditions of religious painting, where artists commonly use white to visually identify religious figures. This artistic use of the colour white crosses various religions, forming a common element as a recognised metaphor for honesty and truthfulness.
This explains the traditional values of white dress as a representation of the base ideals of a common culture. Internationally respected figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa are identified by their white dress. In old westerns, the good guys always wear white. But in popular culture there are also iconic figures known for wearing white, where the colour acts in a very different way. For example, John Travolta and Elvis Presley donned white jumpsuits not to deify themselves or express honesty but to stand out on stage and camera, and in the process cut iconic figures that have retained in the cultural memory. Marilyn Monroe, in white dress, standing over the air vent in “The Seven Year Itch” is another example.
White may represent truth and purity, but has also been incorporated as an icon of popular culture, complicating its meanings. The cultural reading of white has only developed through these many instances of individuals known for the colour of their dress, but conversely we also need to recognise that the identity of these figures are also shaped by the broader cultural reading of white clothing, which begins to act as an indicator of what values they stand for – their pursuit of truths, or their ideals of purity, or their modesty. There is a reciprocal relationship between the person and the symbolism of their dress.
“White Truth” shows familiar figures from popular culture transposed into the famous artworks. The work is an experiment in popular meaning and visual symbolism. The works represent figures of popular culture such as Princess Diana, Audrey Hepburn from “My Fair Lady”, Björk and Gordon Ramsey, historical figures such as Queen Elizabeth I and Zheng He, and popular trademarks such as Colonel Sanders – all of whom are recognised through popular iconography as wearers of white. The characters are inserted into works such as Munch’s “Scream”, Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, and rendered in techniques that draw on the traditions of Renaissance panel painting.
This substitution of figures draws on well-established methods in the fine arts of appropriation, providing a different narrative for both the figures and the original works. The matching of figure and work plays on personal narratives of these figures in white and their interplay with the contexts and cultural mythology of the famous works of art. These are the figures in white, the bold and virtuous, the icons of their time, and we see them here through the lens of their dress. “White Truth” is an homage to the artworks of great masters and the powerful symbolism of white in contemporary culture.
The set of illustration aims to create a dialogue between the artist and audience, inviting them to perceive what they can of the truth it displays. However, after its installation in the venue of exhibition for degree show in Singapore, the work garnered attention in unintentional way. Certain pieces were deemed to be provocative and controversial; they had to be reworked or simply taken down. Blank spaces of these censored works lay between pieces deemed to be safe for public display, diluting the physical presence of its entirety, yet amplifying the simple message it communicated. Human nature sees what it wishes to, and believes the narratives it chooses to perceive, and that is the truth.