Cabins and Canoes: The Unreasonable Silence of the World (30 March to 24 June) at Faurschou Foundation in Beijing is the first solo exhibition in China dedicated to Peter Doig and features some of his most celebrated paintings, including Swamped (1990), The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), and Daytime Astronomy (1997-8). The paintings are juxtaposed with excerpts from Albert Camus’ writings that question the condition of human experience, in a manner that echoes and complements Doig’s practice.
‘It was an incredible experience to put this show together,’ explains curator Francis Outred, who was taught by Peter Doig at Chelsea College of Arts in the early 1990s, and is now Chairman and Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s. ‘After months of dreaming about how it could be realised, the proportions of the space were perfectly formed for the paintings. It felt like you were entering a special world. Peter Doig is a hero to many artists in China, but most have never seen the work before.’
Peter Doig was born in 1959 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is one of the most important painters of our time. He spent most of his childhood in Canada, studied in London, and has lived in Trinidad since 2002. ‘His disjointed past lies at the heart of his work,’ Outred says. ‘It finds its keenest expression in two persistent strands of imagery: the cabins and the canoes.’
These recurring motifs, however, represent more than reflections on Doig’s itineracy. ‘Ultimately, they are the vehicles through which he seeks to dramatise the workings of memory itself,’ Outred comments. ‘Filtered through disparate sources and myriad layers of brushwork, they bring about a slippage between painterly, personal and fictional histories.’
Daytime Astronomy (1997-98), a centrepiece of the exhibition, captures a moment of revelation when, as a 17-year-old boy working on Canada’s wide-open Western plains, Doig first began to contemplate the void that separates man from the world around him. A symphony in paint, the surface of Daytime Astronomy projects the hallucinogenic experience of not only watching the sky — but also of remembering it.
The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991) depicts the home of architect Eberhard Zeidler, which can be barely glimpsed through an intricate tangle of branches. The building’s presence is deeply unsettling: an unexpected trace of human life that provokes a primal, voyeuristic discomfort in the viewer. Like memory itself, it is a perpetually moving target: one that preys upon our psyche while resisting all attempts to unravel it.
The canoes also function as metaphors for memory. However, if the cabins embody the human struggle to recapture specific moments, the canoes are vehicles for re-enacting drifting states of consciousness.
Swamped (1990) depicts a shifting boat and its lone inhabitant subsumed by a swirling painterly vortex that disperses like cloud formations across the surface. The canoe gleams from the midst of a lagoon, illuminated by the white glow of the moon above. Around it, Doig weaves a surging pool of matter that moves seamlessly between lucid reality and abstract delusion.
‘Perhaps,’ concludes Outred, ‘the cabins and canoes go beyond their original function as motifs, structures and metaphors. They are, fundamentally, spaces — demarcated sections of the canvas through which we attempt to engage with its complex painterly narratives. They are spaces without clear beginnings or ends, and spaces that will never resolve into concrete realities. But they are spaces through which we can journey, and spaces that — like the most powerful memories — might temporarily bring us home.’
In the first weekend of the show queues snaked around the block from the Faurschou Foundation, illustrating the intense interest in seeing Doig’s work. ‘I hope the exhibition will have a big impact, particularly on young painters,’ says Outred. ‘Looking around town, many artists seem to be working in new media, but I hope this will inspire the young painters to believe in painting again.’
Faurschou Foundation is a privately owned art institution with venues in Copenhagen’s North Harbour, Denmark, and Beijing’s art district, 798