Mark Chu is an Australian painter with a multidisciplinary background. A pianist in his adolescence, Mark recorded and performed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and West Australia Symphony Orchestra. He later worked as a restaurant critic for The Good Food Guide, published fiction in The Lifted Brow, then moved to New York City to pursue a fiction MFA at Columbia. In a recent essay in EuropeNow, Mark pushed for aesthetics to promote deeper values in restaurants. In the last six years, Mark has committed to his painting practice, with a focus on abstract faces. He has exhibited internationally, across Melbourne, New York City and Shanghai, having been photographed for The New York Times. Mark contributed to the Atlantic City Arts Foundation’s urban renewal projects through public art, addressing community art education and infrastructural blight after the economic downturn. Recently, Mark has expanded his disciplinary breadth through studying Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute and now engages scientific research in his art practice.
Abbigail N. Rosewoood: In a podcast interview, you said that if you could, you would be a professional friend, naming it one of your passions. In an essay on friendships, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote that “there was nothing more difficult than for two people to remain friends until the end of their lives.” What is your longest lasting friendship? What makes it work? Have you ever had a friend that ceases to be a friend? Is there a difference between being a friend to a living person versus a dead one, or being a friend to a plant, a fish, a sheet of music?
Mark Chu: Friendship is a pretty murky term, and a bit like the word love, it refers to different things for different people. But it’s generally agreed that friendship refers to a level of affection and a term of shared experience. I’m quite driven to be emotional but also to be analytic, and I think my analytic side has made friendship simple because I easily deconstruct and optimize.
For several years, my closest friends were males of a similar age, and we all shared an attraction to joy, which may be universal to youth. Superficially, this joy often revolved around making each other laugh, but the humor also became a consolidation of a group identity. My friends and I shared a fantasy for appearing perceptive and intelligent, but still “in touch” and enforcing everyday instincts, which is a very Australian trait. Whether we actually had any of these qualities was another matter. Where there was tension was when individuals were unique, strong willed, or unsure about their individual identity. Group dynamics can stifle self-fulfillment as what gives life to the group can detract from an individual. In my case, my sense of the philosophical, my personal habits—like not enjoying to shower or keep fit, and perhaps some notions about romance or family—were quite different to my milieu.
I’ve had many profound long-lasting friendships—I can probably call these the lovers of my life. I recall them almost daily, parsing over advice that snagged on my ego, or the changing shape of friendship constellations. Sometimes I relive sublime moments. Perhaps part of what keeps friendships alive is the need to stoke their memories frequently. I also happen to be greedy for friendship and have barely ever lost meaningful ones. Several of my best friends I made when I was four, and our mutual personalities heavily shaped our lives. With ancient friends, sometimes there are aspects of my recent life that aren’t open to them; I know the converse is true. We have different value systems and surrounds, and it frustrates me when their level of empathy doesn’t extend to the boundaries of my beliefs. But, I’ve found most people enjoy considering themselves more similar to those nearby than different, and enjoy to mirror experiences with a level of similarity. I enjoy much greater variety around me. Sadly, this comes with a contradiction because enjoying variety is a norm I tend to enforce didactically and sometimes with a bad temper. Both ways of life have pretension, but it’s been historically socially cohesive to cultivate nearness to a perceived social center, and therefore, similarity. As we enter a globalized world, that clan mentality will broaden. As someone with a more outlying personality, I don’t know the comfort of being one whose home is the middle, who perpetuates social middles, and is blanketed by the luxuries of the middle’s blinkers and barricades. My position here is reinforced by other atypical beliefs, like a rejection of the concept of “unconditional” love. Indeed, I consider the unconditional love within families one of the greatest scourges of modern life, just as I consider nationalism or other faith-based normativity ugly. I suppose the structure of friendships can act to galvanize normativity, or normalize open-mindedness, and I’ve been lucky to travel through life exposed to friends who broadened my horizons.
Cicero was probably too busy to pour resources into maintaining friendships, but perhaps he also had unrealistic expectations from what he could get from them and naive views on the necessity of similarity between friendships.
AR: What does it mean to optimize friendships?
MC: To optimize anything, you have to be motivated and have an ambition. Friendship isn’t typically an arena where people are comfortable articulating ambition. Ambition usually connotes things like job promotions, not the variety of people one associates with. I think this is because people generally revere categories like friendship, family, and love too much to ponder them analytically, as if analysis is exploitation. But I can’t help but see these crucial aspects of humanity as rife for design.
I don’t think you have to be ambitious in friendship to optimize it—to be a great friend to someone. Having a great experience together involves participation over motivation or comprehension, and I’d compare friendship to something like two strangers dancing in a nightclub, where both are likely to have arrived at their manner of dancing through totally different histories. If they dance well together, that’s all that’s needed to make the dance profound; the feeling is everything. When the dancers return home, reflections on the dance don’t necessarily affect its poignancy, although, of course, mismatched perceptions can create tension, and the wrong type of self-awareness can make future dancing awkward. However, some are reflective and others simply aren’t, but this doesn’t intrinsically govern whether a person can be a good friend or not. Much of friendship doesn’t pertain to thinking, but for me, thinking isn’t difficult, so I like to think about the types of positive experiences I can have with people. There are those friends who require mutual acknowledgement, but I think that’s a stubborn way to be a friend, and self-involved. Friendship isn’t about dictating the foundational traits of others—it’s about enjoying them. Thinking about what you can both enjoy helps.
If you’re generous and have the means to be generous, it’s easy to make friends. Note, those means of generosity are a luxury, like time, effort, and chattel. As a crude example, most young people occasionally enjoy to be drunk and the act of befriending is oiled by buying someone an extra drink. The drinking is a metaphor; some like to be drunk on drama, or drunk on compliments, or drunk on academic discourse—so giving them what they desire will always bring the moment momentum. The fundamental unit of a friendship is the moment, followed by time, then times, then history.
AR: How do you make friends? Do you consider yourself a good friend? What makes a good friend, do you think? Friendships is one of my most painful struggles either due to expectations, selfishness, or profound misunderstandings. Do you try to understand your friends and do they understand you? Is it important to be understood by human friends? It seems we don’t ask the same of a bonsai. You mention generosity: what does it mean to be generous in friendships?
MC: I like to quickly ask personal or risqué questions to strangers; I like being friends with people who are generous not only in what they create in a conversation, but in how revelatory they’re willing to be of their history and their views. This takes confidence, so I tend to be attracted to confident people. How you shake raw opinions out of someone is a manipulation, and I feel at ease manipulating people for insights. It often involves making them believe they’re getting the optimized participation from me. So, to optimize yourself sometimes requires the perception of being optimized. If this seems sociopathic, at least it’s fulfilling. I like knowing a broad set of personality types and aspire to keep the company of disparate characters. This isn’t a trait everyone has the privilege of reinforcing, but it makes it easier to understand people if you expect them and want them to be different. Similarly, the types of things you’re willing to do, experientially, also govern your ability to make novel friends. What you’re willing to do is likely predetermined by what you have done—I’m not talking skydiving, I’m talking body language, inflection in verbal tone, dress cues, cultural cues—and through good fortune, I’ve had a breadth of experiences. Being in creative fields helps this. Pairing that organic breadth with a conscious drive to engineer breadth—particularly that which transcends class boundaries—has taught me the importance of fluency and strategy in cues across differing environments and hopefully given me not only flexibility but dexterity across milieus. I think most people are intrinsically many people bundled into one—think of how different you are around your friends versus grandparents—and it’s a natural way to self-realize by being plural. Whether or not someone understands me isn’t really my concern, because they may not want to, which is fine by me. I also happen to understand bonsai fairly well: water them but not too much.
AR: What are some misconceptions about friendships?
MC: One conventional element of friendship that I avoid is that of having a shoulder to cry on and also extracting advice. Most people are not experts on wisdom⎯that includes best friends, parents, siblings—and indeed, though it’s an ugly thing to say, most people are foolish at solving serious quandaries in life, like love, vocation, civic duty. If I want a big life problem solved, I turn to experts, just as I would for plumbing. There is expertise in philosophical works or literature. The knowledge there simultaneously galvanizes my utter detestation of folk wisdom, a favorite instrument of demagogues. When I hear folk wisdom among my friends, I try to find humor in it or veer the conversation away, although I’ve occasionally been bogged down by depressing arguments of a folk nature. This is one of the unredeeming elements of friendship, that it perpetuates anti-rigorous anti-knowledge. I don’t think folk stupidity is mandatory to friendship because comfort doesn’t have to come from faith-based folk wisdom. But for now, the Enlightenment project is far from its end, and most people relish the demented futility of a common sense lacking in sense. Friendship can be a zone where such bunkum thrives, though I hope not a friendship with me.
AR: I’ve learned of late to seek advice from friends not because I want from them solutions to life’s quandary, but because I saw how much it mattered to them that I express myself as someone who also needs help. I think my preference to seek wisdom from means outside of friendships has made me come off as too independent or superior, though that is hardly the case. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that I should ask for help whether or not I actually need it because it is expected in conventional friendships. I’m conscious then that the bond manifested is artificial but feel that it is also unavoidable, a prerequisite. This is why friendships can sometimes seem a bit like theater to me.
I’m not sure I agree with conventional friendships requiring the performance of requiring aid, though they often contain it—this could be a difference between Australians and Americans? Genuine help on the other hand seems relevant to friendship, and here I think physical help is underrated. I’d much rather a friend who helped me sweep than sweep away my sorrows.
If I may generalize, Australians claim to reject, as you call it, theater on an interpersonal level. This might be a national performance, but I think it’s healthy! I’ve often been disappointed by Americans’ acquiescence to the interpersonally artificial. Maybe American elites are proud of what they create of their own identity, rather than what they innately are. I say what they create and not who because many American elites are not proper whos. To be a who is to be a subject that has a unique consciousness and personal experiences, and it has been my experience that, particularly above the middle class, the erosion of uniqueness is one of America’s top ambitions, a talent that goes hand in hand with her ability to invent a tiny number of highly unique individuals whom everyone copies; personality by franchise. This relationship between the outlying and the uniform is the blueprint of trend-based consumer culture.
A.R.: I completely agree that physical help is underrated. Acting as a surrogate mother, for example, would be an ultimate gesture of friendship. I feel like we could continue discussing this topic for a long time, but I have many more questions for you. You studied at the Santa Fe Institute: in your application for entry, you stated that you seek to “research the measurable metrics of art, as they are presented in current scientific literature and as a concept to be expanded and questioned. With such metrics established, subsequent research may reveal conceptions of the network structure(s) and dynamic system(s) of art as a whole, and whether art is a complex adaptive system.” What did you find in your research? Do you think that establishing a quantitative framework of art might be at odds with the unpredictable varieties and facets of our human condition, the very varieties that so appeal to you? I feel that quantifying art would risk its ability to surprise and delight, as well as stunt its freedom to evolve. I suppose the sublime has been defined by Edmund Burke, so that’s one way of quantifying. I do find his definition useful. Is there room for mystery in a theoretical measurable metrics of art? Can mystery be a part of that equation?
MC: I think we may begin to speak at cross-purposes in regards to mystery and prediction, so I’ll make an assertion in the spirit of clarity: that which is mysterious or unknown lies beyond, let’s say, a line. Shifting that line—through inquiry—so that the unknown and the unpredictable becomes known and predictable in no way lessens or limits that which is beyond the line, that which is unknown and mysterious. Quite the opposite, I believe. Knowing those things which were recently intangible means we engage the creative act of altering the frontier of what is intangible, engaging in more delightful and pressing frontiers. The shift into modernism, or subsequent shift into postmodernism are such examples. Medical discovery follows this route. So when it comes to, for instance, asking conversational questions that are risqué by social conventions, these aren’t inherently risqué. When I invite someone else to disregard social conventions, I’m implicitly asking for the private establishment of a new set of conventions, one with unique boundaries, which I hope we can expand together. All intimacy has a similar structure to this. Novel expansion projects like this are fundamental to art, which has as one of its core pursuits the discovery of the new. Notably, finding that which is mysterious but not commonly known to be mysterious is much more intriguing than that which is commonly labeled as mysterious—in other words, clichés of mystery. A desirable mystery straddles the known and unknown, though that straddling itself may too be a mystery.
One conflation in popular discourse is that of mistaking the yet to be known with that which is of no interest to be known, and indeed, deliberately made murky. When people use the word mysterious, often they mean that they are interested in preserving a lack of clarity, though at times that obfuscation is justified. For instance, some people are against deconstructing art because the act of deconstructing may irreversibly damage some sanctified property. Maybe the same can be said about sexual pleasures too. But, whether sanctity ought to be broken discourse, perhaps, is a different concern to whether mysteries should be demystified. I can see why people want sanctity in their lives. The details of one’s family members’ genitals perhaps encroaches on this sanctified space—otherwise known as taboos. But personally, I have an appetite for pondering taboos. For broader intellectual health, taboos seem worthwhile to understanding. It’s also important to separate the general population’s behaviors from those who want to be knowledgeable. To an individual, the act of denuding a topic may erase its pleasure—for instance, it’s not terribly romantic to deconstruct romance and rarely funny, although occasionally humorous, to break apart a joke. But gaining knowledge is not driven by pleasure alone, and analysis is a great tool for denuding mysteries.
AR: What happens when metrics get computerized so that artificial intelligence can churn out art, instantaneously, more sublime, more precise, profound, and effective than anything artists can achieve in a lifetime? Perhaps I am skeptical of any system that strives to definitively outline what seems to me to be intangible—the word eugenics comes to mind. When that succeeds, will art and art-making still be relevant?
MC: Knowing the metrics of art seeks general principals. Insofar as mathematical principles led to the creation of immaculate Gothic churches, 3D laser printers, elegant sports cars, and nuclear weapons, it seems uncontroversial that agreed-upon principles in art may optimize art’s creative and functional potential. What might be created by better formed principals of art is itself a great mystery.
With each principal gained—such as Burkian sublimity—the door to mystique is unlocked, for mystique often pertains to that liminal space of interpretation that cannot be proven, as opposed to a mystery, which asks to be solved. In pondering whether something is or isn’t sublime—or how sublime it is—that’s where mystique emerges, only made possible by the use of the metric implied by sublimity. If sublimity was quantified, mystique might lessen along this metric, but knowledge would be gained. It’s worth mentioning illnesses once had mystique they no longer have.
We use metrics all the time, often by simply articulating the presence or non-presence of something. Most adjectives establish a univariable analysis as well as an appraisal along that variable’s axis: the cold water, the disgusting food, the enchanting breakdancing. Enchantment, sublimity, beauty, or other such high-level qualities are simply multiple variables that have been condensed into one variable via a word, but their meaning is still bounded, and within that boundedness, contains infinitesimal variations. For instance, everyone knows that to call breakdancing enchanting has little to do with temperature, though the exact shade of enchantment is nuanced, contextual, and potentially challenging to pinpoint—though I’m sure breakdancing judges sometimes do. I consider such understandings of language and metrics to be profound, though I accept most people are interested in the use of language rather than its properties and find it banal or even anal to strip apart what constitutes enchantment. Banality is ultimately another metric that is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s certainly no shortage of banality when it comes to modern life, a defining feature of life in the 2000s.
I think conventionally creative people don’t like words like metric, probably because they take pride in rejecting numeracy out of a prejudice against the exploitative and shallow nature of quantitative fields like commerce and, so much more vile, advertising. But this is a blind spot, not being able to separate the sublime elegance of mathematical adventure from the mere capitalist driving force of gains. There are great chasms between that which has been predicted, that which is easily predicted, that which is yet to be predicted, and that which is truly unpredictable. What interests me, aside from demarking those spaces, is predicting that which is yet to be predicted, and I don’t consider any topic taboo for this quest.
AR: You have an amazingly sharp manner of articulating things, quickly packaging many variables into a cohesive argument. Though I don’t agree with quite a few things, like calling something mysterious simply because one has no interest in it—I’m both deeply interested in mysteries and willing to name it a mystery—I appreciate your linguistic and cerebral somersaults. Have you ever considered becoming a lawyer? Has intellectual discourse always been natural to you or how have you developed your tools? Where would you point an eager student who wishes to acquire these abilities?
MC: To wrap up on mysteries, I’ll have to take your word that you genuinely embrace mystery, but realists know most people don’t. The bar for spontaneity these days is as low as surprising someone with flowers or going on a surprise trip. In other words, engaging something conventionally pleasurable. True mystery involves the emotional or the physical unknown, and therefore, risk. Old friends might be the opposite of risk?
When I was nine, the first job I wanted was to be a criminal lawyer. To borrow your metaphor of somersaults, when it comes to linguistic or mental movements, I naturally take the view of a choreographer of a great number of gymnasts, rather than the headspace of one. I value social trends over individual perceptions. I think social thinking lends itself to intellectuality of a kind and must acknowledge multiple viewpoints. To this point, I don’t think I’d be a great lawyer because though I can search out landscapes of ideas, I’m no good at finding solutions in a limited space, and all lawyers are limited by the space of the law. Side note: why is the law so up itself? What an unjust imperial hangover that judges are up on their pedestals. A part of me respects judges, but to be a judge is a fucking joke too, and I respect anyone who says that to their faces.
On a calmer note, I did consciously develop rhetorical tools, mostly through engaging robust conversations, socially or at home. Also through listening to lectures by astute thinkers, like Slavoj Zizek or Chris Hitchens, to learn their way of thinking, not their opinion, and by reading fine and inventive prose, like Toni Morrison’s or Hannah Arendt’s.
AR: There is a trending notion that artists should also be activists. What do you think? And if you don’t subscribe, how do you suggest countering it productively?
MC: Although many people seem to enjoy being an activist, to me, activism is more something that one does. I’m not interested in asserting goodness or social improvement as an identity, but I do incorporate social improvement into my life, though I consciously don’t push it on others. Nagging is usually futile and when it isn’t, what it induces can be hollow. On the topic of activism, though, I think the treatment of Black Americans currently and historically is as equally great an abomination in human history as the Holocaust, but a lot of the ‘activist’ discourse—mostly perpetuated by non-Black people—is junk and self-serving. But, I am unlikely to make art about Black Americans’ disenfranchisement, and it would be patently racist to assert that a Black American ought to.
Though an inherent component, the subject of an artwork is not art’s main force. Simplistically, Monet’s paintings aren’t good because they’re about lilies; it’s the way he paints them and what that provokes. The trending notion of activist art seems to be more about subjects or commentary than any emergent properties of how an artist handles a subject through aesthetics. I have been moved and impressed by great art that asserts social ideas, like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Nonetheless, I’m not sold that social improvement and art-making necessarily go hand in hand. Visual art that addresses social issues are ultimately still pieces of visual art. But great visual art tends not to unpoison water or shelter the homeless. I think artists should spend time doing social work or becoming lawmakers or education reformists. Each field ought to do what each field does best. Art is always wrapped up in ego and exaltation, and it’s pretty outrageous that some social activist artists galivant around museums and consider that superior to, say, being a doctor and volunteering in underserved communities. And to say art spreads the message is to call art advertisement, which art is not. Social activist artists tend to advocate two things at once: art and activism. But to me, activism is done most efficiently by exactly and only that. Maybe I don’t revere art enough. To me, art is not so great that if all other pains were relieved in society, without art, we would still suffer immensely. The world doesn’t have to have artists. Maybe I am one because I’m too cowardly and indulgent to devote my life to the public?
AR: I picture a world in which everyone has to do someone else’s vocation for a year: a gardener has to make national laws solely based on her knowledge of the inner life of plants, an artist has to detonate buildings and burn down forests, a politician has to relinquish desire, trim the toenails of wild boars while meditating. What would be your alternative vocation in this utopian world?
MC: If in a dystopian world I was forced to have another job, I suppose it could be a cruel world, where they give you the opposite of what you’re good at, or a benevolent one, where they pair your skills with your past. In the cruel world, they’d put me in a labor camp. Every time I carry my laundry bag to the laundry five blocks away, I realize how hellish it would be for me to use my body manually every day. I have huge admiration for builders who fling about huge planks of wood as they crack jokes and holler. Builders seem indifferent to splinters, but if you’re a pianist, a splinter in your finger really matters. I started life as a pianist, so I’m a bitch to splinters. In the benevolent dystopia, I’d be reassigned as a rabbi or a psychologist, though I’m not saying I’d be any good, or that good ones are even common. To be a rabbi or a psychologist, you have to believe you are predisposed to being insightful and also engage rigor to attain greater insights. This faith-based self-reflective arrogance is also what’s needed to be an artist. It’s probably also what it takes to be a dictator, which is not so different from an activist really, just that the dictator works on a larger scale with much greater effect.
AR: You are working on a big collection of art work based on the demise of retailers: What drew you to this topic? Does your work tend to make social/political comments? What is the relationship between law-making and art-making?
MC: My next show is about retailers, but I wouldn’t want viewers to have a strong political or social take-away from the work. Program notes may offer commentary, and I’ll have my own thoughts provoked by the period making the artworks, but the artworks themselves won’t include didactic messaging. I’m more interested in stapling my version of aesthetic creativity with a topic that seems devoid of artistry. Perhaps, in a sense, from the outset, this could be seen as a social statement. Places like malls have a bad reputation for being superficial and commercial, a reputation they have earned, but it interests me to turn an artistic eye to such a subject, to see what artistic interest comes from such places of, in large part, mediocrity. I have an obsession with mediocrity and engage in an ongoing search for something I call mediocrity porn. Malls are havens for mediocrity porn. For example, when you see someone’s leftover food court meal, it gives me this deep shiver born out of featurelessness that is so key to the human experience. It kind of turns me on? Though life has peaks and troughs, a lot of it is hyper-banal. I like to wring some feeling out of that banality, even if that feeling is a tawdry voyeuristic delight, though in a sense, pornographizing mediocrity seeks to eradicate it too. Maybe being turned on by banality means you hate it.
AR: What does writing give you that painting or music does not? Have you ever considered merging these different mediums in your work?
MC: Music has a strong grip on me, because music—played in time—has an immediacy that is universal, fine-tuned to enact emotional responses. By proportion, more music is designed to be emotional compared to, say, prose, which has a larger component of intellectuality. Visual art tends to have innovation as a historically central driving force, as novel imagistic language is easier to read, given imagistic language has no concrete foundations, the way grammar has fixed points, or music has, as an example, the 12-tone scale as one of the historically governing components. I like writing because I have thoughts that have nowhere else to go. I tend not to paint thoughts though, though I’m trying. But the meaningfulness in an image is often non-intellectual. Also—preferences matter. I’m attracted by color, and color just isn’t such a feature in writing. I’m also attracted to harmony in music—again, not a feature in writing, though I do feel harmony and color stir the same part of me inside. There are other properties that are shared by two of the three art forms. For instance, eroticism can be present in visual art and text, but, unless there are erotic lyrics, music tends not to be erotic—not explicitly.
AR: Who are you if you were stripped of art—could you briefly describe yourself if you were never allowed to create again?
MC: If I could never create again, you’d have to seal me up in a box. This isn’t a declaration of unbridled energy, but just that I consider daily acts, acts of creation. As an example, when I wake up, I try to bombard my girlfriend with humor because I like starting the day with laughter. Today was Valentine’s Day, and I thought it would be funny to wake up telling her she looked as beautiful as a peasant. I followed this by telling her I had a Valentine’s present called peasant perfume, which can only be administered by straddling her face with my naked butt and passing wind up her nose. I only pretended by motioning my intent and did not do any straddling. I guess nonsense, contemplations of nonsense, the order you eat what’s on your plate, what you choose to watch on TV—all of life is as creative as you make it. I pour effort into all these decisions, as I know they’ll impact both outward-facing and personally important facets of my life. These efforts are my life.
AR: When and where are your upcoming shows? Where can we see your work? What other projects are you working on?
MC: I got an Instagram (@markbochu), and I’m trying to write a novel about how a normal and moral person becomes an ecstasy dealer. My next show is in Singapore in July, at the research space of this Michelin-starred restaurant called Nouri. I’ve been challenging myself to find a new imagistic language. I want to explore how what constitutes a soul is not only profound emotional content, but the banal and commonplace too, platforms for typically soulful experiences, like daily consumables or unmemorable meals or how fleeting words enter our thoughts. Typically soulful experiences will be in this artwork too, like, say, blowing on a dandelion, or time with an old friend.