L’insurrection du Sable

A meditation on the paintings of Ruben Pang.


By Jeremy Fernando


Ruben Pang, Role Reversal, 2016. Oil, alkyd and retouching varnish on aluminum composite panel, 166 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist.

He sands. One might even say that without sand, without sanding, there is nothing he can say. C’est-à-dire, sans le sable, il n’y a pas de peintre qui s’appelle Ruben Pang. Where, all that he paints, all that he says through his painting, could be said to be sandy; not just—because it is—coated with sand, but that it is standing on sand. 

On foundations    that shift
                                that slide
                                that move

Or, more than that: without sand, not only is there no painter whom we can call, who we can name, Ruben Pang, there is no painting itself. Not in general—that would be silly—but no painting of the one, from the one, that we anoint Ruben Pang, no painting that we can invoke as a painting of Ruben Pang. 

Where perhaps, what is Rubenesque about Ruben Pang might be nothing other than sand itself. 

And here, we should try not to forget that foundation is precisely what allows us to apply cosmetics—which is to say, it is what we build not just our camouflage upon, but always also our cosmos; that is to say, beauty itself.

And what else is beauty than the whole, the round: where what gives the starkness of Ruben’s paintings, what gives the paintings their severity, their roundedness, is what rises from the alkyd, what resurrects from the touch between the alkyd and aluminum, perhaps even the canvas, whilst mingling in the oil and varnish.

Bearing in mind that to touch requires two; even if one touches oneself (je me touche), even if it is between one and one’s self, between I and me.

Thus, always a space between; 

whilst trying never to forget that one cannot see space—for, since it is precisely what lies between the things one can see. And thus, one quite possibly cannot speak of it; if one can even posit it as it.

And even if one takes a position on space, attempts to respond to it, space itself might well be telling—be showing us—lies.   

And, where perhaps attempting to speak about spaces is always already a speaking into a space, into space itself: a launching of sound into a nothing—an in-between things, so even if not a thing, always already with things—which echoes, scatters, spreads. Where all one can do is to attempt to tune oneself, adjust one’s receptors, to traces of this invisible speech.

Which is not to say that nothing is left behind: for, sound can draw itself, can make a note (une remarque) for us, leave a mark to be seen, quite possibly for one to bear witness to; particularly in sand.

And to speak of sand is to speak of dust; but not just what is dusted off, removed—for, the moment it moves, it always also brings with it the possibility of settling; and even as it moves, it might well be about to settle, where each movement is potentially the one just before it settles. Like cinders; remainders of a flame; reminders that something was once alight, that there once was light. 

Thus, it is also to speak of what cannot be spoken of. Of what is—at least potentially is—not there. Or, at best, it is an attempt to speak of a trace; to speak of seeing what either cannot be seen, or is seen only because it lets itself be glimpsed. In either case, it might be impossible to know if what is seen precedes the seeing, is awaiting the possibility of being seen—keeping in mind that potentiality always also brings with it the impotentiality of the potential-not-to-be—or if it only appears at the moment of being seen, after the fact of the seeing, as it were. 

Where perhaps what is left, what remains—the shadows left by one’s hands that are quite possibly also on one’s hands—is the dust of the painting, the painting that is dust.

 For, to sand, sand down, is both to take away and attempt to affix—to allow to fix itself, even as it is always also prefixed by the possibility of detachment. Not just a removal, but a falling over by itself.

Thus, always also a question of what returns, comes back at us, rises, surges (insurgere); even as one is attempting to sweep one’s


Not that one would be able to differentiate, at least with any certitude, exactly what is being swept aside at any given moment.

For, we should try never to forget Hélène Cixous’ reminder that

le balayeur passe le balai entre le vivant et le mourant. La vie essuie la mort, le balai longe le bord de la fin, en flairant le ras du sol, il est maigre et raide, c’est tout ce qui reste d’un flexible massif de genêt.
The sweeper passes the broom between the living and the dead. Life wipes death, the broom hugs the edge of the end, sniffing at ground level, it is thin and stiff, it is all that remains of a flexible shrub of genêt.

Keeping in mind that both living and dying are not phases; for, even as life and death are terms, might be nouns, they are names for the unknown, the unknowable; names naming nothing except for the fact that they are naming. So, even as we might be attempting to fill it with meaning, with signification, perhaps through a little force-feeding, it remains ahead of us, or perhaps behind us, like a shadow; never quite within our grasp, prehension, certainly comprehension, always perhaps leaving us in, mayhaps even filling us with, apprehension.   

Which might well be why it holds our attention; which might well be why Ruben Pang’s paintings call out to us, grab us, call us to attention. 

For, as Martin Heidegger never lets us forget, anxiety is the very condition of thought, of thinking, itself.

Ruben Pang, Cradle Me Bravely, 2016. Oil, alkyd and retouching varnish on aluminum composite panel, 166 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Which is not to say that everything is swept away: for, even as it may be, might well become, dust in the wind, we should attempt to hold on to the reminder, the hopeful promise, that my dear friend Adel Abdessemed posits when he says, "les balayeuses sont les derniers peintres du monde." 

Painters that paint at the very moment that they sniff the ground;  at the very moment they pass their brooms between living and dying, where life wipes death, brushes the edge of the end.

Where in looking, attempting to look at, inattending to, Ruben Pang, one has the feeling that he is cradling me bravely: for, he knows all too well the lesson that Jean-Luc Nancy leaves us with; that "language is radically improper when faced with painting... Painting doesn’t speak. There’s a silence where painting’s concerned, an absolute muteness." 

And where all one might be doing—where what I might be doing; might have no choice but to do—is to be speaking over the painting as one is attempting to let it speak: in a role reversal, as it were. But where—if one is attempting to maintain a space for the painting to speak—what is speaking is not a sound, but a sound that doesn’t speak, a silence of absolute muteness

And where perhaps all that can be heard

 —all one can attempt to attend, tune in, to—

is the sweeping of     the broom
                                     the brush
                                     the reed

The sounds of what perhaps touches—even makes—the painting; of which the painting is what, all that, remains. Where all that is heard is the sound of the absent, perhaps even the sound of absence itself.

And here, one should try to bear in mind that even if one is—I am—running the risk of speaking for the painting, am risking the possibility of ruining the painting while attempting to respond to it, the very attempt at response is an opening of the possibility of a relationality with it. And each time one opens oneself to the potentialities of a relation, of a response, of responding, one is also opening oneself to the possibilities—and all the dangers—of being touched by eros

But, at the same time, it is perhaps only in this manner—by opening oneself to the whispers of something beyond—that one might catch a glimpse of a speech that might be speaking                  

—in the voice of the painting—

certainly not that of Ruben Pang: 

for, even as it might have been his hands that were, his touch that is, involved in the painting, in painting the paintings, he is silent. 

And where, as Yves Klein might say, the painting is only the witness who saw what happened.

Which is not to say that Ruben Pang has naught to do with this: far from it. 

For, even if one posits that the painting might not have anything to do with the one who paints, it is still the hands of Ruben Pang who make the mark, who remark; 

who first make the stains.

Keeping in mind that to paint and to write might not just be related, but could well be indistinguishable: hence Socrates’ suspicion of, his warning against, chirography, marks made by the hand (kheiros). For, what represents quite possibly also speaks for, speaks over, speaks in the voice of another—

And thus, quite possibly consumes the other.

Ruben Pang, Nematomorpha's Story, 2016. Oil, alkyd and retouching varnish on aluminum composite panel, 60 x 75 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Thus, one can perhaps either see—catch a glimpse of—Ruben Pang or the painting; where the painting bears witness to the marks made by, left behind by, him, or where Ruben Pang testifies to the possibility of making, of leaving behind, such marks. But that looking at one entails a blindness to the other; where the existence of each is a reminder that the other remains veiled from one; where both Ruben Pang and his paintings are memoirs of our blindness to the other; where the other is always only, and always already, a matter of faith. 

Where both Ruben Pang and the painting are both the limit and the condition of each other. 

Where (n)either the painting (n)or Ruben Pang can exist with (n)or without each other—at least not in the moment of being seen. 

And where, the only reason one can speak of both at the same time, in the same space, is that one is doing nothing other than attempting to read the absolute muteness of the painting alongside the silence of Ruben Pang, doing nothing other than attempting to listen to the echoes between two silences

Where, responding to—even writing on—the paintings, to Ruben Pang, is nothing other than an attempt to attend to the silent language of Ruben Pang resounding with the absolute muteness of the paintings; attempting to listen to the cacophony that is a language of painting itself; 


and where what rises
—insurrects in being left behind—
is nothing other than

a painted language. 


A version of this essay was first written for the catalogue of Ruben Pang's solo show Zwitterion at the Primo Marella Gallery in Milan, November 2016. 

Ruben Pang, Gorging Will Never Be Gentle, 2016. Oil, alkyd, charcoal and retouching varnish on aluminum composite panel, 60 x 75 cm. Courtesy the artist.


Issue 1
Publication Date: May 17

Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School, where he is also a Reader in Contemporary Literature & Thought. He is also a Fellow of Tembusu College at The National University of Singapore.


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