Vancouver-based artist Howie Tsui creates a 25-metre hand-drawn animation based in the Walled City of Kowloon.
Drawing on diverse influences such as martial arts and contemporary Hong Kong politics, Howie Tsui explores the liminal space between self-governance and lawlessness.
Featuring a mix of martial arts and Hong Kong politics, Howie Tsui’s solo exhibition “Retainers of Anarchy” is on at Vancouver Art Gallery from 4 March to 28 May 2017. The exhibition contains a 25-metre hand-drawn animation, creating a non-linear narrative that questions concepts of nationhood in the context of Hong Kong’s political past and present.
Tsui was born in Hong Kong and raised in Lagos, Nigeria and Thunder Bay, Canada. His work often explores this multicultural context, and for more than ten years he has been exploring Asian history and pop culture. His previous work has often, as Diana Freundl’s essay states, tackled ideas of “hybridity and interconnections between cultures throughout history”.
The work Horror Fables (2008–2010) draws from a mix of influences, including traditional Buddhist hell scrolls, Japanese ukiyo-e prints, anime, manga and Hong Kong vampire films. Another piece, Friendly Fire (2012), looks into the human cost of war through the specific border conflict between British North America and the United States in the War of 1812. The piece uses a number of aesthetic influences and draws on history in a way that also serves to question current political contexts. This strategy is also used in Retainers of Anarchy (2017), in which Tsui explores historical events close to his own cultural heritage.
Retainers of Anarchy uses the narrative tool of wuxia, a genre of Chinese fantasy fiction and film, that involves martial arts battles based in ancient China. The form enables Tsui to shape his work around stories of heroes who maintain chivalric ideals in volatile environments. The warrior-heroes are often from lower social classes, so it is also a form that evokes dissidence and resistance.
The tradition of wuxia developed from literature into film and television in the 20th century. The anti-government sentiment caused the Chinese government to censor the films, although the genre continued to develop in Hong Kong.
An essay from the exhibition describes Tsui’s interest in wuxia. In a 2015 interview, when he started the Retainers of Anarchy project, Tsui explained:
Through re-examining something so elemental in my early life, I’ve discovered how highly politicised this genre of literature and film is. How it used to be banned in China and at one point, all the practitioners were exiled to Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a result, the creators of many wuxia works (such as Jin Yong) seemed to retaliate to their extradition by injecting a subtext of dissent and rogue justice in their works, featuring narratives that encourage the destabilisation of ruling bodies.
Retainers of Anarchy is a 25-metre scroll-like video installation. The story is set in the city of Kowloon, which was a Chinese military fort during the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE). More recently Kowloon was an ungoverned settlement in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong, which was eventually destroyed in 1994 to make way for new development. The place has a complex history, being reluctantly ceded by China, a haven for refugees during World War 2 and then becoming an enclave of brothels and opium and gambling dens. In 1987 it had 35,000 residents and many interconnecting buildings, making it exceedingly densely populated. By placing the work in the narrative of the walled city, Tsui is reflecting on how self-governance can exist side by side with lawlessness.
In this piece, Tsui combines a number of aesthetics while also crossing between past and present. Referencing both western and eastern influences, the installation combines manga, the romanticised action-story genre of mou hap, scenes from famous Song and Yuan dynasty paintings and landscapes from Italian Giuseppe Castiglione who worked in the Chinese imperial court in the 18th century.
As Alice Ming Wai Jim explains in the essay “When Worlds Meet”, the narrative in the work is not linear:
In this virtual built environment, there is no beginning or end. The work does not start or finish in the linear sense of storytelling. The computer program randomly zooms in and out of the various animated scenes, groups, and objects embedded in generic hand-drawn landscape of mountains, trees, and waterways. An isometric pan, for example, might follow an archery fight between a rider on horseback and another on a giant condor. Then, suddenly, out of this rustic scene might appear a cross-section of a crowded tenement block of apartment buildings, which many will recognise as Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, a dystopic world that disappeared in 1994.
The quantity of influences and detailed drawing that combine to make this work, lead to a patchwork that builds a nuanced insight into a place that inhabits a liminal zone.
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