Howie Tsui's 'Retainers of Anarchy' Resolves Divergent Tensions

Arts & Culture

SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY OCT 16, 2020

Hong Kong. Lagos. Thunder Bay. A basement in Duluth with a television set.

Vancouver-based artist Howie Tsui’s formative years present like the erratic and seemingly random movement of electrons. “I lived in a lot of places and interacted with a lot of different cultures,” says Tsui, but he did so without ever entirely assimilating. And unlike those phantom subatomic particles, Tsui possesses the ability to gaze back at his path and mark the faint suggestion of order, noting how each stop added a new facet to the prism of his perspective. With “Retainers of Anarchy,” he strings the chaos and order of his aesthetics into an ambitious and dazzling multimedia installation.

An animated scroll projected across 25 meters and with six channels of audio, the algorithmic sequence depicts life during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) and borrows imagery and motifs seen in ancient Chinese scrolls that chronicle folklore and mythology. Tsui also borrowed themes from the wuxia genre—fantastical tales of chivalry and larger-than-life deeds—but only to subvert it. “A lot of traditional wuxia art portrays an idealized and harmonious society,” says Tsui, “and I wanted to respond to that and critique ideas around social order and chaos.”

The primary symbol of his criticism sits front and center in the work; a stylized representation of Kowloon Walled City. Originally a Chinese military fort in Hong Kong, the city became a sprawling heap of ungoverned territory following WWII, populated by squatters, criminals and the destitute as Hong Kong grew into the financial capital of the East. An experiment in anarchic urbanism, the city also came to embody a certain dissidence that spoke to Tsui. “In school, my work was often seen as low-brow,” he says, “and I was drawn to outsider culture like zines and independent music, stuff that maybe didn’t have the stamp of Big Business.” Like Kowloon, “Retainers” amalgamates disparate elements and crowds them together, creating a kinetic, living tapestry that rides a thin line between bedlam and structure. “For me, it has a lot of interesting parallels to my identity as a diasporic Hong Konger,” says Tsui.

And as Hong Kong residents continue their fight against mainland China’s aggressive annexation policies, Tsui’s “Retainers” carries greater weight. “It’s unfortunate that my work is so pressing right now,” he says. “As a Hong Kong diasporic artist living in Canada where free speech is granted, I feel it’s my responsibility to speak to the situation over there.” When asked if he fears reprisals from the increasingly long arm of Beijing, Tsui’s response is brief: “Yes, I’m scared.” But somewhere in the liminal space between fear, inspiration and coalescing identities lies a tension awaiting resolution.

“Retainers of Anarchy” will be exhibited at The Ringling through November 29th, the work’s first exhibition in the United States.

 

Photo courtesy of the artist and OCAT Xi'an.

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