In Howie Tsui’s recent animation inspired by Hong Kong martial arts fiction, there’s a sequence in which a villain repeatedly thrusts a venomous snake into the face of a young woman tied to a stake. Each time he approaches she lashes out with a foot and spits at the man. She reappears at the whim of an algorithm in this looped animation so her defiant gesture repeats and repeats. As China keeps tightening the screws on Hong Kong’s youthful democracy movement, it’s hard not to read this Vancouver artist’s work as a very pointed metaphor.
This particular video, entitled Parallax Chambers and now showing at the Power Plant gallery at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, began life in 2018, prior to the recent protests against the Hong Kong government’s ham-fisted extradition bill. Still, Tsui’s entire project has been entwined with rebellion and critique from the start.
This solo exhibition, entitled From swelling shadows, we draw our bows and curated by Justine Kohleal, features Tsui’s video and light-box art based on the pop culture wuxia tradition that follows the adventures of roving knights and cunning outlaws in imperial China. Specifically, Tsui borrows characters from the Condor Trilogy, the popular novels published by the Hong Kong author Jin Yong between 1957 and 1961, but set seven centuries earlier during the Song Dynasty and the Mongol empire.
In Retainers of Anarchy, Tsui’s 2017 algorithmic masterpiece (which can finally be seen in Toronto with this show), the artist juxtaposes an open landscape peopled by these fictional historical figures with a more claustrophobic and contemporary cartoon. That other half features Kowloon’s lawless Walled City, the infamous tenement that mushroomed in the post-war period and was only demolished in 1994. The piece is a five-channel video screening as a giant horizontal scroll with simultaneous action in different areas. As the viewer’s eye darts about, the work creates a timeless melodrama of both violent adventure and quotidian activities played out by chivalric heroes, Kowloon gangsters and the ordinary people of Hong Kong.
It’s mesmerizing, but its inspiration is also very revealing: Tsui, who grew up in Hong Kong, Lagos and Thunder Bay, was influenced by a massive digitized video scroll created for the Chinese government in 2010. Based on the famed Song Dynasty scroll Along the River During the Qingming Festival, the updated video version River of Wisdom was the star attraction at the Chinese pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. So, in response to new technology deployed in the name of nostalgic nationalist propaganda, Tsui used the same technical wizardry to create an alternative and disruptive narrative.
More recently, in Parallax Chambers, Tsui uses a single channel but maintains the same randomized approach. This video hones in on a smaller number of cramped spaces – a contemporary apartment; a historic chamber – where mythic heroes and supernatural characters play out violent Condor scenes under slashes of coloured lightning and sudden descents into darkness. Meanwhile, fluorescent tubes blink into life flooding the scenes with a glare that might remind viewers Chinese authorities keep Canadian hostages Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in cells where the lights are never turned off. With recent events in both Hong Kong and mainland China in mind, the work feels harsher and more desperate than its predecessor. Is the Condor heroine destined to struggle forever like the mythical Sisyphus? Or will she eventually overcome her algorithmic torture?
Tsui reprises similar iconography in lightboxes, and in wall pieces created with lenticular printing of the kind popularly used to produce the illusion of movement on postcards or buttons. Stand in one position you see one image; move and the image shifts with you. The implications of Tsui’s project are not only political; it also experiments provocatively with how we experience stories on screens. I was viewing Parallax Chambers in the same week that I had been tuning in to CNN to follow the progress of vote counting in the U.S. election as displayed on telescoping electronic maps. So, I found myself reflecting on how wickedly the artist’s work mimics our enslavement to media cycles.
Coincidentally, the Art Gallery of Ontario is currently offering an equally pertinent video-art experience. The AGO has purchased Death is Elsewhere, an immersive, panoramic video installation by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson that was originally commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum. It’s a lyrical, magnetic work and, at the Met in 2019, it was installed in a conservatory. Now, in the era of COVID-19 in Toronto, where it was unveiled to the public Saturday, it takes on a darker hue.
To create the piece, Kjartansson filmed four musicians, all of them his regular collaborators, in southern Iceland just after midnight on the summer solstice. The foursome comprises two sets of twins: Icelandic experimental musicians Kristin Anna and Gyoa Valtysdottir sing; Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the American band The National sing and play guitar.
Paired off as two romantic couples, they perform a lilting love song of their own composition and stroll around in a circle. The viewer, like some witness of an ancient rite, stands in the middle of seven giant screens as the couples perform on opposite sides of a theatre-in-the-round. The piece is 77 minutes in length but unless you happened to catch the beginning or end, it appears as seamless as Tsui’s video work. The hypnotized viewer may find that what began as a casual visit prolongs itself for many minutes as the doppelganger effect of the twins, the continual circling and the infectious song take hold.
Yet surely, in the midst of this lulling beauty, the song’s refrain is absurdly ironic. “Death is elsewhere,” the lovers repeat, but that black mountain behind them is a volcano, a memento mori in the rocky landscape they inhabit. Today, the poignancy of the piece seems heightened, as the song sounds a note of both delusion and hope.
These are not easy months, and these works don’t deal with easy themes. Yet art can have this invigorating effect of leading viewers to a place where difficult subjects can be considered in oblique and liberating ways. If you are in Toronto, a safe trip to either the Power Plant or the AGO is highly recommended.
Howie Tsui’s work is on display at the Power Plant to Jan. 3. 2021; the screening of Death is Elsewhere at the Art Gallery of Ontario is ongoing.