Howie Tsui Retainers of Anarchy (Taohua Island) [detail]
paint pigment and acrylic ink on mulberry paper 2014
The first question is related to your experience with art at an academic institution. Having been educated in a Western institution for art, have you ever struggled to find a connection between your artistic practice and your Asian heritage?
Yes, I think when I went into art school I wasn’t thinking about my Asia-centric visual language at all. But as I was going through the program in Waterloo, Ontario, I realized that the content was understandably Eurocentric. I hadn’t thought about [Eurocentrism] until [then, when I started comparing it with] my visual interest in Super Flat by Takashi Murakami; a lot of manga culture inspired contemporary art ... or, Lowbrow art from California that was countercultural. That’s when I started thinking about what a visual language is, what imagery I was exposed to [during] those formative childhood years, and how that informs the way I see and the work I’m drawn to making. Because I wasn't intrigued [by] the content that I'd been shown in school (contemporary Canadian art circa-60s to 90s), I also felt the need to self-censor the work that I wanted to create and keep those images locked up inside my sketchbook -- because if I did formalize these tendencies into a painting, it would be disregarded as being cartoony, unsophisticated, unpoetic, etc. In a way, through Giant Robot magazine, Tokion, and to some extent Juxtapoz, I saw that their were micro-currents of art scenes that has been somewhat validated within the establishment, which made me think that what I wanted to create and my areas of interest was actually ok. That is when I noticed that there is a quasi-Asian visual aesthetic that I realized would be an honest way for me to work and I figured out that there is a place for it after a while.
I see references of Japanese Hokusai Manga in your Of Manga & Mongrels series, what particularly interested you about the Hokusai Manga?
It was a weird coincidence; it was all an exercise at one point. After art school I was making all these small paintings and I felt that I had too much control over the images so it was getting pretty predictable. I had these Hokusai reproductions from his manga collections book ... I think I was making a poster for a show of mine and I was like “Oh! Why don’t I draw over top of these [Hokusai Manga],” and make another image on top of it, forming a double image. That was the poster for the art show, but then I realized that I really enjoyed the process because it was such an unpremeditated subconscious looking exercise. It [focuses on] this idea of collaboration where I’d trampoline off of his [Hokusai’s] lines and then extend it and adapt it into a new figure. That is how this project started; I just wanted to see how many I could produce on a small scale and slowly began finding meaning within the process. That is when it became clear that the works addressed this shifting sense of identity that is inherent to the immigrant experience. I saw an allegory whereby the Hokusai imagery represents an Asian persona tied to traditions and the image I inked on top of it represents a contemporary/modernized and assimilated version... like time compressed on a piece of paper or a mosquito trapped in amber. Because my artwork was heavily informed by manga at the time and Hokusai was the creator of it, I thought it was an appropriate way to connect the inventor of the genre of manga with myself, an artist who unabashedly draws from that subculture.
Do you think your art work is directed towards an exclusive Asian audience? How does it function within Vancouver as a city with diverse communities?
Not intentionally, but it’s understandable how the subject matter I gravitate towards would seem that way. I honestly don’t really get too concerned about making work for particular audiences, per se. Just want to make work that I feel honest about and comes from a natural place. My focus on Asian cultural material is certainly a byproduct of having spent most of my life in Canada assimilating and obscuring aspects about myself. Now, I’m sort of figuring out what I was proto-acculturation, which tends to lead me down nostalgic rabbit holes to recover fragments of my identity. For example, my next series is on wuxia or martial art fantasy fiction, which I grew up watching and would pretend to fly around the living room with my sister wielding swords and shooting lasers out of my hands. It was very popular within the Chinese diaspora because for many of us, you become disconnected with your culture, beyond the domestic applications of language and home cuisine. What remains is that library of VHS cassettes that contain all these cultural materials that you grow up with and develop a nostalgic attachment to. Through re-examining something so elemental in my early life, I’ve discovered how highly politicized 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 destabilization of ruling bodies.
I definitely see the connection between Chinese martial art fantasy fiction and Retainer of Anarchy. Can you talk about how you developed this piece?
I don’t want to talk too much about it in detail but I will say out of the two pieces that I’ve created for the Retainers of Anarchy series, one is called Tao Hua Dao (Peach Blossom Island), and it references The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong. This island piece was created for an exhibit at the Para/Site Art Centre in Hong Kong, and revolves around the friction between various nations over the many contested and unclaimed islands off the shores of Asia. Given that I was just starting my series on wuxia, I found it fitting to illustrate the ongoing political tussles through the lens of the genre. The situation shares many parallels to this Wild Wild West-esque backdrop; lawless open land that no one really owns but a code of conduct seems to bubble up from this unlegislated environment. A general operating procedure materializes from this universe that helps regulate the ideals of honour, justice through martial acts of punishment and revenge. The work features all these different characters from different sects in an orgiastic battle in an effort to claim ownership of the island. I’m really drawn to the martial arts fantasy world in such an adolescent way, because it contains such a range of different tribes and schools that feature unique clothing, fighting styles, and weaponry. It’s a playful and prismatic way of addressing ideas of nationhood, culture, tribalism and global geo-politics through the kitsch of the martial arts genre. Furthermore, I think it could also echo the cycle of land grabs and the lawless micro-economies that exist in the GVR.
How do you find a balance between reality and fantasy in works like Retainer of Anarchy?
I think I use the fantastical as a shroud for more urgent realities. I’m particularly interested in the derisive potential of the fantasy genre and how its been marginalized by government censors and the tastes of high art. In China, martial arts fantasy fiction was banned during the Republican era (1912-49) due to fears that its supernatural themes would destabilize society, hence a steady diet of Social Realism. The creative producers of anything otherworldly or involving sorcery/magic would end up in Taiwan and Hong Kong. My exposure, especially at a young age, to fantastical and supernatural cultural forms, helps to delineate myself, culturally, as being Hong Kongese and quite different from mainland Chinese. That neatly links up with my earlier project about ghost stories, Horror Fable. It all seems really de riqeur from a Western perspective to be exploring horror imagery but when placed within a Chinese context, it’s actually a smidgen transgressive and helps situate myself as Hong Kongese. And of course, I love how the genre of fantastical art is certainly discredited in any sort of contemporary art discourse deemed Lowbrow, outsider and not intellectual or critical. I like to make the work seem naïve and obvious, but then actually have it reinforced by this rather layered cultural and conceptual structure. The effect is to have any semblance of meaning within the work obfuscated by this façade that screams, “teenage boy art!”
I noticed that in most of your work, the grotesque seems to be a re-occurring theme in your practice, is there something that particularly interests you about the grotesque?
I think the Of Manga and Mongrels series was when it started to move towards that direction with anthropomorphized bodies and mutated clumps. It was sort of a rejection of my previous work that explored character design and anatomical proportions that we are almost programmed to be attracted to. At the time, I was interested in an area floating around academic animation circles called neoteny; which is the retention of juvenile physical traits or paedomorphism. We are hardwired to be attracted to things that share physical proportions to a toddler - perhaps as a form of species preservation. If you look at a diagram of Mickey Mouse designs over time you’d see he used to be scary with a long nose and over time his features got rounder and younger. I was using that fasade of kawaii (cute) to explore baser aspects of human nature. Well, instead of creating images that we were intrinsically attracted to, I inverted my focus on imagery that we’re repulsed by. I made a decision to remove the veil of cuteness and more directly work with darker, more abject forms of figuration. That’s when it switched into the grotesque, the abject and the “other” and how it is projected onto marginalized and vulnerable communities. Growing up in a place without a large Asian population, Thunder Bay, I really felt very different, isolated like a genetic anomaly. The grotesque for me is a connection to my experiences of ‘otherness’, and it’s something I can see enacted everyday here in Vancouver in various mundane situations, or in larger municipal strategies.
The viewer’s response to grotesque can be subjective. What do you think are some effects that the grotesque triggers in viewers that interests you?
It is very subjective, it all depends on how much exposure they have to the grotesque. I think I had a lot or way too much [exposure to the grotesque] ... which is helpful in the form of mortality preparation. My mother had a parenting style that I’d describe as hyperactive imagination towards the morbid. This usually reared its head in explaining cause-and-effect situations in an effort to prepare me for the worst and persuade me into avoiding high-risk situations. Unlimited access to many age-restricted movies at a young age through pay TV could also be a culprit. In terms of other people’s reaction, I have friends who can not watch violent and gruesome things because they just don’t want to feel that way, or want to know that other humans imagine these things, so that is the range. But for me, I do it from the point of satire, the absurd and the exaggerated. Exaggeration is a pretty essential trait of Cantonese culture.
You mentioned that your mother would tell you gruesome bad things, so do you think these fearful childhood memories play an important role in your artistic practice?
Definitely for the ghost story series I was focusing on that. I was definitely afraid of the things that my mom told me, but once I realized that they were not true, I found them hilarious and really imaginative. I was trying to make these connections with fear as a form of control and how there is scale of it. There is the nostalgic, parental, folksy version that your mother uses as a form of ethical development. Then there is the larger socio-political version, where governments would use fear as a form of control over the population. I watched a BBC documentary called “The Power of Nightmares” by director Adam Curtis, and it neatly summed up how fear can be used as a form of propaganda or control over populations. Horror Fable was a reaction to that and an attempt to satirize this unrelenting prevalence of fear in our society by using folksy inspiration from my mother. I have a tendency of taking something that is personal and then projecting it onto more universal cultural issues.
What do you believe contemporary art should do?
I understand that everyone does their own thing so I don’t want to be the voice of authority. My concern is about what I am doing and how I am adding to the discussion. I would say that I try to make work that addresses some obscured facets of our culture. I believe in making work that is accessible, centered on play, and is not geared to an exclusive audience, or a hyper-cloistered intelligentsia. That is why I tend to use pop culture and familiar forms of reference points. If people want to dig deeper into it, then they can uncover more dimensions and connections beyond the visual aspects of the work. I certainly pride myself on technique and expanding and perfecting the formal act of art-making. I’m old school in thinking that the hand is still important; that it’s real, and that the physicality and ritual of making should still be at the heart of any practice. I don’t want to feel penalized for having chops. It is important that art provides a voice for the marginalized, while also playing a role in adjusting history to account for suppressed narratives. I feel lucky in a certain way because I have had a life with many diverging experiences growing up in many different contexts. It helps to broaden my perspective. I feel like sometimes there is art that tries too hard to conjure meaning or comes from a disingenuous place. I try to make work that can critically address issues surrounding some strain of the current cultural climate while remaining honest to who I am and my visual language.
Angela Ko is an emerging multidisciplinary Taiwanese artist based in Vancouver, Canada. Ko’s practice included Print Media, video installation, and sculpture. After completed her BFA Visual Art degree at University of British Columbia, Ko took interest in curatorial practice and is currently interning with Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC.