Last Updated on 2023/03/24
Interview with the Animation Artist Kongkee
Kongkee’s Warring States Cyberpunk follows the soul of the great Chinese poet Qu Yuan from the ancient Chu Kingdom to an envisioned 21st-century Asia of cyborgs, electro-rock, and unexpected romantic reunions. Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk had its North American debut on November 18, 2022, at the Asian Art Museum. The show was curated by the museum’s head of contemporary art, Abby Chen, and took up residence in the museum’s Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion, which opened in 2021 with a blockbuster exhibition by digital collective teamLab. Kongkee’s Warring States Cyberpunk also includes galleries of Kongkee’s art that were created in reaction to exhibitions of ancient Chinese artworks from the museum’s collection. The show includes bronzes and jades from the eponymous Warring States Period (c. 481 – 221 BCE) and earlier, a time when China moved from myth into history with the establishment of the first empire by the Qin.
A sci-fi neon dream about a resurrected android version of Qu Yuan grappling with his memories of the river where he committed suicide and pondering the duality of death and immortality, the body and the soul, and what it means to be human—or a machine capable of experiencing more than a human ever could.
Are any of your images tied to a major event in your life? Could you tell us the story behind it? What are your sources of creative inspiration?
After more than 150 years, from the Second World War, to after the Millennium, to post 2019 and the pandemic, Hong Kong remains a tiny harbor city—but at the same time, it reflects the struggles of different forces from around the world, whether economic, political, or ideological. By observing Hong Kong, by trying to understand the people there and the forces shaping the city, you would know (or at least get a picture of) the frontlines in the game among the biggest players. I really want to introduce to the audience that there are many valuable creative powers under this specific historical background, how “Chinese Culture” as we see it now emerges into and from this contemporary context, how we continue to deal day by day with ancient wisdom and customs and truths—like those of Lao Tzu. I truly recommend to those who are interested to explore the works from Hong Kong artists, and Hong Kong movies and writers, to see what this moment is because art is always a reflection of our times—I think the escapist, but also hopeful, alternatives in my work are needed by everyone right now. In the end, it’s about the search for a soul, and what is a soul if not meaning, like your reason for being in the universe?
Does your art reflect your mood and perspective on the world?
During the Warring States, new knowledge like bronze technology was embraced and refined, new social and political systems were formed, even Qin Shi Huang believed that immortality was possible, though thousands of years later, we obviously think he has failed. However, if we look back, is there really any difference between us and Qin Shi Huang? Look at what’s on your Instagram feed, who the influencers are today—they’re all peddling longevity, too. I think my neon taotie poses this question.
Kongkee, a.k.a. KONG Khong-chang (b. 1977, Chinese, born in Malaysia, reared in Hong Kong) is a London-based animation director and visual artist. In 2008, he founded the studio Penguin Lab. His work has been featured in film festivals and caught the attention of Britpop band Blur, who collaborated with Kongkee to make a comic book “Travel to Hong Kong with Blur” based on their popular album “The Magic Whip” (2015). Detournements: La littérature de Hong Kong en bande dessinée (co. Chihoi) was released in Europe in French in 2012. Kongkee began work on the comic strip Mi Luo Virtual in 2013, which served as the inspiration for Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk. In 2020, a chapter of this comic was animated and turned into the short film Dragon’s Delusion, which received the grand prize at DigiCon6, Asia’s highest award for the genre. Flower In The Mirror, an interactive video artwork commissioned by the M+ Museum, is now on display in Hong Kong.
What are your favorite tools for creating art?
One of the big challenges with this exhibition was putting the art in with the actual artifice of an exhibit. My work is full of psychedelic elements and vibrant colors, and it’s exceptional for an institution to not use some neutral narrative or backdrop to present the artwork and object. This exhibition is kind of a breakthrough in that respect by creating an unexpected environment for the viewer, which I love doing. I really want people to have the feeling that the works are breathing and having their own lives outside of the controlled atmosphere of a museum. At the same time, the historic objects and my artwork should be experienced hand-in-hand together, like they are talking to each other. So we created the story beginning with the scale, and the historical connections we can make by being at and working with the Asian Art Museum, combined with my artworks about the Warring States period, and at the end the screening of the three animated films from Dragon’s Delusion all together, which is like almost a carnival by that end point, gathering all the pieces together in a moment of sustained joy, and pain, and wonder—we leave it up to the visitor to take away what they need to.
How did you come up with the idea for ‘Warring States Cyberpunk’?
The life of Qu Yuan and the lifestyle of the Warring States. If this is the first time you’ve heard about the Warring States period, you can imagine it as a combination of history encompassing the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars, and even the Cold War and the American Civil War into one epic arc. But also imagine if Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Richard Feynman were also all born during this same era. If I had been born during such a time, I am pretty sure I would think I was living at the highest point of civilization in human history! Because look, I have an incredible bronze sword, the absolute newest weapon, and we are experiencing the “de-centralizing” of authority from the last imperial dynasty, which feels like more freedom! We’ve got new coins too—ones that everyone will take and transcend old boundaries (this might remind you of digital currencies…). So actually, maybe we’re not that different from our ancestors. That is my starting point: if we can revisit the past in a museum, can we revisit now? That’s what triggered me to think about Qu Yuan but make it a sci-fi story that is connected to the present, or an idea of the present. I want to get close to the truth of what it feels like to be caught between two time periods by having a conversation between the past and future.
Who was Qu Yuan? What struck you most about his work and life? How come you felt a connection with him?
Qu Yuan drowned himself because he felt betrayed and that he was losing his relationship with his beloved friend and king. Like us today, he was facing an era of complete change, and I was touched by his story, maybe somehow, I guess not only me, growing up in this rapidly changing world, it’s common to feel nostalgic even when you are living in the same city that you are from. But, the most important idea is, I am not saying Qu Yuan is us, my question is, would he make a different choice if he could get a second chance? His death may have given him some satisfaction, but it didn’t change the history—so did it have a point? If given the chance, would we find a way to live a different life? Would we rather stay alive, even if it means being ignorant of what happens next? So this idea of a second life is communicated by using the Asian Art Museum’s artifacts and the way we set them up—I want people to feel these ancient artworks are alive again, are also like breathing objects, that they have been reinvigorated by the unexpected lighting we use, and through the story of Dragon’s Delusion, in my imagination, the museum becomes a kind of a pub for them (my artworks and the artifacts) to hang out in, to chit chat in, without being constrained by the limits of time and space.
The androids’ painful relationship with life and death is a recurring theme in science fiction literature. How does Qu Yuan find answers to this anguished, seemingly insurmountable conflict?
That reminds me of the quote from Lao Tzu, “Five colors make people blind, five tones make people deaf,” which led me to realize that our senses are always blinded and blocked by new sensations or too many sensations—many of which are now stimulated by technology all around us. The psychedelic colors and VR tools that I used in my work are trying to show the truth of his philosophy, that we have to realize that color is not “real” by pushing it to an extreme, like with neons and saturated, acid tones. What we experience is an illusion. If there are really problems arising from technology, I guess it’s that we’re losing our senses by handing off so much to machines. You see it in the first artwork when you walk in, the giant neon sculpture that is based on motifs from an ancient bronze that had symbols with warnings, maybe about vanity and seeking too much attention—now I replaced some of those symbols with the logos of major tech and social media companies to echo those warnings. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same, so following the guidance of the ancients still applies to today.
What is your next project?
Actually, the story is still continuing, I don’t have a concrete conclusion yet, what I want to share is the idea of “keep searching,” just like in the animation, android Joe questions his existence, like Qu Yuan questioning the meaning between reality and illusion. This leaves us with a wonderful journey of exploration. So in this exhibition, I use “the river” as the main concept flowing through the space, suggesting the flowing of time and that you can only live in the moment. We’re just like passengers on the river: you don’t really know where it will take you. Just keeping thinking, keep searching, keep hoping that you will make it out alive.
The exhibition will travel to Chicago in March. It’s very exciting.
Featured image: The Singer, Copyright © 2018 the artist
A special thanks to Zac Rose, Asian Art Museum
Photos courtesy of Kongkee, the Penguin Lab, and Asian Art Museum