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    The Fantastical World of Howie Tsui’s Retainers of Anarchy.

    Museum Education intern Zida Wang offers a reflection on the exhibition Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy, finding connections between the artist’s multicultural background and the artwork, as well as  sharing his own experiences as a Chinese student studying in the United States. Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy is on view until November 29, 2020 in The Monda Gallery of Contemporary Art at The Ringling. The exhibition is circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada.

    Vancouver-based artist Howie Tsui (徐浩恩) was born in 1978, Hong Kong. He grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and Thunder-Bay, Canada, and now lives in Vancouver. Tsui’s most recent work Retainers of Anarchy (2017) is a multidisciplinary project integrated around a 25-meter video animation projected onto a wall. Similar to Tsui’s previous works, the creative impulse for Retainers of Anarchy comes from the artist's lived experience of different cultural backgrounds on three separate continents. 

    Howie Tsui

    Image: Howie Tsui, Retainers of Anarchy, 2017 (detail), algorithmic animation sequence, 5-channel video projection, 6-channel audio. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Purchased with proceeds from the Audain Emerging Artists Acquisition Fund. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

    In Retainers of Anarchy, Tsui shows us a scroll-style animation based on the life stories of heroes guarding the people in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) of China. Tsui gives us an opportunity to step into a world of digitized classical Chinese landscape painting. Viewers will be amazed by the huge amount of information – stories and characters – this video contains. Just like viewing a traditional scroll-style classical Chinese painting, viewers can see the video from right to left, experiencing the wuxia (martial arts heroes) world created by Tsui. This scroll-style presentation is influenced by Along the River During the Qingming Festival, a classical Chinese hand-scroll painting by artist Zhang Zeduan in Song Dynasty. In 2010, an electronic version of the scroll was created for exhibition in the China Pavilion at Shanghai's World Expo. Tsui saw this electronic version in Hong Kong, which inspired Retainers of Anarchy.

    The bridge scene where the crew of an oncoming boat have not yet fully lowered their sails and are in danger of crashing into the bridge

    Image: A small section of the Song dynasty painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" by Zhang Zeduan. Source: Wikipedia

    Multiple cultural backgrounds and identities, from Chinese pop culture to Japanese manga, from ghost stories to the Kowloon Walled City and anarchism, influence Tsui’s practice. He inserts these influences and his own lived experiences into the microcosmic Retainers of Anarchy world.

    Tsui’s work draws inspiration from the wuxia novels and movies, especially the works by famous Hong Kong novelist Jin Yong (1924 -2018), showing martial arts in the background of mountains and landscape paintings. In both Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese, the world is Jianghu, which means rivers and lakes. There is a famous Chinese saying, “where there are people, there are Jianghu”. Tsui seems to draw from those characters creating the ideal world (Jianghu) he wants us to understand. 

    The infamous Kowloon Walled City is a dense and maze-like cluster of residential buildings gradually built in the late 19th century, ultimately encompassing about 500 buildings. In its legendary fictional history, there were many great martial arts practitioners and masters who lived in Kowloon Walled City and served as its underground rulers. In reality, it sheltered more than 30,000 people, making the Walled City a headache for the government trying to remediate it. The final decision was to bring order to this place, so in 1994 it was destroyed and demolished by the British Hong Kong Government.

    A playground at the edge of the Kowloon Walled City

    Image: A playground at the edge of the Kowloon Walled City. Source: Wikipedia

    In Retainers of Anarchy, Tsui shows us the Kowloon Walled City and its residents, depicting their day-to-day civilian activities such as practicing martial arts, cooking, eating, fighting, and playing mahjong. To me, it seems that they are living in their ideal world as anarchists. Growing up in China, I heard a lot of wuxia stories. Kowloon Walled City is like a legend, so it is very interesting that Tsui shows us those wuxia heroes’ lives as ordinary people. It indicates that everyone has a purposeful life. Taking a closer look at those characters’ faces, I see some of them have masks on, like Chinese opera masks, and some remind me of the Japanese ukiyo-e faces. The whole setting of this video reminds me of Nintendo Manga games. I feel like I am a wuxia hero when I visit this exhibition. To me, all the other characters seem like the non-player characters minding their own business, but at some points they will be helpful to my mission in the game.

    2 animated characters talking at a table

    Image: Howie Tsui, Retainers of Anarchy, 2017 (detail), algorithmic animation sequence, 5-channel video projection, 6-channel audio. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Purchased with proceeds from the Audain Emerging Artists Acquisition Fund. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

    In a recent virtual program with Howie Tsui and curator Ola Wlusek, the artist talked about his personal identity as a Chinese and Hongkonger living in Canada.  As someone who travels around the world, he feels like all cultures are outsider cultures to him, which I see reflected in Retainers of Anarchy, where there are people inside the city and people outside it.

    As a Chinese, I felt a lot of cultural differences when I first came to the United States. Tsui’s observations and artworks resonate with me deeply, as he sees himself as a middleman between Western and Eastern cultures. Tsui uses many classical Chinese elements in his work, while at the same time using a contemporary video format to tell wuxia heroes’ stories to an American audience. Tsui’s work and his life experiences encourage me to explore the deep roots of Chinese culture and to become a bridge of Western and Eastern cultures.

     Portrait of artist Howie Tsui

    Artist Howie Tsui, Photo credit: Rémi Thériault

    About The Author

    Hi, I’m Zida Wang (王子达), I’m currently interning at The Ringling’s Education Department. I’m a PhD student from Florida State University, majoring in Museum Education and Visitor-Centered Curation. As a Chinese, my interest is introducing Chinese and American art, artists and museums’ successes to each other.