Kongkee Resurrects an Ancient Chinese Poet in an Energetic Cyberpunk Vision of Asian Futurism
The story of the legendary Chinese poet Qu Yuan ends in tragedy. Living during the destructive Warring States period that ran from 481 to 221 BCE, Qu Yuan was an influential writer and politician who was banished by King Huai of Chu and subsequently spent much of his time traveling the country and working on verse. The life of exile didn’t suit the poet, though, leading him into a deep depression and toward his eventual suicide in the Miluo River. Created as a hunt to retrieve Qu Yuan’s body, the annual Dragon Boat Festival continues to this day in celebration of his legacy.
A forthcoming exhibition at Chicago’s Wrightwood 659 imagines the poet’s afterlife “as his soul journeys from the ancient Chu Kingdom to a retro-futuristic Asia where he is reborn as an android in a psychedelic cyberpunk landscape.” Melding history with a distinctive sci-fi vision, Kongkee: Warring States of Cyberpunk features works in several mediums by the London-based Chinese animator and artist Kong Khong-chang, known as Kongkee. Using videos, projections, installations, ancient objects, and graphic pieces, the artist explores Asian Futurism through the energetic and luminously rendered narrative of a Chinese icon.
An extension of a comic series Kongkee created back in 2013, the show considers existential questions of immortality, how the body and soul interact, and the tenuous relationship between humanity and machine. Bold, saturated colors emphasize the role of the digital in the visionary realm, while mountain ranges, clouds, and vast starry skies incorporate more natural and classical motifs that have existed for millennia. Rippled waves and water feature prominently, referencing Qu Yuan’s drowning in 278 BCE.
Although based on a life of immense suffering, Kongkee’s works are optimistic as he envisions a universe where redemption and reconciliation are possible. The artist shares in a statement:
I asked myself, what happens when a soul emerges after 2,000 years from underwater—does it seek out something new? Does it return to familiar places? Qu Yuan’s poetry has a psychedelic, wandering quality that I tried to reflect in my art, but I also wanted him to reflect the disorientation, as well as the hope, of our era.
Following its U.S. debut at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Kongkee: Warring States of Cyberpunk opens in Chicago on April 14 and will be on view until July 15. Find more from the artist on Instagram.
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