Visitors to Wrightwood 659 in Chicago are in for a surprise. The gallery is set in a quintessentially American building: an almost perfectly symmetrical former red brick apartment block on a leafy road in the city’s affluent Lincoln Park neighbourhood. But step through the doors before July 15 and you’ll find yourself in a futuristic, cyberpunk version of Hong Kong, in an immersive exhibition that has been created by the artist Kong Hong-chuen, who works under the name Kongkee.
“I like the feeling of stepping inside a theatre – it’s like going to church,” says the artist. “Going to the theatre or cinema is a spiritual journey for me to understand my own feelings. I try to share this feeling with the audience. I like changing the whole exhibition space into a kind of spiritual space, a space for meditation. When you get inside, you can really focus.”
Kongkee’s art requires focus. He works primarily in animation, making brightly coloured, psychedelic sci-fi videos that combine images of the past, present and an imagined future. Kongkee is perhaps best known for Dragon’s Delusion, a project he has been working on since 2013 that he hopes will ultimately become either a feature-length film or an eight- or 10-episode TV series, but which has already generated widespread interest and press coverage.
Dragon’s Delusion imagines what might have happened if Qin Shihuang, the very first emperor of China, had achieved his dream of immortality. In Dragon’s Delusion, the notoriously tyrannical emperor rules over a society where humans co-exist with robots, cyborgs and androids, one of whom finds himself implanted with the memories of Qu Yuan, a legendary poet who committed suicide when Qin Shihuang invaded Qu’s home of Chu, present-day Hubei.
An animation telling the story of this android-turned-ancient-poet is at the heart of Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk, the exhibition at Wrightwood 659, which is an adaptation of a solo show that Kongkee had at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco late last year. The video in the Wrightwood 659 exhibition currently exists as a standalone work of art, but it may ultimately be incorporated into the larger Dragon’s Delusion project. “The video is at the end of the exhibition,” says Kongkee. “I’ve designed the exhibition so that there’s an introduction to the culture and history, then at the end is the movie theatre. The exhibition is a puzzle you put together to understand the video.”
What Kongkee hopes is that the start of the exhibition will give visitors an insight into China’s Warring States Period, which ran from roughly 481 to 221 BC and was brought to an end when the despotic Qin unified the country under his rule. Although it was a time of enormous and constant conflict, the Warring States Period was also a time of artistic and cultural ferment, as exemplified by Qu’s poetry. “It was a moment of explosion in history for philosophy, technology, art,” says Kongkee. “When Emperor Qin unified China, he narrowed down opportunities. When he conquered the other six kingdoms, he killed scholars and burned books. We only know a little about the Warring State Period – there are so many things, so much knowledge that was destroyed.”
Kongkee’s art shines a light on the culture that remains from that period, such as Qu’s writing, while also imagining how the great minds of the time like Qu would react to today’s world. As he researched the Warring States Period, Kongkee was surprised at some of the ways today’s world mirrors it. The Tao Te Ching, a text dating from the Warring States Period that is attributed to the philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism, explains that an overwhelming profusion of culture at the time was distracting people from finding true happiness. A rough translation reads: “the five colours make people’s eyes blind, the five notes make their ears deaf, the five tastes injure their palate.”
“I’m curious why he also had this feeling because at that time they didn’t have internet, they didn’t have virtual reality, they didn’t have iPads,” says Kongkee. The authorship of Laozi is contested — some scholars argue that he lived earlier than the Warring States Period, while others say that he never existed at all — but whoever wrote the text, the idea remains relevant. “Why did he also have the feeling of his senses being overwhelmed by the noise of the world? I guess we’re not that different from our ancestors.”
The exhibition at Wrightwood 659 draws explicit links between past and present through the display of Chinese antiques alongside Kongkee’s ultra-modern work. One of the antique bronzes in the show is emblazoned with a Taotie, a motif of a mythical monster said to have eaten so many people that it eventually exploded. The creature has since become a symbol in Chinese culture of the dangers of greed. Kongkee has adopted and adapted this symbol for a pink neon work he has made, which combines the symbol of the Taotie with the logos of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. “We are not suffering from hunger anymore, but now we are hungry for attention,” says Kongkee. “We’re still suffering from greed.”
As well as this neon work and the video of Qu Yuan, the exhibition also includes a series of lenticular prints, which are increasingly sought after by collectors. At Art Basel Hong Kong this year, Galerie du Monde, which represents Kongkee, sold one for US$82,500. His images have also reached a mass audience over the past two years thanks to M+, which commissioned Kongkee to make both a new animation for one of its opening exhibitions and a collection of merchandise, including affordable prints, for its store.
Many of the prints on show at Wrightwood 659 feature quintessentially Hong Kong objects and places, such as the Star Ferry, tong lau buildings and neon signs. Kongkee says that he chooses to set his work in the city because it is universally understood as a forward-looking cultural melting pot. “Hong Kong tries to find a new perspective from the East and the West, and from history to the future,” says Kongkee. “That’s the reason that I love the setting of Hong Kong so much.”
As a Hongkonger himself, Kongkee also enjoys subverting the image of Hong Kong that is sometimes propagated by other cultures. “Japanese anime and Hollywood blockbusters often use Hong Kong as a setting for dystopias, focusing on the chaotic, futuristic design of Hong Kong’s architecture,” says Kongkee. “But as someone who grew up in Hong Kong, what amazes me is not this ‘dystopian’ setting, but the [contradictory] elements that exist in the city. Hong Kong is like a bonsai. Bonsai are big trees scaled down into a small plant. If you go hiking in Hong Kong, you can look down on the city and see how buildings, countryside, the mountains, and the coast have been compressed into a small area.”
The video that is the capstone of the Wrightwood 659 exhibition follows a cyborg — a human implanted with elements of a machine — who discovers he has the memories of the ancient poet Qu. Qu’s story is a tragic one: he was exiled multiple times after falling out of favour with the Chu kings, and then committed suicide by drowning himself in the Milou River when he learned that Qin had invaded his homeland. Legend has it that villagers rushed out in their boats to rescue Qu. When they realised they were too late, they beat drums and threw rice into the river to stop fish feeding on his body. The act of rushing to save the drowning poet is commemorated every year in the Dragon Boat Festival, which is celebrated around Asia.
Although it has dark moments, Kongkee’s video does not recreate Qu’s death. Instead, its ending is left open. Rather than plunging his story into darkness, just as the cultural vibrancy of the Warring States Period was crushed under the rule of Qin Shi Huang, Kongkee leaves his story open to the possibility of a better future. “Am I optimistic or not?” Kongkee muses. “It really depends. I tend to trust humankind. We have the ability to correct mistakes. Animation, for me, is a way of talking about the future, and thinking about what the future might look like. Art is important because it can help us understand what we want.”
One thing that Kongkee is optimistic about is that his Dragon’s Delusion project will advance to the next stage of production soon. “After the shows in San Francisco and Chicago, we’ve found a new possibility with fundraising,” he says. “There’s not much detail I can share, but I hope we can deliver some good news in the near future.”
Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk is on at Wrightwood 659, Chicago, U.S.A. until July 15, 2023. Click here for more information.