Toronto

Howie Tsui, Joyride, 2018, lenticular print in light box, 25 × 37 × 2 1/2".

Howie Tsui, Joyride, 2018, lenticular print in light box, 25 × 37 × 2 1/2".

Howie Tsui

The Power Plant

Political dissidence in Hong Kong has reached a fever pitch but has been stifled by the Chinese Communist Party’s introduction of a national security law, passed last June. Yet this unraveling in post-handover Hong Kong has been gradual, mostly imperceptible to outsiders. Situated in this context, Howie Tsui’s exhibition “From swelling shadows, we draw our bows” focused on the fantastical yet subversive qualities of mou hap (in Cantonese) or wuxia (in Mandarin): namely, a martial-arts film and literary genre that has been banned repeatedly in mainland China for its anarchic, justice-seeking ways and anti-Confucian ideology.

Tsui’s show brought together a series of interconnected animations, drawings, and illuminated prints. But the centerpiece was the artist’s epic five-channel algorithmic animation Retainers of Anarchy, 2017, which unfurled like a massive scroll, more than eighty feet long, over the walls of the darkened gallery. With stupefying and engulfing detail, Tsui concocts an ink-drawn wuxia world, fusing Song-dynasty aesthetics and Chinese mythology with contemporary culture and addressing themes of injustice, equality, and good versus evil. With hundreds of hand-rendered drawings done in the style of traditional Chinese painting, he depicts a vast landscape of mountains and plains against a stark-white background. Its elegant sparseness, accompanied by a thundering, operatic soundtrack, belies a hellscape of tyranny featuring many unsettling sights, such as a hanged scholar clasping an open scroll and swaying from a tree, a warrior on horseback dragging another learned man wearing two books on his head like a hat, and a ghostly woman wrapped in robes of white—the color of mourning—rocking on an invisible hammock strung between a pair of trees.

Eventually my eyes landed on a spirited rendering of a hexagonal metropolis based on Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, which was demolished in 1994. Like a dollhouse, it is open on one side, allowing us a peek in. Various scenes, from the ordinary to the unusual, unfold across several apartments. I could see a noodle master kneading dough with a long bamboo pole; a man in an undershirt eating while bathed in a television’s green light as two women sleep on bunk beds; and another man tumbling out of a void that suddenly appears on a wall. Beyond the city, a group of very dead-looking imperial officials, hopping robotically, move in formation. I was beguiled by certain moments in this curious limbo, as when a hand fan slices through the air as though it were an airborne weapon, or a jumbo jet roars by, belly up to the screen and briefly obliterating our view. My eyes wanted to go back inside the city, but the algorithm pushed me onward.

Grotesques and dissident spirits were everywhere in Tsui’s show. In the Power Plant’s clerestory was A Geomantic Corridor, 2020, a wall-based automatic drawing the artist made with smoke staining. It is dotted with spent incense sticks that jut out into arrangements referencing the I Ching, Chinese traditional medicine, and feng shui. Ghost heads rendered in brown, red, yellow, and black floated uneasily along the walls, their negative energy vibrating throughout the space. Works such as these seemingly overlap with the artist’s own personal history, creating a jumble of cultural associations that speaks to complicated diasporic narratives. Tsui grew up in different parts of the world—Hong Kong; Lagos, Nigeria; and Thunder Bay, Canada—and his art touches upon the colonial violence and trauma of these places. Nonetheless, like the beings in his imaginary worlds, we, too, carry on despite the beauty and brutality, performing small acts of comfort and defiance wherever we go.