• Date
      2018.11.03 - 2019.02.03
    • Artist
      Howie Tsui
    • Curator
      Diana Freundl
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Howie Tsui: "Retainers of Anarchy"

Howie Tsui | Retainers of Anarchy

algorithmic animation sequence, 5-channel video projection, 6-channel audio, 2017 (detail)

Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery

Vancouver-based artist Howie Tsui was born in Hong Kong, before being raised first Africa and then Canada, where he resides today in the city of Vancouver. On display here, Retainers of Anarchy is his most recent, and ambitious, work; a multi-disciplinary project organized around a large-format video projection 18.76 meters in length. Like many of Howie’s most striking works, Retainers draws its impulses from the artist’s experience of living across three very different continents. This experience can be summed up as springing from that point where the threads of his native culture that he carries within him become overlaid with new, at times unfamiliar, strands found in, and to some extent that characterise, the China Town phenomenon as it takes root in whatever “other” territory, soil, or nation Chinese communities appear. Vancouver’s Chinese community is one of the richest in terms of its cultural diversity, which preserves much from the original heritage immigrants brought with them, today blended with modern manifestations of business, culinary tastes, lifestyles and creative expression.

OCAT Xi’an is thrilled, in this our anniversary year, to join in partnership with the Vancouver Art Gallery, which commissioned Retainers, and hosted its first public display in the spring of 2017 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where it was Howie Tsui’s first solo museum exhibition. Retainers is a scroll-like film animation that references the life of heroes and the communities they protect during the Song Dynasty (960–1279AD). It draws for inspiration and motifs upon the wuxia genre of martial arts fiction and fantasy, with particular reference to the novels and characters created by Hong Kong writer Jin Yong (b.1924). Retainers shows masters of martial arts skills engaging in battles and rituals against a mountainous backdrop of shanshui-like landscape scenery. This finds contrast in a visualisation of what was known as Kowloon Walled City, a dense and labyrinthine clustering of tenement buildings formed from the late 19th century – amounting to 500 in total at the end – but which also had its roots in the Song Dynasty when a trading outpost was established on Kowloon by imperial edict. Later, from fort to yamen, from den of iniquity and cultural curiosity to home to over 30,000 people, Kowloon Walled City was something of a headache for the authorities trying to manage it. Eventually, the decision was made to do away with it entirely and, in 1994, it was demolished. Howie Tsui shows us its human side, with residents going about their daily life, sleeping, eating, fighting, mincing meat, making noodles, visiting the dentist and playing mah-jong. The juxtaposition reminds us that eras may change, but human nature and the condition of life that each generation faces, remain largely the same.

The combination of motifs in Retainers represents one of the ways in which Howie Tsui leverages artistic expression to explore his personal relationship with China’s popular culture. This, as a Chinese living in Canada, but more importantly as one who carries a nagging sense of “being ‘in between’ … it always seems like I’m vacillating between different realms,” he says. “In Retainers, I explore a world in which wuxia fantasies were set, gongwu, which in Cantonese translates as ‘rivers and lakes’. This fictitious world is also in-between, a liminal space between reality, history and fiction.”

As an animation, Retainers is the result of hundreds of individual drawings, each one painstakingly detailed using fine brush and coloured inks, and which give life to heroes and villains, who drift across the wide-screen from scene to scene to the accompaniment of a soundscape comprised of excerpts from martial arts television shows and sound effect libraries. Special here is that the video doesn’t simply run on a conventional loop as is the case with most animation films but through an algorithmic programme. This means that there is neither beginning nor end in the conventional sense, nor any single perspective on the plot for it is without a linear story line. Instead, the computer programme randomly zooms in and out of the various animated scenes creating a new experience each time the work is viewed.



Vancouver-based artist Howie Tsui was born in Hong Kong in 1978. He graduated from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, in 2002 with a BFA. Through his career as an independent artist, his work explores on-going questions of identity and history, among other things. This is achieved by combining elements and inspirations from multiple sources including traditional Chinese painting motifs with contemporary forms of illustration like manga.
“Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy” could not have been possible without the support and assistance of the team at the Vancouver Art Gallery including Gallery Director Kathleen Bartels, Associate Curator of Asian Art Diana Freundl, AV Technician Wade Thomas, and Curatorial Assistant of Touring Exhibitions Justina Bohach. 

Thanks go to the artist Howie Tsui, his collaborator Remy Siu, and animators Roxanne Zagar, Kodai Yanagawa, Amelia Earhart, Kerel Alaas, and Sitji Chou. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts; the Canadian Embassy, Beijing, for which we thank Martin Laflamme, Nancy Xie and Liu Zengyue. We are grateful also to Martin Kemble and the team at Art Labor, Shanghai, for support of this project. 


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