Imagine a future in which the famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan is reincarnated as a cyborg. With his ancient memory downloaded into an android, is he doomed to repeat the same tragic fate that he experienced over two millennia ago?
Artist Kong Khong-chang, who goes by the name Kongkee, was raised in Hong Kong and now works in London as an animator and visual artist. His latest work “Warring States Cyberpunk,” on display at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum until Jan. 23, 2023, is based on his award-winning 2020 film “Dragon’s Delusion.” The exhibition combines artifacts from China’s Warring States period (approximately 475–221 BCE) with psychedelic animation, comic book illustrations and existential philosophy.
When visitors first enter the exhibit, they are greeted by an enormous neon installation with a warning at the center: “Love me.” Based on the story of the legendary monster Taotie, who symbolizes the dangers of gluttony, the ironic Instagram-friendly sign features not-so-subtle logos of multiple social media platforms.
Though his execution is perhaps a bit obvious, Kongkee demonstrates how humans today are not greedy for food, but for attention. “Like the Taotie, we are programmed to devour and destroy as we quench our bottomless desires,” he says in the piece’s description.
Kongkee aims to close the gap between ancient objects and contemporary art. On one side of the room, colorful lighting and ambient music from the Warring States period bring new life to 2,000-year old bronze vessels, repurposed from the Asian Art Museum’s permanent collection. On the other side, large kaleidoscopic projections inspired by the “golden age” of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980’s and ‘90s provide visitors with the feeling of walking through a crowded cityscape, along with the uncertainty of bionic body modification.
The most powerful piece, however, is a relatively simple black and white animation that plays on a loop at the end of a long hallway. Titled “You Can Never Step in the Same River Twice,” Kongkee effectively conveys the loneliness and political despair of poet Qu Yuan, who tragically died in the Miluo River, never to return. The sketched figure moves slowly, his top and bottom halves moving out of sync through the asynchronous refraction of the water.
“It is the same yet different with every passing moment, just like human beings as we constantly evolve,” Kongkee says. If the river has the power to wash away time, does Qu Yuan get a second chance at life?
Next, visitors step into a post-apocalyptic vision of Hong Kong through lenticular printing — a technique that uses optical illusions to change certain details of an image when viewed from different angles. The acid wash tones of the illustrations exude the feeling of a futuristic zine. Because it’s interactive without electricity, the body itself becomes a sensor, creating a multiversal effect in an analog setting that is almost overstimulating.
The exhibit ends in a dark room where visitors can sit and watch three clips from Kongkee’s film “Dragon’s Delusion.” Although its complex narrative can feel loose at times, this animated science fiction fantasy effectively brings all the pieces of the exhibit together. Based on Qu Yuan’s poem “Li Sao” (translated as “Encountering Sorrow”), the piece is a fictionalized account of Emperor Qin Shi Huang who was famously obsessed with the search for the elixir of life. Kongkee imagines a world where he succeeds in finding immortality, but leads his empire into eternal tyranny that raises questions about identity, oppression and resistance.
“People change, robots don’t. They are closer to themselves than to us,” one character muses in a comic book panel that precedes the film. Though some viewers may be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the artist’s fantastical story, it’s only a glimpse into the frightening possibilities of the future, and Kongkee knows perhaps better than anyone the existential anxiety that plagues both past and present.