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In Asian Art Museum's Cyberpunk Exhibition, an Ancient Poet Navigates the Future

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a neon red and yellow video art installation with an image of a river
'River,' a video installation for 'Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk' on view at the Asian Art Museum beginning Nov. 18. (Kristie Song/KQED)

During China’s formative and tumultuous Warring States period — a time when various regions fought for territory and political power, from around 475 BCE to 221 BCE — the disillusioned and aging poet Qu Yuan decided to end his life in the Miluo river. In his new exhibition Warring States Cyberpunk, opening Nov. 18 at the Asian Art Museum, visual artist and animator Kongkee creates an alternative futuristic reality wherein Qu Yuan emerges and is granted a second chance.

As the poet readjusts to bright, jarring sounds and sights, museum-goers are invited into a similarly overwhelming space, drenched in flashy neon light. Floating projections, optical illusions and sound installations meld past and future, nostalgia and fantasy.

“I’m trying to find a way to deconstruct your senses, to push you to rediscover yourself a little bit more,” says Kongkee. Now based in London, the artist grew up in Hong Kong, where tradition and modernity intersect, both contradicting and coexisting with one another. In 2013, he began to incorporate futurism and sci-fi into his comic series, Mi Luo Virtual, to explore how history can be reinvented — a journey that would eventually culminate in this exhibition.

richly colored comic panels on a museum wall
Selected comic panels from Kongkee’s work on display. (Kristie Song/KQED)

In Warring States, the artist uses fluorescent cyberpunk imagery to “rip out” and distort conventional understandings of time and history. In Kongkee’s artistic universe, nothing is linear. Here, he intentionally plays with viewers’ expectations to create a multidimensional timeline: one where where everything can exist at once.

“River,” one of many immersive video installations, features a large, moving projection of items drifting in blood-orange water. Kongkee imbues the haunting, dystopian scene with nostalgic objects he grew up seeing in his native Hong Kong: road signs, ferries and a book titled Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time wade through still waters amidst an apocalyptic backdrop.

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He hopes that his bright yet bleak vision of the future provokes hope, urgency and reflection from attendees. There is a universality, he says, that comes from “being a human — being put in the river of time, of the universe.”

colorful LED screen art in a museum
LED installations that explore loneliness and perspective in ‘Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk.’ (Kristie Song/KQED)

As for Qu Yuan: Kongkee recasts him as a rock star, strutting through intense, highly saturated landscapes in fashionable robes. The artist speaks of the poet with reverence, noting this contemporary, edgy revamping suits Qu Yuan’s groundbreaking ways. During his time, Qu Yuan ushered in a new style of Romantic poetry that departed from conventional four-character verses in favor of lines that varied in length and expression. In his titular work, Lisao, he wrote: “I plucked soft lotus petals to wipe my welling tears / That fell down in rivers and wet my coat front.” Like Kongkee, his work was neither minimalistic nor subtle — it was effusive and overflowing.

But beyond the aesthetic revitalization of the historical figure, Kongkee is interested in how thinking about alternative pasts can open up pathways to alternative futures.

Kongkee’s art doesn’t provide answers — it inundates the senses and scatters timelines so viewers might begin to question their own chronologies. “Art is not about solutions,” Kongkee says. “It’s about the feeling, the connection.”

‘Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk’ will be on view Nov. 18, 2022 – Jan. 23, 2023 in the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Hours and ticket info here.

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