Chinese poet Qu Yuan is reincarnated into a cyborg in ‘Warring States Cyberpunk’

Chinese artist and animator Kongkee’s multimedia exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, “Warring States Cyberpunk,” is equal parts history lesson and science fiction extravaganza. Expanding on his award-winning 2020 film “Dragon’s Delusion,” the video installations and sculptures on view tell the story of the Warring States Period (482-222 BC) Chinese poet Qu Yuan, from his suicide in 279 BC to his imagined reincarnation in the body of a cyborg in a dystopian future Asia. This blend of timelines results in a lo-fi futurism rife with philosophical and spiritual quandaries. From geometric wallpaper to brightly colored animations, the overall neon psychedelic aesthetic clashes with the work’s historical content, a tension that is the catalyst for the show’s most interesting conceits. A series of bright, large-scale chromogenic reproductions of comic book pages provide a poetic chapter to the narrative, in which one character posits, “People change, robots don’t. They are closer to themselves than us.” It’s an existential question,but cast in both a spiritual and a technological light a video diptych titled “Are You Flying or Are You Drowning,” 2022, projected on the ceiling of a room. The looping footage cuts between clips of rippling water and the floating silhouette of the drowned poet, giving the viewer a feeling of submergence within the piece. Here, we’re invited to wonder if death can be a form of freedom, especially when thrown against the question of immortality that a robot might possess. Is mortality the definition of humanity? How might reincarnation complicate this? “Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,’” said Kongkee. “I asked myself, what happens when a soul emerges after 2,000 years under water — does it seek out something new? Does it return to places that are familiar?” One of the most powerful pieces in the show abandons the larger narrative in favor of a meditation on this philosophical question. “You Can Never Step in the Same River Twice,” 2022, is a looping video showing a simply sketched character walking, the top and bottom halves of the figure screening out of sync, only matching up perfectly for a split second. The phrase, “I just can’t find myself most of the time,” flashes on the screen. You don’t have to be a time traveler to relate. >Warring States Period antiquities from the museum’s collection are interspersed throughout the exhibition, offering both insight into Kongkee’s research process, as well as another avenue for visitors to traverse the tensions between past and future. The largest video installation in the show, “River,” 2022, taking up the entire wall of a room, is a scene of the flotsam of a fallen civilization moving downstream. It’s hard not to see the antiquities in the show as remnants similar to the traffic signs and statues in this video, and to wonder how the relics of our own civilization will be viewed in the far future. By the time I arrived at the excerpts of “Dragon’s Delusion” screening in the final gallery space, the film felt almost superfluous to the exhibition, like a codex that might presume to explain the prior experience but is itself only one aspect. That isn’t to say it’s a lesser work the animation, storytelling and soundtrack are all stunning but what the whole exhibition achieves via a counterintuitively less-is-more approach feels greater in scope than its source material. Each element of the show provides a glimpse into a larger cosmos, never quite revealing a total picture and it’s that fragmentation that makes Kongkee’s vision feel as vast as the span of time.

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