An exhibition just wrapping up at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum featuring award-winning contemporary Malaysia-born artist and animator Kongkee has put an exciting new vision of the future in the spotlight, while demonstrating a strategy that museums can use to make the past more relevant in the present.
The mind-blowing immersive exhibition Kongkee: Warring States of Cyberpunkwhich debuted in the museum’s new Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion in November, 2022, traces the legendary Chinese poet Qu Yuan’s soul on a journey from the ancient Chu Kingdom to an imagined 21st century Asia of cyborgs, electric rock, and surprising romantic reunions. The Hong Kong-based Kongkee, who has crowdfunded his publishing and production work to retain independence, brings a psychedelic, anime-influenced visual sensibility to the ancient work, and links the poet’s metaphysical concerns about the nature of humanity to today’s world of artificial intelligence, robotics and ubiquitous media saturation.
According to the museum, the show has set attendance records, running 15-20% over previous visitation levels for other popular exhibits, and selling out all merchandise, prints and catalogs from the gift store. It also helped the museum, which has traditionally focused on ancient art and archeology, expand its appeal to younger and more diverse audiences throughout the Bay Area.
Curator Abby Chen, who came to the museum in 2019 to spearhead more contemporary exhibitions, says that she was taken with Kongkee’s pop-oriented visual aesthetic from the moment she first saw it. “Kongkee jokes that he is too ‘arty’ for comics and too comic-influenced for the fine art world, but I find his style very exciting and unusual,” she said. “I really wanted to work with him, so when the museum started planning an archeology-oriented show about China’s ‘warring states’ period, I thought it would be interesting to have a contemporary artist respond to that.”
“This exhibition is kind of a breakthrough by creating an unexpected environment for the viewer,” said Kongkee. “I really want people to have the feeling that the works are breathing and having their own lives outside of the controlled atmosphere of a museum. The historic objects and my artwork should be hand-in-hand together, like they are talking to each other. Working with the Asian Art Museum, [we] combined [historical artifacts] with my artworks about the Warring States period, and at the end the screening of the three animated films from Dragon’s Delusiongathering all the pieces together in a moment of sustained joy, and pain, and wonder—we leave it up to the visitor to take away what they need to.”
The show is one of the first major exhibitions to highlight “Asian Futurism,” a movement that has taken shape in art criticism and contemporary culture journals over the past few years, seeking to address the tendency of futuristic constructed worlds to exoticize Asian influences as part of the background without centering Asian characters and stories.
“Kongkee’s work turns that critique into an affirmative vision,” said Chen. “It invites Asians to think collectively about what the future holds for us” by drawing inspiration from Chinese history, poetry and philosophy.
It also creates a new, more intimate context for the museum’s collection of historical and archeological artifacts. “When you display antiquities that you dig up and put into a museum, there is all this necessary infrastructure that separates the viewer from the object,” said Chen. “In America, there’s another layer, because the pieces are largely the trophies of the colonizers.
“To reclaim that history, you need to change the narrative, and that’s what Kongkee did. That makes us feel like they are objects of our own time, and also resolved the question of why these Asian objects are in our museum. For the longest time, I felt this huge distance [from the artifacts]and now I feel suddenly like we belong to each other.”
Kongkee: Warring States of Cyberpunk runs through January 23 at the SF Asian Art Museum, then will travel to Chicago, opening on April 18 at Wrightwood 659