Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk @ Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Kongkee, an award-winning animation director and visual artist, takes you back to the future in an odyssey more than 2,000 years in the making. Part comic book, part motion picture, part meditation on history repeating, the immersive experience of Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk 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.
Making its North American debut November 18, 2022, only at the Asian Art Museum, Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk invites visitors to step into a glowing series of animated vignettes—some projected across walls and ceilings, some featured on screens for more intimate viewing, some accented with interactive elements. The exhibition also features galleries of Kongkee’s art sketched in response to displays of age-old Chinese artworks from the museum’s collection. These inspirational artifacts, which are presented in the exhibition, include bronzes and jades from the eponymous Warring States Period (c. 481 – 221 BCE) and earlier, a time when China emerged from myth into history with the founding of the first empire by the Qin.
Curated by the museum’s head of contemporary art, Abby Chen, Warring States Cyberpunk will occupy the museum’s Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion which opened in 2021 with a blockbuster exhibition by digital collective teamLab.
“Kongkee starts his contemporary art process by researching and allegorizing the historical figures of the Warring States period, and this time, by cross-referencing the Asian Art Museum’s own archaeological Chinese collection,” explains Chen. “He brilliantly draws these ancient artworks into his own dazzling vision, showing how the past haunts the present, but also offering us moments of connection and reconnection that make space for imagining what a vibrant strain of ‘Asian Futurism’ can look and feel like, one full of energy, music, and color that creatively entwine the enigma of the past with caution toward cutting-edge technologies yet to be discovered.”
The exhibition centers on the migratory soul of the poet Qu Yuan ([Choo Yoo-wahn] c. 339 – 278 BCE) who drowned himself in a river, and whose legacy carries on in the famous Dragon Boat races and the associated festival that are lively features of Chinese communities the world over. “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.’” says 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? Qu Yuan’s poetry has a psychedelic, wandering quality to the language that I tried to reflect in my art, but I also wanted him to reflect the disorientation as well as the hope of our era.”
The result is a sci-fi neon dream that follows a resurrected android version of Qu Yuan, struggling with his memories of the river where he took his own life and pondering the duality of death and immortality, the body and the soul, and what it is to be human—or a machine that is capable of experiencing more than a human ever could.
The recurring use of floating waves, ambient percussion, and the museum’s own ancient art within the exhibition immerses audiences in the robot Qu Yuan’s quest for answers and the recovery of his soul. Visitors will follow along as he rises to rock stardom with the help of other androids in a contemporary cyborg fantasy that ends with his reconciliation with the reincarnated King Huai of Chu. In the background lurks the dark specter of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, a name forever linked to false promises of immortality, whose conquest of Qu Yuan’s homeland led to the poet’s suicide.
“The Warring States period was a time of political strife, but also a moment of profound artistic exuberance when many of the most enduring and potent motifs became embedded across ‘Chinese’ culture: snake-like dragons, all-over geometric patterns, spirit guides to aide your pursuit of longevity—even immortality,” says Jay Xu, the Barbara Bass Bakar Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum, and a globally-recognized specialist in early China. “Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk offers us all a way to connect the past to the present and to value how the digital crafts and digital storytelling of today—animation, video art, even video games—share the same kinds of hard-won technique, inspiration, and cultural influence as the bronzes, jades, and lacquerwares of old once did.”