Howie Tsui's Celestials of Saltwater City is haunted
Howie Tsui: Celestials of Saltwater City
At Centre A until July 2
Just inside Centre A’s front door, you come across the evidence of an epic struggle. Sketchy patches of paint on the wall depict demons, ghosts, and monsters. These are embellished with clouds of scorch marks, as if the supernatural beings had conjured themselves into our realm through the element of fire. Lying on the floor below these images are burnt matches, discarded matchboxes, and heaps of crumpled, painted rice paper—earthly encumbrances, sloughed off like the skin of a snake.
Running on a video monitor in the gallery is silent documentation of the opening-night performance by Howie Tsui that brought this work into being. The wall paintings and scorchings complement his series of scroll paintings, Horror Fables, which explore elements of Asian folklore and the cultural and individual uses of fear. These range from being an inspirational element for fantasy and creativity to being a means by which society keeps its citizens in line.
In a recent conversation with the Straight at Centre A, the Ottawa-based artist talked about his earlier influences, which included pop-culture sources such as Japanese manga and Hong Kong vampire films. In Horror Fables, he has turned to ancient sources for his imagery, including Asian bestiaries and cosmologies and Buddhist hell scrolls. By these means, he explores Asian folk tales of the supernatural and, again, the ways in which hair-raising ghost stories reinforce cultural values.
Tsui draws on some pretty scary visions of hell: people being flayed, decapitated, dismembered, boiled in a cauldron, dragged by galloping ghost horses, and eaten by monsters. His way of working combines the elegance of Asian scroll painting with a scruffy, scrappy, street-art sensibility. He’s taking an antiquated style, he says, and turning it on its head to produce “a chaotic mess”. This mess, however, has a point.
Recently, Tsui points out, governments and corporations have very concertedly used fear to keep the populace cowed and complacent. He doesn’t mention the word terrorism, but it is the most obvious contemporary case of whole nations being manipulated by fear into relinquishing some basic human rights and embracing some alarming hatreds. Horror Fables revisits ancestral ghost stories while satirizing this condition.
Tsui’s newest project, realized in a series of framed drawings on view in the gallery and also in a recent magic-lantern show with terrific sound sampled from Asian horror movies, is Celestials of Saltwater City. Commissioned by Centre A, it involves Tsui’s collecting ghost stories from a number of Chinese-Canadian elders in Vancouver. By this route, the artist has been able to plug into not only tales of the supernatural but also oral histories of immigration, working conditions, and family dynamics—recollections conveyed through the tropes of myth and legend. Many of the ghost stories told by these elders are cautionary and admonitory, having to do with the need to help the living and respect the dead. But they are also the sources of some wondrous images by Tsui, and a delightfully ghoulish and movingly tragic magic-lantern show that will stay with this writer for a long, long time.