An image of a human-robot rendered in blue tones against a green background. Their face is partially open revealing many small electrical and mechanical parts.
ABOVE: The Singer, 2018, by Kongkee (Kong Khong-chang 江記; b.1977, active Hong Kong and London). Courtesy of the artist and Penguin Lab. Copyright © 2018 the artist.

Warring States Cyberpunk

Annette LePique

In ancient China, the period of Warring States (c. 481-221 BCE) was marked by great technological advancements alongside political, economic, and social upheaval. During this time in China’s history, change was the only constant.

Hong-Kong born, Chinese artist and animation director Kong Khong-chang, known as Kongkee, takes this period as a springboard to reimagine the story of Qu Yuan (c. 481-221 BCE), a legendary poet in Chu State, in a futuristic yet dated Hong Kong. Kongkee’s Hong Kong is a city dislocated in time and space, and it’s denizens are also dislocated from their own identities and desires. Curated by Abby Chen and up at Chicago gallery Wrightwood 659, Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk uses the figure of Qu Yuan to explore how contemporary culture—especially the Chinese culture produced in Hong Kong—is mediated by and through the neoliberal ascendancy of the attention economy, new technologies, and global capitalism, and the imperial and colonial conditions embedded within these structures.

Qu Yuan is a popular figure in Chinese history. He was a favored advisor of King Huai, ruler of the Chu State during a period of the Warring States era, till the two men had a falling out. Legend has it that Qu Yuan cautioned the king against trusting the intentions of the Qin State. The king banished Qu Yuan in response and when the poet shortly heard of his home state being forcibly taken by Qin forces, he drowned himself in a tributary of the Yangtze River. The poet is celebrated in China every year in the Dragon Boat Festival, where festival participants look for his missing body.

Kongkee has long spoken of his fascination with Qu Yuan’s death. The artist connects the desire and despair that accompany a death by drowning to the desire and despair a subject feels under the ambiguous, ahistorical displacement of global capitalism and its colonial plinths. The image of the river is also a recurring leitmotif in Warring States, with Kongkee quoting the philosopher Heraclitis, that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” These two themes, the changing river and the indeterminacy of time, space, and identity under global capitalism, are where and how we meet the characters of Kongkee’s Dragon’s Delusion.

Originally conceived of as a comic book, Dragon’s Delusion is a multi-part animated saga that tells story of an android named Joe in an alternate version of 1960s Hong Kong. This Hong Kong is a city where people are classed according to their relationship to death, a nod to Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s documented obsession with locating the secret to eternal life. In the history of Delusion, Emperor Qin succeeded in his search and for around two hundred years, some Hong Kong residents have benefitted from the Emperor's findings. These residents are known as “eternals” and will live forever. Humans that remain vulnerable to death are an unspoken of underclass, alluded to but avoided in polite society. Androids occupy an indeterminate space between these two groups as they are ostensibly built to serve humans, with characters referring to their masters throughout Delusion, but they are imbued with human memories and at risk of obsolescence (a death of sorts) without their necessary updates.

As an android, Joe holds an ambiguous relationship to his own subjecthood, his individuality is constantly reaffirmed or denied by those around him. His primary relationships are with the characters Dice and Katherine. Dice is Joe’s business partner in vaguely shady enterprises and treats him as a machine. Dice is visibly unnerved and annoyed when Joe displays moments of humor. In contrast, Katherine is Joe’s romantic partner and constantly confirms his kinship with humanity. Throughout Delusion Katherine repeatedly tells Joe that he has a soul and “is just like us.” The narrative soon reveals its alignment with Katherine’s point of view as the trio commits a heist for an android memory/record tape which Joe unexpectedly recognizes. When Joe inserts the tape into his chest cavity, he awakens his memories as Qu Yuan. As Joe remembers and feels a compulsion to return again to the river where Qu Yuan’s life ended, the question of his identity changes: for is he Joe the android or Qu Yuan the poet? In short, our protagonist is both Joe and Qu Yuan. Through the system that Kongkee sets out in the world of Delusion, this Hong Kong is a place of splits, multiplicities, and fissures. Time is not linear and death itself is slowly becoming obsolete in a hybrid of a future and past.

The idea of hybridity is a guiding force throughout the animation of Delusion and the exhibition as a whole. Delusion, in addition to its psychedelic colors and hallucinatory images, is a mix of mediums. Taken up by multiple Hong Kong artists and animation studios, Delusion is not only a digital animated film and epic comic but a series of painstakingly rendered ink and graphite sketches, hand painted animation cels that have been transposed to manual projector slides, large-scale digital paintings, and original music. Kongkee’s other works in Warring States are immersive continuations of the world set out in Delusion. An intricate neon light sculpture hangs near the top of the gallery’s staircase like an uneasy guardian, with the commandments LOVE ME and LIKE ME emblazoned in bright coral amidst its whorls of glass. A cautionary quote on the unending nature of desire and hunger accompanies visitors up the stairs where they are met with a three project digital projection of the river where Qu Yuan died. The projects turn on one by one and the river begins to flow towards the gallery’s windows. Markers of modern life (debris, advertisements, nameless city buildings, etc.) and the figures of unconscious or injured people float silently down the river’s path.

Alongside the world of Delusion, Chen included and contextualized historical artifacts from the Warring State Period; a curatorial gesture that serves to rearticulate the massive technological changes that were occurring during the era. The friction between the historical objects and Kongkee’s new technologies is highly generative, it is another way to dislocate the viewer, another way to say that living out of time is normal in global systems where force is the norm and all life has a price tag. History here possesses the uncanny ability to repeat, accelerate, and bend inward, till its inheritors seem to be looking into a mirror. However, this is not to assert that Warring States submits to the strictures of these systemic violences. Rather, Kongkee takes the material of cyberpunk style and themes to craft a space of complexity and resistance. The cyberpunk world of Warring States is not only a space where an android can be a thinking and feeling being—and possess memories of a human past—but a place where residents of Hong Kong create new culture and ways of belonging in resistance to the weight of colonialism and capitalism. Such lessons are not mutually exclusive; cyberpunk allows, encourages, a world of “both, and.” In other words, every person is marked by these dystopian global structures, our human relationships have changed in response to violent inequality and new technologies but these same technologies offer connection, transformation, a sliver of humanity returned to us.

While the trappings of cyberpunk as a genre, style, and worldview were present in the work of sci-fi authors such as J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick during the 1960s and 1970s, the movement found cohesion in the work of William Gibson during the 1980s. Gibson considered how the internet, in concert with technology’s impact on sex and human relationships, changed our relationship to one another and ourselves. Cyberpunk itself can be an aesthetic, usually a mix of high tech and rough work, but it is also a critical framework by which to understand a world increasingly transformed through hybrid technologies and stratified by economic disparity. For Japanese cyberpunk1, the animated films Burst City (1982) and Akira (1988) are examples of the aesthetic and critical concerns emerging during an age of increasing globalization, material inequality, and technological advancements. Living through such change, to put it mildly, can feel apocalyptic. Especially if one belongs to the world’s underclass, like the humans unspoken of in the world of Dragon’s Delusion—those marked for death as the price of life grew too high. Cyberpunk worlds, like the panopticon of Akira’s Neo-Tokyo and the corporate dangers of Gibson’s Cyberspace, are natural bedfellows with the world of Warring States Cyberpunk. In essence the concerns of cyberpunk, its focus on the resistance and emergence of humanity changed yet reaffirmed, speak to the lessons of the exhibition for living in a world of inequality and violence enforced through technology. Warring States forces viewers to ask: “Who are you as you move through this world? Who are you to the people who care about you? Who are you, really?”

During Kongkee’s artist talk at Wrightwood 659, he mentioned that to understand what was happening in the world one should look to what was happening in Hong Kong. He described his home as a colonized city, one whose relationship to time and history is cyclical rather than linear, with such circuitousness reaffirmed by the systems of economic organization termed by the city’s relationship to mainland China. I would assert that such sentiment holds true for everyone, as capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism have global reach. We are all inheritors of the legacies, the violences, that have actively shaped the material organization of our world. We are by extension then responsible for changing these systems of harm for the care and betterment of us all. Warring States focus on the unbroken humanity of Joe, at once himself, machine, and Qu Yuan, is key. For are we not all pieces of those who made us, memories fissured by those we’ve touched and who’ve touched us in return? The lessons of Warring States are manifold but if you remember only one thing, remember that change is not the only constant, so is human connection.
A highly saturated multi-colored image of someone removing a full-face mask, with imagery in the background of robots, disco balls, corded phones, and other partial faces. Dragon’s Delusion — Departure poster, 2017, by Kongkee (Kong Khong-chang 江記; b. 1977, active Hong Kong and London). Courtesy of the artist and Penguin Lab.Copyright © 2017 the artist.

A two-panel image. Above is a highly distorted structure with rows of windows that recede into the horizon on the left and right. Below is a figure illuminating a small machine through three holes in a mask, one for each eye and mouth.
The Pier, 2018, by Kongkee (Kong Khong-chang 江記; b.1977, active Hong Kong and London). Courtesy of the artist and Penguin Lab. Copyright © 2018 the artist.

Image of someone seen from behind, cast in blue tones, who looks out onto a busy city street cast largely in greens and reds.
Time Traveller, 2018, by Kongkee (Kong Khong-chang 江記; b. 1977, active Hong Kong and London). Courtesy of the artist and Penguin Lab. Copyright © 2018 the artist.

A highly saturated multicolored image of a floating cybernetic face that, among other things, seems to have a cassette tape embedded in their forehead. A starburst pattern radiates behind.
Dragon’s Delusion vinyl cover, 2021, by Kongkee (Kong Khong-chang 江記; b. 1977, active Hong Kong and London). Courtesy of the artist and Penguin Lab. Copyright © 2021 the artist.

  1. The movement named such as it specifically stems from the country’s punk music and cinema scenes borne from the devastations caused by American imperialism



Annette LePique (she/her) is an arts writer and Lacanian. Her interests include the moving image and jouissance. She has written for ArtReview, Chicago Reader, Stillpoint Magazine, Spectator Film Journal, and has forthcoming work in Eaten and Belt Magazines.

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