Howie Tsui at Glenbow, Calgary

By Levin Ifko

Vancouver-based artist Howie Tsui’s 2017 video projection Retainers of Anarchy extends down a long, darkened gallery on the second floor of The Edison building in downtown Calgary. Glenbow is temporarily using this location while its nearby space undergoes a series of renovations. Walking the length of this 25-meter installation feels like I’m observing the many, diverse realities of people moving through a complex social and political landscape. The hand-drawn, animated imagery that Tsui has created is elaborate, and his video zooms in-and-out of this landscape, calling attention to countless moments of his characters sharing the space in friendship, conflict, and even horrific violence.

Howie Tsui, Retainers of Anarchy, 2017, video installation

At the same time, I am given glimpses into a multi-storied building that is displayed as if I was looking into a diorama. Moving through each room, I see groups of people engaged in spiritual practice, families in conversation, and a butcher at work. Then I’m startled by a piercing scream from someone hiding between clothing as it hangs to dry. Did I mention it was laundry day? In another room, people are gathered around a game table, a rice cooker boiling beside them. In another, somebody is eating noodles, captivated by a blaring television as kids sleep in the bunk bed behind him.

Howie Tsui, Retainers of Anarchy, 2017, video installation detail

A multi-media artist who was born in Hong Kong, and raised in Lagos and Thunder Bay, Tsui’s work draws significantly from the Chinese fictional style known as wuxia. A fantasy genre that depicts martial arts battles in ancient China, wuxia can be considered highly political because of the way it presents heroes from lower social classes who work to resist oppressive forces. Stories in the genre have been interpreted as being informed by historical Chinese imperialism. In Retainers of Anarchy, Tsui even references the pro-democracy protests of The Umbrella Movement, as well as recent political unrest in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Howie Tsui, Retainers of Anarchy, 2017, video installation detail

I was unfamiliar with wuxia prior to seeing this show, but I’m so appreciative to have been introduced to it through this work. As someone who is interested in the ways that people embody resistance to imposed control, I was drawn to the way Tsui powerfully emphasises the range of experiences within a political landscape. While watching the hundreds of human interactions in the video, I began to wonder how different groups of people can move through their daily lives in such different ways when they are all situated in a shared landscape of political unrest. In this way, I see Tsui’s work as being a pointed critique of how different these realities can be. Retainers of Anarchy invites viewers to reflect upon our many relationships to resistance.

Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy continues until April 16.
The Glenbow:
The gallery is accessible.

Levin Ifko is an interdisciplinary artist and programs assistant currently based in Mohkinstsis (Calgary). They will talk your ear off about music, media arts, and visual culture, but mostly they view art as an impetus for embodied connection with ourselves and the world around us.