Installation view of ZHENG MAHLER’s Nostalgia Machines, 2019, video installation: 15 min, in collaboration with REIJIRO AOYAMA, at “Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future,” Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2019–20. 

Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future

Also available in:  Chinese

When cyberpunk emerged in the final decades of the 20th century, the genre reflected contemporary anxieties about radical social and technological change. Today, as governments and corporations mask ever more sophisticated data-mining and surveillance technologies behind deceptively benign interfaces, the world seems well on its way to fulfilling dystopian cyberpunk prophecies. “Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future” interrogated the ways in which the genre’s hallmarks have manifested in existing sociocultural imaginaries, with works that dissected, to varying degrees of success, the line it treads between astuteness and cliché.

Among the touchstones of cyberpunk is the Asian metropolis, a meeting of glass-and-steel facades and rundown shanties under Western eyes. Projected onto the entrance of the gallery, Zheng Mahler’s Nostalgia Machines (2019)—which leads viewers through a neon-lit, video-game version of 2050 Hong Kong where people escape reality via simulations of idealized pasts—adopts the trappings of cyberpunk while pushing back on its techno-orientalism. A solemn, incongruously Japanese voice-over (either an homage to Japan’s influence on the genre or, less charitably, a dig at White writers’ pick-and-mix attitude to Asian cultural references) recites such hackneyed lines as “The city is erotic and dreary,” but continues with a cogent examination of Hong Kong as a site where competing colonial powers have fought for influence. Set three years after the city will actually be incorporated into China’s communist regime, the video portrays a cityscape in which local imagery has been obliterated by signs for mainland corporations. Zheng Mahler resists demonizing any past or future hegemon, but rather teases out the complexities of how Hong Kong is viewed and views itself, reclaiming it from occidental fantasy.

Some works were less adept in their engagement with the exhibition’s themes. Chan Wai Kwong’s pink-lit stairway plastered with high-contrast, black-and-white images of Hong Kong’s seedy bars and street scenes doubled down on an eroticized portrayal of the city. The orientalist spell was broken by the phrase “Hong Kong add oil,” stamped onto the work by the artist in response to the escalating anti-extradition-bill protests at the time—a superficial injection of realism. 

The show could be faulted for a reliance on surface-level connections to cyberpunk, but the loose remit allowed unexpected dialogues to arise between disparate works. In the third-floor gallery, Cui Jie’s Cell Tower (2019) canvases of glinting, semi-abstracted buildings hung on the wall opposite Tetsuya Ishida’s grotesque painting Observation (1999), depicting human heads attached to rusty cylinders and bent solar panels. Shinro Ohtake’s life-size shed, fashioned after a Japanese snack kiosk and filled with knickknacks, pop-culture memorabilia, magazines, and a giant collaged scrapbook, occupied the center of the space. Repurposing items from different countries, Ohtake’s 2012 installation reflects the chaos of the consumerist, media-saturated landscape. Considered together, Cui’s sleek modernist studies, Ishida’s post-apocalyptic scene, and Ohtake’s ramshackle shed revealed a coherent, layered, and thematically relevant narrative of double-edged modernity—one that accounted for its inescapable allure while reckoning with its devastating potential to reduce the world to a junkyard.

Nowhere was this ambivalence more resonant than in Lee Bul’s After Bruno Taut (Beware the sweetness of things) (2007). Resembling a lopsided chandelier, the suspended sculpture is in fact a model of a speculative city, inspired by the German architect’s idea for an Alpine utopia built of glass. A fantasy conjured in the wake of World War I, Taut’s opalescent metropolis was never realized. Lee’s structure materializes the stunning idea, but the crystal edifice looks too fragile, too likely to collapse under its own weight. The addition of mirrors beneath Lee’s work was a literal but visually arresting means of capturing the illusion of the futuristic ideal, which perpetually teeters on the brink of vanity and obsolescence. Again, while ostensibly un-cyberpunk, Lee’s sculpture made sense within an exhibition that distilled the genre’s essential aesthetic and intellectual concerns for a wider consideration of their artistic expressions. “Phantom Plane,” with its calculated complexity and internal contradictions, acknowledged that the worlds we envisage, in hope or in fear, are imprints of reality observed through a glass darkly: inevitably and hopelessly incomplete.

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