The visual culture of urban cyberpunk has saturated our collective imagination – and it’s in full bloom at a new Tai Kwun exhibition
Bettina von Arnim, Verkehrswesen (1971), oil on canvas
Despite its futuristic fame, the Fritz Lang-directed sci-fi film Metropolis (1927) was only a small part of it. The rise of industry and money and man’s role – with the masses working as slaves for the ruling elite in a mega-city – formed the mainstay. With its art-deco urban landscape, futuristic skyline and obsession with technology’s potential to create machines that might soon replace human beings, the visionary film pre-empted the zeitgeist and now feels, a century later, like a trophy moment for today’s digital analytics.
In one of the film’s crowning sequences, Maria (played by Brigitte Helm) undergoes a Frankensteinian DNA-sequencing transmission as if by virtual hula hoop, wakes as an electronic diva – a female C-3PO who appeared 50 years before Star Wars – and dances a veiled, minxy, sinuous routine that’s so Mata-Hari-esque, the corpses of the Seven Deadly Sins rise in unison to play musical instruments in thrall to her seductive sheen and glossy exotica. Lang does for cinema what Mary Shelley did for literature.
Chen Wei, In the Waves (2013), photograph on lightbox
Lang, it transpires, was influenced by seeing New York in its nascent period of modernisation: “The film was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers in New York in October 1924… the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotise.”
Metropolis was the preface to what would become cyberpunk. The genre, from the outset, has depicted radical technological advances – plugged-in consciousness, androids that are indistinguishable from people – and worlds divided by unequal access to wealth and resources, where the multinational corporations, the sovereign states, the hackers, and the criminal underworld all vie for control.
Tetsuya Ishida, Interview (1998)
2019 is the year when numerous iconic cyberpunk films including Blade Runner (1982) and Akira (1988) are set. After decades of cyberpunk influence across a broad range of visual and written culture, the new Hong Kong exhibition Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future (until January 4, 2020 at JC Contemporary in Tai Kwun), considers the hold that the genre retains on our collective imagination by assessing how its tropes have bled into art and visual culture. It also explores and revisits how the genre’s aesthetics and futurisms can be seen from Hong Kong, one model of the “meta-city” – a sprawling urban space that’s just as virtual as it is real.
Cyberpunk has indirectly affected (and often reflected) Hong Kong’s visual culture, but through refractions of novels, movies and, in particular, anime, its influence has been pervasive. The present also offers a particular prism: how the cyber-metropolis has shifted from a fantastic metaphor for life in the future into an inescapable, looping present.
Seiko Mikami, The World Memorable- Suitcase (1993)
Far from having become outdated, cyberpunk’s dystopian scenes – its protagonists, networked and yet isolated, navigate neo-noir city streets that are illuminated by the glare of commerce – look like an average night on the town in 2019, whether you’re in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Tokyo or Jakarta. Like so much that was once seen as pre-millennium “cyber” or “virtual” – as outside of us, a separate and distinct terrain to be explored or conquered in a neo-colonial fashion – the realms of cyberpunk have begun to seem less like an otherworldly plane and more like a funhouse mirror of our world, lives and histories.
As part of the exhibition, Hong Kong-based art collective Zheng Mahler’s 2019 installation Nostalgia Machines highlights how Asian urban spaces continue to be evoked through techno-orientalist fantasies of the West, but also in the dystopian imagining of the future in Japanese popular culture such as anime.
Shinro Ohtake, Mon Cheri: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Shed (2012)
Meanwhile, Japanese photographer Takehiko Nakafuji’s Nightcrawler, Hong Kong, Tokyo, a visual representation of a city’s deformation and regeneration that was shot post-2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and pre-2020 Tokyo Olympics, reflects on Japan’s capital city. “Tokyo continues as a demon city of swirling energy, an ever-transforming monster, spinning out of control,” he posits. “Everything is nihilistic chaos.”
Korean artist Lee Bul’s After Bruno Taut, at once ancient and futuristic, shows us that utopia and dystopia are often one and the same. Note how she equates the material transparency (shimmering glass skyscrapers) with invisible corporate power and a pervasive surveillance society where no one can hide.
Zheng Mahler, Nostalgia Machines (2019), 15-foot video installation in collaboration with Reijiro Aoyama, musical score by John Bartley and Gordon Mathews
The more cyberpunk’s futures turn into reflections of our unremarkable, quotidian daily experiences, the more today’s science fiction is left in an awkward relationship with the future. Instead of forward-facing narratives, contemporary sci-fi has become dominated by crisis modes and generic fantasies of perpetual disaster. But whichever chronology and geography of cyberpunk you explore, it’s hard not to ignore the allure of its seductive ubiquity. From metropolis to monster; from Maria to cyborg; and from neuromancer to near-dystopia… here’s to the future.
Images: Courtesy of the artist(s) (In the Waves, Nostalgia Machines); from a private collection, Germany (Verkehrswesen); courtesy of Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna (The World Memorable: Suitcase); from a private collection, Hong Kong (Interview); courtesy of Take Ninagawa, Tokyo © Shinro Ohtake (Mon Cheri: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Shed); courtesy of Tai Kwun
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