Michael & Chiyan Ho at V.O Curations

Artists: Michael & Chiyan Ho

Exhibition title: Kūnlún

Venue: V.O Curations, London, UK

Date: November 19 – December 16, 2021

Photography: all images copyright and courtesy of the artists and V.O Curations

The mountains of Kūnlún, in ancient Chinese mythology, are the dwelling place of gods and fantastic beasts. They are also, of course, an actually existing mountain range. This mystical locale, situated somewhere between reality and myth, provides a particularly apt window into the practice of Michael and Chiyan Ho. The duo studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London before developing an idiosyncratic painting practice that involves pushing specks of acrylic paint from the back of the canvas to the front to form the backdrop, then switching to oil to paint the figures on top. In this laborious process, marked by both formal ingenuity and symbolic fecundity, an enigmatic space—one in which ambiguous protagonists lie afloat in nocturnal fields of lush foliage—is called into existence.

This in-betweenness is central to the duo’s work, a liminality in no small part rooted in their experience as second-generation Chinese immigrants living in the UK. Eschewing a didactic or revisionist approach to representing the diasporic experience, the duo opts for fabulation instead, and recasts images from the usual orientalist repertoire into new, magical realist narratives. Greeting the audience at the entrance, three opium poppies stand amid a field of hazy purple in A Century (2021). An allusion to China’s near-century-long quasi-colonization resulting from the opium trade, the work exudes a macabre beauty. Echoing this uncanniness is Essence of Stone (2021), a large-scale canvas suspended in mid-air to the left. An East Asian man clad in a cassock-like garment kneels in farewell beside a body in a jade burial suit, a charged scene that affords a rich array of readings. A metaphor, perhaps, for China’s transition from imperialism to modernity as mediated by the influx of Western power and belief systems. The artists have treated the jade burial suit in such a way that each piece of jade, when examined close up, becomes a landscape. This link between body and environment, especially when read alongside Insidious by Nature (2021), would seem to belie the artist’s anti-essentialist critique of cultural formation. The latter work is a portrait of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu—more specifically, the version played by Christopher Lee in The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). As has been written about extensively, the mutating reincarnations of Fu Manchu constitute a monstrous form onto which Western colonial empire has projected its polyvalent fear of the Oriental Other, from a perverse yellow peril contaminating the white race to a mad scientist lusting after the West’s technological prowess.[1] Rendered here on canvas with a deadpan expression, his narrow eyes gleaming with a yellow hue, the portrait recuperates this technology of monster-making to expose its historically constructed nature.

Cultural assimilation and creolization, another major theme in the duo’s work, informs a series of paintings in the right wing of the gallery space, where the artists continue to mine their figure of the Chinese cowboy. Loosely inspired by the story of Bruce Wang, a native of Yunnan (a province in Southern China) who adopted the cowboy lifestyle after moving to Texas for university, these works traffic cowboy iconographies through the same liminal spaces that pervade all the canvases on view. Presented in fragmented fashion—jeans and underwear left by the lake, a horse entangled in a bush, a barely recognizable pair of cowboy boots dissolving in a pool of purple—this group of paintings urges us, with a charged erotic energy, to imagine the fate of the Oriental cowboy by filling in the gaps on our own.

Figures, in Michael and Chiyan’s tableaux, are almost always elusive. In the largest canvas work, Blue Dawn (2021), four characters caught in a moment of stillness are separated by a foreground of overgrown foliage. Sharing a melancholic expression, they are all either looking away, looking down, or with backs turned to the audience, never confronting the viewer’s gaze. What are they hiding from? This obscurity, to me, is at once a metaphor for the place of the Asian diaspora within a predominantly white society and a deliberate withdrawal by the duo from the (affirmative, sometimes reductive) conventions of representation prescribed by the contemporary art world to POC painters. They prefer to wield a place of enigma, to speak in riddles. Like the fabled Kūnlún, where gods and beasts reside, the duo’s work is an ongoing practice of worlding that breaks away from the dichotomies shaping the quagmire today.

-Alvin Li

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Kūnlún, 2021, exhibition view, V.O Curations, London

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Kūnlún, 2021, exhibition view, V.O Curations, London

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Kūnlún, 2021, exhibition view, V.O Curations, London

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Kūnlún, 2021, exhibition view, V.O Curations, London

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Kūnlún, 2021, exhibition view, V.O Curations, London

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Kūnlún, 2021, exhibition view, V.O Curations, London

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Kūnlún, 2021, exhibition view, V.O Curations, London

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Blue Dawn, 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 350 x 210 cm

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Night Fallen, 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 260 x 105 cm

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Insidious By Nature, 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Michael & Chiyan Ho, In the Dark; Off the Air, 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 160 x 180 cm

Michael & Chiyan Ho, A Century, 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 20 x 30 cm

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Midway Downstream, 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 65 x 50 cm

Michael & Chiyan Ho, Essence of Stone, 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 225 x 135 cm