Monkey King meets Wonder Woman in Chinese pop artist Jacky Tsai’s show

Ironic and playful, Shanghai-born artists new works, currently in exhibition in London, comment on Chinese identity by contrasting figures from Chinese mythology with Western superheroes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2016, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2016, 1:50pm

Chinese-born, London-based pop artist Jacky Tsai – best known as the creator of the floral skull image made for late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen – likes to have fun with his work, even when dealing with serious subjects, as his latest exhibition shows.

Comprising 11 new works, The Harmonious Society – at London’s Fine Art Society until November 8 – takes a critical and sometimes ironic look at Chinese identity, touching on issues including immigration, gambling, and the perception of cultural differences.

Tsai presents a contemporary take on the politics and ideologies that have shaped China’s identity and the conflict between socioeconomic reform and conservatism. He takes inspiration from the notion of harmony, something deeply rooted in Chinese culture that has influenced its leaders from the time of Confucius (551-479BC). Earlier this century President Hu Jintao put forging social harmony at the top of his government’s agenda.

Jacky Tsai talks skulls and fashion

Tsai relays his message about straddling two cultures by blending characters such as the Monkey King with superheroes like Wonder Woman.

“I grew up in Shanghai and moved to London to complete my master’s at Central St Martins, and my experience moving between these two very different cultures and straddling the cultural divide continues to inspire my work,” says Tsai. “I’m really interested in the interplay and exchange of popular culture and how this plays into questions of national identity and cultural stability.”

Tsai is intent on using his art to tell stories. “By blending well-known Western superheroes and characters from Chinese mythology and novels I’m able to use humour and irony to tell stories and make political statements and commentary.”

“My work has a comic side so I can bring lightness and irony to more difficult subjects,” he says, and One Night in Macau perfectly captures this.

“Macau is the only [place in China] other than Hong Kong that allows Chinese people to legally gamble and is the largest casino gambling jurisdiction in the world. I was working on this new series around the time of the Brexit vote in the UK and this work draws on this theme, the challenges facing the UK economy in the wake of the vote to leave the EU and the effects on the value of the pound.”

His vibrant tableaus are made using a 3,000-year-old lacquer carving technique in which several dozen layers of natural lacquer are applied by hand to a wood panel into which images have been painstakingly engraved.

Tsai, who held a solo show at Hong Kong ‘s Cat Street Gallery in March 2016, says he “will definitely be back with more Hong Kong shows in the future”.

Jacky Tsai’s The Harmonious Society, at London’s Fine Art Society until November 8.