The intoxicating cocktail of lust, mysticism and deformity that graces multi-instrumentalist and DJ Komodo's new-ish record only hints at the intricate web of crazy ideas, cultural stewing and synchronicity that led to its creation. Tip of the iceberg isn't quite the right phrase to describe this cover art. Perhaps: tip of the tongue, hiding cavernous metres of digestion.
Komodo (aka Matthew Burton) and Howie Tsui met years ago, through mutual university friends who all landed in Ottawa around Y2K or so. Burton soon ditched full-time work to concentrate on his music career in Montréal, which ebbed and flowed and flourished with his Komodo Dubs parties at SAT, and as he scoured the planet for new sounds and instruments for his DJ sets. In the fall of 2010, while collaborating with a choreographer on a contemporary dance piece for The MAI, he came across a crop of Tsui’s paintings in the gallery space that knocked his socks off, not least because he had no idea his old friend was even a visual artist.
At the time, Tsui was exhibiting his spellbinding Horror Fables scrolls (below), but there were also some pieces in the show from a slightly older body of work called Of Shunga and Monsters. To try and put it succinctly, Tsui’s work fuses historical wisdom or mythology and antiquated styles with a sort of hyperactive 21st Century dream logic, all of it steeped heavily in Asian pop culture and echoes of his childhood imagination.
Burton was smitten with everything he saw at The MAI, and went to check out a few more of Tsui’s paintings that were hanging at Yves Laroche gallery, where he immediately bought a piece from the Shunga series called “Carp Feed.” He loved how the small, powerful painting blended together so many ideas and emotions. “You see this kind of horrific looking fish monster thing eating these beautiful erotic women. It’s sexual and graceful and elegant and grotesque and sort of morbid all at once.” In the weeks and months after he bought it, and as he spent time with it while assembling the tracks for Shadow Dance at home, Burton realized that “to my ear, to my eye, the image felt very fitting to the music that I was working on.”
Shadow Dance was hatched by a slowly-gestating collaboration with a choreographer named Tomomi Morimoto, which debuted at The MAI in March 2010. The piece is called Threshold, and its approach is heavily inspired and influenced by a form of Japanese contemporary dance called butoh. Burton says butoh attempts to strike a balance between opposing body languages and ideas, such as light and dark, and he notes that it “has nothing to do with anguish after the A-bomb,” in spite of what you might find online. “One of the things you’ll see is a fascination with death or darkness or fear. But it can also be very beautiful. Sometimes it’s very cryptic and minimal, and you kind of wonder what’s going on. Other times it can be very dramatic and full of dynamic movement.”
He also says it often depends on the particular choreographer, and that Morimoto’s work was very suggestive of creatures and played a lot with facial expressions. The music he was crafting for her moves was “really moody and abstract,” trying to capture some of the sexual tension and mental unravelling that he saw and felt in the choreography. (He says the track “Invisible Forces” on Shadow Dance is basically one of the core soundscapes from Threshold.) So as Burton mulled over Tsui’s “Carp Feed,” he began to see parallels in the things that all three of them blending together.
“I look at the piece, and just the positions of the hands and shapes of the feet and the arms, and the postures of the bodies, to me it looked like they’re dancing, like they’re involved in some sort of ritualistic performance. And it kind of really captured some of the feelings we were playing with: madness, sexuality, the grotesque. Yet the first thing that I think when I look at it is that it’s beautiful, in spite of the potential horror or violence of it. It’s dark, and yet it doesn’t convey anger or depression. Are those people dying? We don’t know. If they’re making the transition into some next state of existence that involves not being alive in this body, they look like they’re okay with it — there’s some sort of acceptance as well.”
On another level, Burton also liked that Tsui was playing with artistic traditions from Japan and China, making the sort of mash-ups that only people who’ve been exposed to Canadian-grade multiculturalism can. This gelled with what he was trying to do musically as well, especially in his DJ sets, which feature live instrumentation such as Australian didgeridoo, Turkish flute and Chinese percussion played over electronica, sampled from what he describes as world music.
Burton started playing shows at The MAI in 2008, and a year later he began working with Morimoto on a 10-minute seed piece that would later evolve into the 50-minute Threshold show. Given the space’s mandate, it’s fitting that this is also where Tsui’s art came into the picture. “The MAI is really interested in people who are potentially cross disciplinary, but particularly where there’s more than one culture being addressed at the same time,” explains Burton of the fostering organization’s globe-trawling mash up of theatre, dance, music and art exhibitions. “The idea behind it is that, in a place like Montreal, you see lots of cross currents with different cultures, and it can be the source of new, inspirational ideas.”
Preparing for his first solo show in Ottawa in 2006, on the heels of getting his first grant, Tsui did a series of paintings called Of Manga and Mongrels. He calls this series, the first he’d ever done all at once, “a rejection of the cute, saccharine, candy-coated imagery I was doing” in favour of more grotesque themes.
As he was putting Manga together — which basically involved him creating two-layer collages by drawing over top of Hokusai manga pieces — an art zine called Faesthetic asked him to contribute to an issue whose theme was ‘Love & Death.’ So Tsui decided he’d apply the same technique to a shunga image and “push the grotesque thing a little further” to “make really freaky-ass monsters.” Shunga refers to a form of Japanese erotic art that became immensely, illicitly popular starting in the 1600s, but Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” from two centuries later is as good a place as any to start.
Tsui really liked the result, and began producing Of Shunga and Monsters next. He says this series “became more of a mental workout because the images are way more complex. They’re much more detailed and there’s a lot of components, so it was much trickier.” He’d printed and cut out a big stash of old shunga, and would work by taking one or two of them, “put them together and rotate them, overlap or cut off certain areas,” basically flip them around until he could “see an eye or a mouth or something. It’s very much a subconscious, looking-into-the-clouds kind of thing.”
Once he was happy with a blended composition, he’d use rubber cement to stick them face down on the bottom of a semi-opaque mylar surface, and then ink the top side. “So what happens is the collage on the backside is slightly recessed, and there’s an illusion of depth. I would ink what I see, sometimes recycle lines, fill some areas in, create textures in certain areas.”
Some pieces are paired because they use the same images in different configurations. Given their improvisational nature, it’s tough to pin down what exactly inspired “Carp Feed” or any of the other 17 or so Shunga pieces (most of which have actually been kept together). Tsui makes passing reference to the “Acrimboldo school” (after the Italian artist whose famous portraits are composed of painted fruit, flowers, fish and other non-facial items), maybe Brian Jungen’s masks made out of sneakers, and “a Japanese artist who does these portraits with all these little people in the face.”
Inevitably, the work mines a deeper recess of Tsui’s imagination. “I have this weird, nostalgic, suspended adolescent thing, where everything I make has some sort of reverberation with warm fuzzy memories I have from being a kid,” he explains. “When I was living in Nigeria, my uncles in Hong Kong would send me all these really cool die cast Japanese transformer robots. I very much see this series inspired by that. There’s something transforming into something else, with these shifting components. One thing is two things, with all these components building up to a whole.”
In retrospect, Tsui thinks he mostly just wanted to exercise his technique and experiment with variations on a motif before moving back towards making epic narrative paintings again. “Now I have much more confidence with a brush, and that’s when I made my real jump away from a western, Euro-centric, heavy paint brush, physical style and went more to a lighter, Asian, painting-on-paper kind of style. It was a good detour so I could bump up my brush and line work skills, and it really pays off in the Horror Fables series that followed.”
Tsui began creating Horror Fables during a residency in Baie Saint Paul in 2008. Obviously the scrolls — made on large, thick sheets of mulberry paper, painted with Chinese pigments and long-handled brushes — represent an intensification of his attraction to the grotesque, albeit with a familiar, clever sense of mischief lurking between the lines. Astonishing landscapes ripple with deformities, demons and other unearthly beings, culled from Asian folk tales and ghost stories, the fantastical proverbs of his parents and horror movies he watched as a kid. By embellishing their ridiculousness in the form of dense, muted, gorgeous pastiches of gore and foreboding, Tsui aims to turn the idea of fear as an authoritative tool on its ear.
He premiered the series at Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa in April 2009, and they’ve been received incredibly well at a handful of galleries across the country. Tsui particularly enjoyed showing them at The MAI, “because I’ve never presented it in another space with those fancy, barn-gate theatre lights. They were able to make the space really dark and really haunting, and I haven’t been able to recreate that anywhere else.”
Not that he hasn’t tried. At his Horror Fables exhibits, Tsui paints simple, flowing, abstract shapes and gestural brushstrokes on top of large sheets of rice paper taped to the walls. He then tears off the paper and stains the areas around the remaining marks and textures with sulphur from matches, leaving a “lifeless body” of paper on the floor and the “writhing souls that serve as paranormal residue” on walls, perching like blood-flecked apparitions. He also used this technique to create the cover art for a record called No Ghost, released in 2010 by The Acorn, for whom Tsui used to play guitar.
The video above is from Tsui’s summer 2011 show in Vancouver, called Celestials of Saltwater City. He also created a small army of wooden box projectors for exhibition visitors to play with and manipulate, so they could make his projected images interact on the gallery walls. Deploying this antiquated cinematic technology meant that he learned to build and debug the boxes, dealing with magnifying lenses, focal points, electrical wiring and other variables beyond his expertise. Similarly, the project he’s currently producing came from a curator asking Tsui to blend his style into another form and press his technical capabilities.
Collaborating with the Museum of Health Care in Kingston, he’s been commissioned to create three pieces that draw from the experiences of medical surgeons during the War of 1812. Enthralling in concept alone, one of them is a modified pinball machine, re-themed to explore the anatomical structure of the human body and the damage that battlefield medics dealt with in their day. Tsui is working with a pinball wizard/technician to replace the motherboard and ensure that all his graphical elements and triggered audio samples are operational.
Another of the pieces relies heavily on the anatomy lab at Queen’s University, where casts of donated bones and organs are being made by students to construct a huge sculpture. Tsui says it will feature “tweaked anatomy,” and that it takes some of its inspiration from a four-armed, musclebound Mortal Combat character named Goro.
“It’s weird having people making stuff for you and just conceiving of it,” admits Tsui, who usually produces everything solo. “I wouldn’t have really made a jump this drastic if I wasn’t proposed a project with such thematic limitations, I guess. But slowly, I’ve been more trusting and more experimental in the way I’m moving into mediums and things I have no idea how to do, and am actually kind of shitty at.”
At the same time, Tsui sees something of a full circle being realized, especially in the sense that he’s always been trying to blend strange realms into his work. “As I’m getting help from these people, I’m kind of being let into these subcultures, these tinkerers, hobbyists. It relates a lot to when I was first started making art, and I was really influenced by Otaku culture in Japan—people that are just obsessed with anime and manga. Now I’m seeing pinheads, these other bits of subculture that I didn’t know anything about. In a way, my work always kind of gravitates towards these very esoteric interest levels.”