The Fright Stuff

Gape-mouthed monsters overrun swirling landscapes of fever and dream. The preternatural world consorts freely with ours, often to violent and surreal effect. Aesthetic touchstones such as Manga, Buddhist hell scrolls and Hieronymus Bosch have been thrown into an art blender set to “Phantasmagorical,” producing mind-melt milkshakes that seep heavily into the darkest cracks of our psyche.

Indeed, Howie Tsui’s Horror Fables, currently showing at Aceartinc., is fantastical and horrific. But it is also, perhaps more than anything else, reflective of the deep-seated discord that informs our conception of those things — our fears. Ask the artist what fears inform and compel him, however, and you’ll get a response firmly rooted in reality.

“I’m in a band, and we drive around a lot, so I’m afraid of dying in a van-related accident,” the Ottawa-based artist said. Tsui pauses for a beat and then adds, with perfect deadpan, “and overcooked meat.”

Yes, with Howie Tsui, there’s absurd humour to be found even in something as unsettling as Horror Fables. Perhaps much of this reflects the formative experience of the artist, who grew up in Hong Kong and Nigeria before moving to Canada, and identifies as still operating within a zone of “suspended adolescence.”

“There’s definitely a fun, whimsical and kind of surrealist application of fear [in Horror Fables], the way my Mom would use it when I was a kid,” Tsui said. “Like, she would use fear to get me to do things. You know, she’d say ‘for every grain of rice left in your rice bowl, that would be how many warts your future wife will have.’”

While Tsui deftly conjures the naivety of childhood, he also explores “the other end of fear,” the one rooted in overarching socio-cultural attitudes, and how it often checked his behaviors and impulses. One example Tsui offers is a Cantonese expression roughly translating to “grow eyes, impale pupil,” that his “Mom would use, saying if [he] was to watch pornography [he] would feel a needle poking through the eyeball.”

The humourous-in-retrospect tales our parents used to instill fear represent relatively soft mechanisms of behavior control. But Tsui believes that they also echo the not-so-humourous manner in which contemporary power structures, particularly in the West, employ fear to control societies.

“One of my original intentions was to satirize how Neo-Conservative and media machines use fear,” Tsui recalled. “In the end, I don’t know if [I] necessarily ended up doing that, specifically. I was hoping, given the current social climate, that the use of fear is evident and permeative. So I was using [Horror Fables] to investigate horror and fear-mongering more generally.”

The large-scale narrative scroll paintings of Horror Fables are accompanied by pieces that Tsui describes as “ephemeral wall painting.” To the casual observer these works are perhaps equally enigmatic — ghostly apparitions which haunt gallery walls.

“I call it ‘spectral residue,’ and I kind of discovered it through a happy accident,” Tsui said of his technique. “Basically I paint on rice paper and the ink bleeds through, transferring onto the wall. Then I use matches to add detail and colour saturation with smoke stains and such. I guess, metaphorically, the rice paper is the corpse, and the stain is the spirit.”

During his stay in Winnipeg earlier this month, Tsui also got involved with West Broadway community art centre Art City through their Professional Artists Series. In workshops, he guided participants in the creation of masks and floating puppets in the style of Yōkai, the demons and spirits of traditional Japanese folklore. Many of these creations will be on display at Art City’s month-end “Night Parade of 100 Monsters!” Tsui anticipates returning to the city to participate in the event, as well as Aceartinc.’s Halloween Party, for which the artist crafted unsettling sound collages from Asian horror films.

Horror Fables runs at Aceartinc. until Nov. 13. Art City’s Halloween Party takes place on Oct. 30 from 4–8 p.m.. The Acearttinc. Halloween Party starts at 9 p.m. on Oct. 30.