You might have wondered who would win between Superman and Batman (Superman, obviously), or Captain America and Iron Man (#TeamCap), but what about your favourite comic heroes against figures from Chinese mythology?
Well, in Jacky Tsai’s striking lacquer carvings, Superman and Captain America seem to have met their match…
“Welcome Refugees” depicts the Man of Steel leading a bedraggled group of heroes from a warzone into a Confucian utopia, while “One Night in Macau” sees him cry in despair as he loses on the roulette table.
Combining traditional Chinese techniques with an American comic style reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein, Tsai creates vibrant pop art works that wryly question his home country’s changing place in the world.
The tension between socio-economic reform and conservatism is a recurring theme, both in the mixing of ancient techniques with pop art, and in the depiction of outside influences in traditional Chinese spaces. Conflict tends to ensue, with Superman often clashing with – and losing to – his Chinese equivalents; in “Pokemon Go In China”, for instance, various American heroes are caught and caged by beautiful Chinese women. Is this east conquering west, or the locals being distracted from their own culture by these brash new imports?
Other pieces are less ambiguous – “Tug of War” shows Superman, Batman and Iron Man losing a tug of war against an old Chinese man, while in “The Retirement” an ageing Superman plays Monopoly with a bunch of Chinese kids who run around the scene clutching bags of money; China is clearly winning on the global stage.
Tsai himself is a product of this new, international China. Born in Shanghai, he moved to London in 2004 to study at Central Saint Martins. He achieved widespread recognition when working for Alexander McQueen; as a lowly intern, he was asked for ideas the designer could incorporate into his work. His response was the now iconic “flower skull” that has become synonymous with the brand.
Tsai says he is now keen to be recognised on his own terms, and his second exhibition, at the Fine Art Society later this month, will certainly help his cause.