Superman might seem all powerful, but not even the Man of Steel can escape a hangover after a night of gambling and carousing. At least that's the way artist Jacky Tsai sees it in pieces that also depict Wonder Woman on the pole and Superman naked in a Chinese spa.
"In my view, superheroes are normal people as well," Tsai explains. "They are not always invincible: They have to face the depression, defeat, retirement, eventually face [up to] death, disappear in the world, then be reborn again from the death." The artwork does more than portray superheroes in a realistic light, though, as subtler themes reference political power struggles and figures.
The London-based Chinese pop artist includes works from his Superheroes series in his latest exhibit, The Lost Angels, at the Corey Helford Gallery (through November 25) in Los Angeles. However, this is just one side to an immensely talented artist with many visual styles. For example, the fashion world knows Tsai for creating British fashion designer Alexander McQueen's iconic floral skull and launching his own luxury fashion brand in 2014. PRØHBTD spoke with Tsai to learn more.
What were your earliest memories of American comic books and superheroes, and how did you initially react to the characters?
My first memory of American superheroes was watching the classic Superman movies with Christopher Reeve when I was a kid. He had superhuman strength, could travel 1,000 miles in a flash and can see through everything, and I thought to myself, "This is the American Monkey King!"
How did your view of comic book characters evolve as you became an adult?
As I grew up, just like everyone, I realized that the abilities the superheroes hold aren't real. Knowing that, the western superhero starts to be more of a symbol that represents the political power of the country.
In what ways does your art characterize the interaction between western and eastern characters, and does the art provide commentary on how the West and the East tend to view themselves?
The artworks give a hypothetical scenario of the visit of superheroes to China. It doesn't necessary provide a commentary of how the West sees the East or the East feels about the West. The artwork was based on some controversial issues that can be found in both societies and created a surreal scenery of a dialogue between these Chinese and West power figures.
To me, the superheroes represent the way America sees itself as a superpower. Did you have this in mind when you created the pieces, or did you see the superheroes as representing something different?
I see them as a symbol that represents the power of western countries.
American viewers will recognize characters like Superman, but we might be less familiar with the Chinese characters and imagery. What can you tell us about the cultural significance of the Chinese characters, settings and imagery you tend to use?
The Chinese hero usually comes from folk tales, classic literature or is based on true historical figures. The fact that they came from ordinary life, these heroes appear with no difference than common people. The idea of them also became more abstract. On the other hand, American superheroes usually have a clear description of their characteristics, ability and even their appearance, which can be easily identified by others.
American superheroes are traditionally depicted as virtuous, but your artwork sometimes shows them engaged in vices, such as Superman gambling, in a bathhouse or recovering from a hangover. These scenes can be interpreted in many ways—that even superheroes are human, or that superheroes aren't as virtuous as you might think, or the idea that you can still be a hero even if you engage in these "vices"—but what was the primary idea you had in mind when you created the scenes?
In my opinion, after a day of saving the people, saving the city, even the superhero will come home exhausted and order a delivery. They will go to the casino and get frustrated for losing their last dollar, and they will wake up from a bad hangover on Sunday morning. They are human just like us, and they have emotions and needs. It is the side that most don't recognize. They could be any of us, and we could be any of them.
Your latest exhibit references angels. Who are the angels? The superheroes or the people in the scene who help take care of them?
The angel refers to all of them.
In the U.S., conservative elements of society see drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and behaviors like these to be signs that a person lacks virtue and morals. Do you think your artwork reinforces or challenges this view?
The artwork does not reinforce or challenge these moral views. The way I see it, it presents life as the way it is. Not everything fits into our morals and virtue, and the artwork does nothing else other than present it as part of our life, even a life for heroes.
In what ways does The Lost Angels exhibit show your growth as an artist and visual storyteller?
The theme chosen is becoming more unique and challenging. We tried to view our ideas in different ways, experiment with new techniques and methods, and as a result, our artworks have developed and matured.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.