M+, Hong Kong. Gift of PHUNK, 2020, © PHUNK. Photo courtesy: the artist
I think ‘Control Chaos’ is very much a seminal piece for PHUNK because it's the piece that inspired our trajectory as artists. It was the start of our universe and our narrative.
That’s Jackson Tan, one of the four members of Singapore-based art and design collective PHUNK, who created this vibrant video installation. It’s a new, animated version of a piece from a 2003 street art-inspired exhibition, that was silkscreened on corrugated cardboard. Its title, ‘Control Chaos’, reflects how PHUNK saw both their creative process, and the state of the world at the time.
There are quite a few inspirations behind the piece; everything from Chinese mythology and Hong Kong martial arts TV dramas, to urban landscapes and street art subcultures from across Asia—and beyond. Jackson told us more.
We liked the idea of the Ying and Yang in Chinese philosophy. And we always believe that you need both, so you need destruction in order to get creation. But we thought maybe it's an interesting balance between these both, and both sides always constantly trying to struggle and try to fight each other. And it's also very interesting to look at it from a Singaporean lens, you know, because Singapore is known to be so-called very much a controlled state in way, especially in the 90s.
The other thing that really influenced us is also like looking at Hong Kong at the time. There's a lot of, designers and illustrators that were moving from just doing design to doing street art and doing fine art.
And there was a transition period, where instead of just looking to the west for inspirations, a lot of the things that were happening were looking to the east actually, and seeing how the east’s mythology, the folklore, you know, the tales and morals can be reflected in these so-called contemporary settings.
And these inspirations and themes, woven through both the original ‘Control Chaos’ and the piece before us today, have stayed with PHUNK across their journey.
I think it's very much a part of our soul, you know, ‘Control Chaos’ is always within us. So, we are just basically expanding on that world and expanding on that universe when we are creating other pieces of work in PHUNK.
Control Chaos is a colour single-channel digital video created in 2020 by Singapore-based collective PHUNK. The silent video is one minute long. A 30-second excerpt of the video is on view in the exhibition Things, Spaces, Interactions, which opened in 2021.
The work consists of three horizontal rows of black-and-white imagery portraying scenarios in the Heavenly Realm, Earthly Realm, and the realm of Hell. The three rows feature highly detailed animated imagery in a cartoon-like style layered over diagonal red-and-blue stripes that move slowly upwards like those on a barber’s pole.
The top row is the Heavenly Realm with scattered clouds depicted as black circles with white swirls inside, resembling traditional Chinese cloud patterns. Crowded among the clouds are deities and structures, some of them are made up of a fusion of elements, such as an Asian pagoda with a McDonald’s signboard, a big-belly Buddha who wears a biker hat, sits cross-legged and has an empty bubble tea cup placed on his thigh, the Monkey God having intercourse with a horse that has a human body, and the Heavenly Dog with black spots on its body sitting with a black droplet shooting out of its penis. Some of these figures and structures vaguely refer to those present in Hong Kong martial arts dramas and the Haw Par Villa theme park in Singapore.
The middle row is the Earthly Realm. In the background is a city skyline packed with generic skyscrapers that resemble landmarks around the world, such as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the Empire State Building in New York, or the Tokyo Tower. Among the buildings is a giant squid extending its tentacles. At the front is a standoff between a group of riot police and citizen protestors standing at the opposite ends of the image. On the left, the riot police seem to be reloading their mortars with fish, and a number of fish are flying over their head as if just being shot out of the mortars. On the right, some of the protestors hold placards with bleeding smiley faces as reference to DC Comics’ Watchmen, some of them also wear the same smiley face.
The bottom row illustrates the realm of Hell. Depicted among black flames are scenarios of punishments meant to reflect the ‘Eighteen Levels of Hell’ in Chinese mythology, such as boiling cut-up body parts in pots, and burning bodies on pillars. The punishments are monitored by hell deities such as the Ox-Head and Horse Face, and the Black and White Impermanence, who are wearing stylish clothing like T-shirts, flip flops, and sneakers. Faces of members of PHUNK–with the looks of American rock band KISS—can be seen in various places in the hell. They give the V hand sign or the rock-and-roll hand sign. Three creatures with an eye-ball head and a human body are stacking up and reaching into the Earthly realm holding a torch of black flame to escort the dead into Hell.