Rex Koo: The artist who makes you laugh about death

Rex Koo. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Rex Koo's work is bloody / hilarious.

What is Hong Kong’s visual style?

This is the last question I posed to local artist, animator, designer Rex Koo as we sat in a housing estate in Yau Ma Tei called Prosperous Garden 駿發花園. Having been active in Hong Kong’s creative circles for over two decades, Rex seemed more positioned than most to answer my query, especially when his latest solo exhibition, Bleeding & Death Are Two Different Things 七孔流血, reflects on his passion for “golden era” Hong Kong films.

After quietly pondering, he adjusts his signature thick-framed glasses before remarking that “one has to live here for so many years to even have a sense of it.” He cites the frenetic energy of crowds, highlighted by the elderly spotted briskly jaywalking, and the intense bursts of rainfall that contribute to the city’s indelible atmosphere. Rex’s response suggest that the notion of Hong Kong style might exist in an embodied state of being, rather than a set of visual motifs.

Animation of Andy Lau and Jacklyn Wu in the 1990 film A Moment of Romance 天若有情. Courtesy of the artist.

Rex’s elusive answer is best exemplified in his artwork. Marking the twentieth anniversary of the “handover”, last year saw a glut of exhibitions focusing on the elusive notion of “Hong Kong identity”. Rex’s exhibition Bleeding & Death at common room & co., was a playful and irreverent response to overwhelming nostalgia and sentimentality.

Drawing inspired by the 1995 film Out of the Dark 回魂夜. Courtesy of the artist.

Employing the subtleties of Cantonese vernacular humor, as well as a myriad of local pop culture references, the Chinese title of the exhibition七孔流血 literally means to bleed from seven orifices. The phrase directly references grisly, over-the-top scenes of death and dying in Hong Kong films from the eighties and nineties. I feel profoundly connected to Rex’s works, not only because they make me laugh, but I too, frequently get nose bleeds.

Installation view of “Bleeding and Death are Two Different Things”, common room & co., November 2017.

One of the works on view is an assemblage of one hundred toy televisions (above far right), on which the Chinese character for death 死 is spelled out through mini reproductions of the artist’s drawings of Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By 旺角卡門. Given that death remains a taboo in mainstream society, seeing 死 writ large is both strange and hilarious (imagine walking outside and seeing a flashing sign that reads: DEATH). The work is a reminder of how 死 peppers many casual Cantonese remarks, such as 死了, which can mean “I’m screwed” or “screw you” depending on the context. We all die, so we might as well laugh while we can.

Fatalism is a cornerstone of local humor, and Rex’s work oscillates between the absurd and the profound. My first time seeing his work is in his book of watercolor self-portraits, titled Facing Myself (2013). Rex has painted over three hundred of these portraits so far, joking that he made them because he “lacked source material other than his face.” It is an ongoing project that quietly remarks upon how the shaping of ideas into artistic outputs: whether as books, exhibitions, or films – happens over discrete days. His book traces the subtleties of change, and how days start to shape a person. Both Facing Myself and the works in Bleeding & Death employ sequences of images in order to slow down time. The viewer is urged to pay close attention to how life is passing, frame by frame, day by day.

Drawings from Facing Myself. Courtesy of the artist.

After twenty years of working as an artist here, Rex says he is “still reading Hong Kong.” He compares being in one place for a long time to watching the same movie again and again. As if one’s experience of being in Hong Kong is a movie to be re-watched and re-remembered.  His metaphor of the city as a visual text lingers with me long after we part ways. “It’s a little different every time,” Rex adds with a smile.

Still / Loud’s Arthur Tam contributed editing.