The candy-colored and taboo world of Wong Ping
Wong Ping’s animations give us a glimpse of a strange inner world – a world of unhappy and depraved characters caught in a sequence of surreal twists.
The new museum exhibition “Wong Ping: Your Silent Neighbor”, until October 3, features six of the captivating animated works of this Hong Kong artist, which began to appear in prestigious exhibitions around the world after leaving tedious postproduction work on TV and founded Wong Ping. Animation laboratory in 2014.
With his deliberately crude creations, Wong seems determined to despise the fancy world of high-end television. His characters are built from basic geometric shapes. The scenes are rendered in cyan, red and lime green which will trigger memories (if you have any, and I do) of “surfing the web” on the dial-up Internet. But even though they seem childishly simple, the videos are very grown-up. Adults because they are obscene. Adults because they are weary of the world.
Fate repeatedly drags people into the sea and spits them out on the shore in these animations. Their quick plot reversals can make you feel like you’re watching something between a stoner movie and the vortex of pixelated cherries on the screen of a video slot machine.
The protagonist of “Wong Ping’s Fables 2” (2019) is an anthropomorphic bull who accidentally impales a cop to death during a political protest and is then sexually assaulted in prison. He also uses his time behind bars to write a doctorate. dissertation on the immorality of stewed beef. Later, out of prison and penniless, he sells the jeans of his body. Surprise! They go for money. Ripped jeans are chic, turns out. Soon he built a fashion empire and became one of the richest animals in Hong Kong. And that’s not even the first half of the plot.
Wong’s show deserves attention – and not just because the works are funny. Their NC-17 content is hard to ignore and may be difficult for some to digest. However, focusing on their shock value misses the point. With their cunning humor, the works are ultimately tragicomedies. They are full of characters trapped by quirks and perversions, and then also shaken by forces beyond their control.
Dark voiceovers in videos do a lot to set the tone. Wong’s male first-person narrators are reminiscent of the lonely, watchful detectives of Hong Kong neo-noir films, for whom all manner of shock and gore was just another day’s work. Even total helplessness is described with stoicism. In “Jungle of Desire” (2015), the narrator, a helpless and poorly paid host, watches his wife become a sex worker who receives clients at home. He tries to stay outside and give her space, but Hong Kong’s public spaces refuse to cooperate. They are full of hostile architecture (“spiky things”) and people who wake up anyone who sleeps in a park. So, the main character ends up hiding in a closet in the house while his wife’s customers pass by.
Often times, Wong’s videos treat women with fascination and disgust. There is a childish focus on the parts of their body: breasts, varicose veins, feet. This may not seem like a high priority to you, especially as #MeToo has renewed the review of the disproportionate airtime and storage space given to straight male desire stories. Perhaps you will be more inclined to see these works if I add that they are not quite about an imbalance of power between a lewd man and a helpless woman. If there is a power imbalance here, it is between people and the realities that overwhelm them. Stagnant wages. Corrupt law enforcement. The loneliness of screens and devices.
Political anxieties hover at the edge of the spectacle like a ghost barely recognized by the living. In “An Emo Nose” (2015), a man’s nose lengthens when he feels “negative energy”. To appease her, the man stops talking politics and gives access to his nose to sex and ice cream. (In this scene, the flower petals on the Hong Kong flag wither and fall.) Elsewhere, the main character of “Who’s the Daddy” (2017) mistakes a dating app for one to help him find friends of the same political affinity.
At many times, Wong’s videos reminded me of artist Mike Kelley and his friends, whose abject and messy work took the art world by storm decades ago. Kelley, who died in 2012, knew how to distinguish sadness and provocation, whether he was exhibiting torn stuffed animals or showing a piece of art by serial killer John Wayne Gacy in a project about artists and the criminality. Certainly, Kelley’s art has often been placed in the context of working-class American suburbs, while Wong’s work takes place in the city of Hong Kong. But as Kelley has successfully done, Wong seems to be harnessing his own sense of inadequacy and depravity to achieve something bigger: how socio-political realities fuel the disappointments of adult boys who can’t be men.
Even the design of the exhibit for “Wong Ping: Silent Neighbor” seems in part to channel Kelley, who had a weakness for seedy fabrics, knitted afghans, and plush toys. The main hall of Wong’s exhibition – which was curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari with Francesca Altamura, a former curatorial assistant – has a central mound of bean bag chairs and a platform covered with high pile carpet. This is where visitors can lie down while watching Wong’s animations on the surrounding screens.
There is no illusion of cold sterility in this seating arrangement, which seems important given how often Wong’s animations allude to hygiene, body, and public space. Take the germ-conscious city dwellers in “The Other Side” (2015), who only use their lower bodies to get through the turnstiles. They would surely view the bean bag chairs with some hesitation. You could too, as a visitor to this show. If you are standing, you will have to allow the discomfort of your posture to make the discomfort induced by these works of art worse. Or you’re going to go: you’ll squat on a soft cloth and accept a full-body immersion in the weird and degraded world of Wong Ping.
Wong Ping: your silent neighbor
Until October 3 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan. (212) 219-1222, newmuseum.org.