All Watched Over by the Internet of Loving Grace
I stalk Wong Ping on his Instagram account, to which he posts on a regular basis. Perhaps he stalks me too, and other accounts that serve as source material for his imagination. Like many millennials active on social media, myself included, he uploads a steady stream of pictures — of food, funny animals, strange encounters, family portraits, self-deprecating selfies,and snapshots of him goofing around with friends. Once you’ve encountered Wong’s work you can’t help but see the application as a kind of sketchpad where he collects images and inspirations, as well as characters and stories, that might later find their way into the narratives of his animations and installations. In fact the ‘elephant ex-girlfriend’ who appears in Wong Ping’s Fables 1 (2018) and who has a fetish of deep double eyelids, can be traced back to his very first Instagram post in 2012.
Taking the form of short animated films, they follow Wong’s retro-pop styling and candy-coloured palette, whilst developing the bold graphic approximations that characterise his earlier works. Here, his images are deliberately low-res and blurry, walking the line between outdated and should-be-deleted bad pictures. This new visual language ridicules contemporary technology’s obsession with ever-higher resolution, as if it might bring us closer and closer to reality when the contrary is more often true. What Wong sees as the “simplicity” of his videos — recalling digitised Lego or 1980s computer games — is what lends them their particularity and appeal.
Narrated in Cantonese, the artist’s mother tongue, they emerge from Wong’s recent interests in a very particular form of storytelling, exemplified by Aesop’s fables and the tales of the Brothers Grimm. In 1797, when they were just 11 and 12 respectively, Wilhelm Carl and Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm made a drawing that depicts, in gory detail, the guillotining of Louis XVI on the Place de la Révolution (later renamed the Place de la Concorde in 1795). The event had taken place a few years earlier, in 1793, symbolising the culmination of the French revolution as the ultimate representation of modernity’s advent. Imagine the young Grimm brothers — invigorated by the imminent arrival of a modern Germany after the Franco-Prussian War — beginning to express themselves, and this momentous moment, through image-making and storytelling.
This early drawing already suggests their underlying interest in the frightening and macabre depictions of dismemberment that they would go on to conjure up regularly and with great invention and originality in their now classic collection of fairy tales. And however gruesome their scenes, plots and characters may seem today, their work is not seen as a regression or return of the dark ages, but instead represents what was necessitated by the act of ‘becoming modern’ (particularly in the case of this auspicious decapitation). Their stories are both portraits of the Grimms’ time and of more universal and timeless human fears, urges and desires.
Often populated by animal characters, Wong’s fables borrow the structure and sentiment of these classic tales to address our own contemporary realties which, behind the saccharine aesthetic and surface positivity, are similarly saturated with violence, exploitation, corruption, misogyny and alienation. If the Brothers Grimm’s time was turbulent, chaotic and confusing, when “chopping up bodies” and “cutting off toes and heels” * was not so outrageous, then what kind of a time do we live in now? Are we really any better or more civilised? What if we are still the same beasts only dressed in different fashion? And which direction is the arrow of humanity facing when we are so sure that becoming vegan or separating the recyclable from the compostable waste represents an unassailable moral progression?
Wong Ping ventures through these queries with absurdity and satire. But he does so in a way that ultimately raises more questions than he answers. His fables are not black and white morality lessons that tell you what is right or wrong. The characters are complex, nuanced, and difficult. As soon as we start to show sympathy and affection for them, they invariably become deadly. Before embarking on this ambitious series, Wong often used the language of sex and modern relationships to comment on deep social issues: from body shaming and school bullying in Doggy Love (2015), to prostitution and police corruption, in Jungle of Desire (2015), religion and patriarchy in Who’s the daddy (2017), and pornography and taboo sexual fantasies in Dear, Can I Give You a Hand? (2018). But the artist’s practice has always revolved around a sense of antagonism or even vengeance toward the world of regulations, formalities, conventions and controls, and this is reflected in the development of his work. When something becomes overly recognisable and familiar, Wong starts to challenge his system and techniques, including scenario, character development and aesthetics. The Fables series is almost devoid of the sexual imagery and narratives that drove so many of his earlier films, instead introducing convoluted dilemmas that reach toward complex moral questions in an oversensitive era.
Like those from Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, each of the fables starts with the famous “Once upon a time…”. However, for the artist this tactical opening line does not refer to an abstract time and space to excuse the stories’ fantastical nature. Instead, it provides an artistic distance with which to discuss very real and difficult topics. In the Internet era, when moral behaviors and ethical standards can be standardised and algorithmised, often manipulated by the greater scheme of economic gain and marketing strategies of certain life-styles, how shall we question such so-called political correctness? The protagonist in Dear, Can I Give You a Hand? struggles to understand what kind of time we are living in. His ghost craves food traditionally offered during Qing-Ming Festival (a traditional holiday in Hong Kong and Chinese culture when people pay tribute to their deceased ancestors and family members) such as roaster pig and steamed chicken, but instead is provided with avocados and kale because “society had progressed”; or when he realises that his son’s agenda in opening an old people’s home to accommodate his father is actually to exploit progressive ideas and make more money. Again, Wong does not preach about what is appropriate and what is not but asks questions that confront linear thinking.
In Wong Ping’s Fables 1, the morally and (almost) physically perfect chicken—who has overcome his Tourette’s Syndrome through hard work and determination—sets in motion a fatal chain of events, aggravated by his impaired nervous system, that results in a mass slaughter during a police rescue mission. In the story, the reduction of the celebrated societal role model to that of an evil criminal is broadcast live through the Internet and of course goes viral. The process is further dramatised by the capriciousness of social media: when the click rates drop from half a million to zero he is relegated to a position of irrelevance despite his previous merits. Clearly, Wong’s critique is not intended for his anti-hero but us, the silent observers, who are both voyeurs and protagonists, our agency enabled by the Internet and the throwaway currency of ‘likes’. The Fables, then, become a kind of mirror reflecting us back to ourselves: uncomfortable, naked, shameless. And the final lesson is delivered at the end of the film: “unhinged positivity is trying hard to control the malfunctioned muscle. Keep laughing even when you are surrounded by corpses.”
To oppose reductive thinking is the necessity and power of art. Wong Ping’s work is an act of aesthetic rebellion against moral automation and the tyranny of the algorithms of the world. Call it a depraved comedy or perhaps just an anti-facial-recognition makeup. His work refuses to gloss over the filth of reality by adopting a tone that is somehow more palatable or avoiding the crass jokes and offensive language that the subject demands. He know he must paint shame and fear all over his work to afford himself a measure of freedom, to enable an honest and ethical debate, and to preserve and reflect the rich and irrepressible weirdness of humanity.
Bataille, Georges. L’Anus Solaire [The Solar Anus] (France: Editions de la Galerie Simon, 1931)
Evens, Brecht. The Wrong Place (UK: Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Maruo, Suehiro. Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show (USA: Blast Books, 1993)
Ishii, Katsuhito; Ishimine, Hajime; Miki, Shunichiro (Dirs.) Funky Forest: The First Contact (Japan, 2005)
Jarmusch, Jim (Dir.). Coffee and Cigarettes (USA: MGM Distribution Co., 2003)
Jodorowsky, Alejandro (Dir.). The Holy Mountain (USA: ABKCO Films, 1973)
Ki-duk, Kim. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (USA: Sony Pictures Classics, 2003)
Kirschenbaum, Alan (Dir.). Everybody Loves Raymond Season 1–9, (USA: CBS, 1996 – 2005)
Swanberg, Joe. EASY Season 1 – 3 (USA: Netflix, 2016 – 19)
Bob Log III. Log Bomb (USA: Fat Possum Records, 2003)
‘I lick you, I like you to like me to lick you. But I don’t need you. Don’t need you to like me to lick you. If your pleasure turned into pain. I would still lick for my personal gain.
La la la
La la la’ Momus
Wong Ping (b. 1984, Hong Kong) lives and works in Hong Kong. He is the first recipient of Camden Arts Centre’s Emerging Artist Prize. In 2019, Wong had solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel — Golden Shower — and CAPRI, Dusseldorf — Who’s the Daddy — and won the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition at the 48th International Film Festival, Rotterdam. In 2018 he was included in New Museum Triennial Songs of Sabotage and One Hand Clapping, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both New York. Wong was artist in residence at the Chinese Centre for Contemporary Art, Manchester, 2015. His animations have been presented at film festivals internationally, from Belgium and the UK to Mexico and Australia, and have been reviewed in LEAP, ArtAsiaPacific and other publications. Wong’s work is held in numerous international collections including: M+, Hong Kong; KADIST, Paris; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Fosun Art Foundation, Shanghai.
Xiaoyu Weng is curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Wong Ping: Heart Digger at Camden Arts Centre, 5 July – 15 September 2019.
Supporters of the Camden Arts Centre Emerging Artist Prize are: Georgina Townsley, Alexandra Economou and Noach Vander Beken, Nicola Blake, Ronald and Sophie Sofer, Russell Tovey, Alex Klimt and Alexys Schwartz, Simon and Carolyn Franks, Florence Levett and all those who wish to remain anonymous.
With thanks to Frieze, London and Edouard Malingue Gallery.