NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Wong Pings animations give us a glimpse into a strange inner world a world of hapless and depraved characters caught in a sequence of surreal plot twists.
The New Museum show Wong Ping: Your Silent Neighbor, through Oct. 3, features six of this Hong Kong artists engaging animated works, which started turning up in prestigious exhibitions worldwide after he left a tedious postproduction job in TV and founded Wong Ping Animation Lab in 2014.
With his deliberately crude creations, Wong seems determined to spurn the polished world of high-end TV. His characters are built from basic geometric forms. Scenes are rendered in cyans, reds and lime greens that will unleash memories (if you have them, and I do) of surfing the web on dial-up internet. But even if they look childishly simple, the videos are very adult. Adult because theyre obscene. Adult because theyre world-weary.
Fate repeatedly washes people to sea and spits them back on shore in these animations. Their rapid-fire plot reversals can make you feel as though youre watching something between a stoner movie and the whirl of pixelated cherries across a video slot-machine screen.
The protagonist in Wong Pings Fables 2 (2019) is an anthropomorphic bull who accidentally impales a cop to death at a political protest and is then sexually assaulted in prison. He also uses his time behind bars to write a Ph.D. dissertation on the immorality of slow-cooked beef. Later, out of prison and penniless, he sells the jeans off his body. Surprise! They go for good money. Ripped jeans are chic, turns out. Soon, he builds a fashion empire and becomes one of Hong Kongs richest animals. And thats not even the first half of the plot.
Wongs show deserves attention and not just because the works are funny. Their NC-17 content is hard to overlook, and may be hard for some to stomach. Still, fixating on their shock value misses the point. With their sly humor, the works, in the end, are tragicomedies. Theyre full of characters trapped by quirks and perversions, then also buffeted by forces beyond their control.
The videos somber voice-overs do a lot to set the tone. Wongs first-person male narrators hark back to the lonely, watchful detectives of Hong Kongs neo-noir films, for whom all manner of shock and gore was just another day on the job. Even flat-out helplessness is described with stoicism. In Jungle of Desire (2015), the narrator, an impotent and badly paid animator, watches as his wife becomes a sex worker who receives her clients at home. He tries to stay outside and give her space, but Hong Kongs public spaces wont cooperate. Theyre full of hostile architecture (spiky things) and people who wake anyone sleeping in a park. So the main character ends up hiding in a closet at home while his wifes clients stop by.
Often, Wongs videos treat women with fascination and revulsion. Theres a puerile focus on their body parts: breasts, varicose veins, feet. This might not sound exactly like high-priority viewing to you, especially as #MeToo has renewed scrutiny of the disproportionate airtime and shelf-space given to tales of straight male desire. Perhaps youll be more inclined to see these works if I add that theyre not quite about a power imbalance between a lecherous man and helpless woman. If theres a power imbalance here, its between people and the realities overwhelming them. Stagnant wages. Corrupt law enforcement. The loneliness of screens and devices.
Political anxieties hover at the shows edge like a ghost barely acknowledged by the living. In An Emo Nose (2015), a mans nose lengthens when it senses negative energy. To placate it, the man stops talking politics and gives his nose access to sex and ice cream. (In this scene, the petals of the flower on Hong Kongs flag wilt and fall.) Elsewhere, the main character in Whos the Daddy (2017) mistakes a dating app for one to help him find friends of a similar political stripe.
At many moments, Wongs videos had me thinking back to artist Mike Kelley and his friends, whose messy abject work took the art world by storm several decades ago. Kelley, who died in 2012, knew how to walk the line between sadness and provocation, whether he was exhibiting torn stuffed animals or showing an artwork by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy in a project about artists and criminality. Granted, Kelleys art was often set against the backdrop of American working-class suburbs, while Wongs work unfolds across urban Hong Kong. But as Kelley did to great effect, Wong seems to mine his own sense of inadequacy and depravity to get at something bigger: how sociopolitical realities fuel the disappointments of grown-up boys who cant be men.
Even the exhibition design of Wong Ping: Silent Neighbor seems to partly channel Kelley, who had a thing for ratty fabric, knitted afghans and plush toys. The main room of Wongs show which was organized by Gary Carrion-Murayari with Francesca Altamura, a former curatorial assistant has a central mound of beanbag chairs and a shag-carpeted platform. Its where visitors can recline while watching Wongs animations on surrounding screens.
Theres no illusion of cool sterility to this seating arrangement, which feels significant given how often Wongs animations allude to hygiene, the body and public space. Take the germ-conscious city dwellers in The Other Side (2015), who use only their lower bodies to push through turnstiles. Theyd surely view beanbag chairs with some hesitation. You might, too, as a visitor to this show. If you stand, youll have to let the discomfort of your stance compound the discomfort induced by these artworks. Or youll go for it: Youll hunker down on a soft patch of fabric, and accept a full-body immersion into Wong Pings weird debased world.
"Wong Ping: Your Silent Neighbor"
Through Oct. 3 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan. (212) 219-1222, newmuseum.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times