Wong Ping’s video animations are primed for the age of self-isolation. They take subversive twists and turns, making them equal part sharp satire and high-octane entertainment – perfect mind-bending fodder for staying at home.
In one 2014 video, Stop Peeping, a man spies on the young woman who lives next door and sneaks into her flat to make ice lollies from her sweat. In another video, a husband reassures himself that his 4.4-inch penis isn’t that short, while expressing shame at his subjugating nature. A third video explores the love between a school boy and a girl whose breasts grow on her back. Rendered in neon-hued animations that have little concern for perspectives and forms, the deceptively primitive drawings belie acute observations of modern love and internet culture.
And yet one arcane rule from the art world is preventing Wong from sharing all of his works online. “My gallerists tell me that collectors won’t want their works to be made public,” he says by video chat. “People tell me, ‘Your art is getting more and more exposure,’ and I understand why. But I always think, I started showing my works on the internet, which is accessible to anyone!”
For someone who stumbled into the field at age 29, Wong has had a meteoric rise in the art world. He has exhibited in the United Kingdom, United States, Germany and the Netherlands, with a solo in London’s Camden Art Centre last summer, and an upcoming show at the New Museum in New York that will be held whenever the pandemic is over.
And yet the Hong Kong-born-and-bred artist didn’t have dreams of making art when he was young. In fact, Wong says he’s never been good at taking action. When he didn’t get the requisite grades to enter a prestigious local university, his parents shipped him off to Curtin University in Perth, where he studied multimedia design, though he didn’t care much for that. “I had to get a degree in something,” he says sardonically. Upon graduation he was hired at TVB, a local television station, where his day-to-day work consisted of smoothing out actors’ faces in post-production.
The tedium of his nine-to-five job gave Wong’s mind a chance to wander. “I’d come up with these stories and write them in my blog,” he says. Although he had no formal art training, he decided to animate his stories because he was “bored” and “motion graphics were all the rage.” So emerged his very distinct aesthetic: tiny calves attached to voluptuous upper bodies, weirdly jagged human faces, facial features that look like toy parts.
After Wong put these drawings on his Facebook in the early 2010s, a few Hong Kong bands, including My Little Airport, enlisted him to animate their music videos. That led to attention from curators which launched him towards the contemporary art circuit. Despite his success, the artist is quick to deny it’s the product of any deliberate effort. Things evolved “organically,” he insists. “I’m not a motivated person. I need other people to push me to do things.”
Wong doesn’t like tidy cause-and-effect ways of seeing things, which makes interviewing him both fun and frustrating. He is a fan of slippages, leaks, and things that don’t fall neatly within the frame. And yet his work does show a clear evolution over the years. While his earlier videos are unabashed portrayals of sexual desires, as in 2013’s Slow Sex or 2015’s Doggy Love, his later works provide deeper ruminations on human fragility. A case in point includes Who’s the Daddy, a 2017 video that touches on masculinity, the online dating world and Hong Kong-China relations, in a tone that is simultaneously bawdy and desolate.
The artist’s works have variously been described as “lewd” and “sexually explicit” but Wong rejects the notion that he was trying to be controversial. “I never thought that sex was a taboo,” he says, then later adds, “I write about the day-to-day, and sex is something that connects us.”
His creative process is disorderly, but also surprisingly linear. “I think one just needs to live,” he declares. His way of achieving that is to “take in as much as possible,” he says. “I like to poke my nose in other people’s affairs. I wait for something to come to me, and when they do, I write it down, and from there, a story might start to take form.” Wong’s influences are wide-ranging, because they are, in essence, daily life. “Today, it might be something funny someone said, the next day, it might be mahjong. The challenging part is to string everything together.”
While Wong is hardly the first artist to draw inspiration from the everyday, the deadpan absurdity of his art might be due to his obsession with the internet, where the banal lives side-by-side with the grotesque. One of Wong’s favourite past times includes watching people eat on YouTube. He also likes watching a man rescue homeless dogs in South Africa – though not because he like’s the man’s altruism, but because he likes seeing him rid the dogs’ fur of bugs. “When he squeezes these yellowish-white worms out of the dogs’ bodies, you could hear a ‘ding ding ding’ sound as they fall into a bucket,” he says.
Even when pressed, Wong can’t explain exactly why he likes these things. He just does. He compares himself to a stand-up comedian. “Instead of going up on stage, I put my [bits] in my videos,” he says. “[Both professions] are both about satirising what’s happening in society.”
When he first unveiled his 2015 work Jungle of Desire, a neon-hued video about a sexually impotent man whose wife turns to prostitution to satisfy her needs, critics described the style of animation as a nod to Hong Kong’s neon signs. But Wong says it wasn’t a conscious effort. “I didn’t think, ‘Neon is Hong Kong, let me put some neon in my work.’ My generation grew up on LED lighting, not neon signs.” How did he pick the colours? “I liked them,” he shrugs. “I once took a course on colours, where we were taught the dos and don’t of colour placement. For example, yellow shouldn’t be placed next to blue. I thought, what utter nonsense! Why do we give ourselves so many restrictions?”
In Wong’s animations, the protagonist is often a brooding male, which begs the question, are they morsels of self-confession? “That’s difficult to answer,” he says. “It’s not all me, because if so, it will be very boring. But if there isn’t a part of me in it, there is no soul.” Not everyone is comfortable with revealing parts of themselves in their work. “In the early days, I didn’t give it much thought. I do have people coming up to me, and asking, did you experience this? Is this part real? I think it’s a relief to put everything out there. Once you do that, you have the freedom to keep pushing certain [moral] boundaries.”
Has he always harboured a desire to challenge the moral status quo? Wong laughs. “Not at all. It wasn’t until the age of 25, when I was working in TVB, and through talking with people, that I started thinking about these things.”
That answer segued into a conversation about how art should “push boundaries” in these uncertain times. (Times that have only grown more uncertain; at the time of Wong’s interview, Hong Kong was still reeling from protests and political upheaval, but it had yet to hit the full force of the coronavirus.) Though he says he is under “no pressure” to create art that directly responds to the protest, Wong nevertheless felt it weighing on him when he was invited to exhibit at ICA Miami last December.
“I found myself unable to make art,” he says. “I couldn’t disassociate myself from what was going on around me.” It was with such conflicted feelings that Wong went to see a psychic in Yau Ma Tei to find a way forward. It took some cajoling. “At first she told me that she only comes up with baby and company names,” he says. But she eventually came up with the title for Wong’s exhibition: The Modern Way to Shower.
“She says that only the younger generation would talk openly about sex, so she came up with ‘modern,’” says Wong. He also brought up the infamous incident on October 20, 2019 when police aimed their water cannon at the Kowloon Mosque and shit blue-dyed pepper spray on its front gate, hitting some journalists and community leaders who had assembled outside. That informed the “shower” part of the name. “ thought, what an ingenious title!” exclaims Wong. “I would have never been able to come up with that.”
What he did come up with is a very engrossing piece of video art. We see the artist watching Ruby, a latex-clad woman whom he found online performing various acts, —including having her hands tied up and being poked—on his phone. He expresses his discomfort at the performance and confesses random acts of perversion, such as putting suicide notes in library books. Ruby doesn’t respond well to these confessions. “Deep web isn’t for deep conversations,” she says.
During the performance, various messages pop up on the phone screen, including a BBC article about the protest, and a WhatsApp conversation in which Wong’s mother expresses concern for his safety. As the video comes to end, viewers are left thinking: what happens to Ruby now? What was the point of it all? The Modern Way to Shower isn’t about Ruby’s body nor the perversity of the acts depicted in the video, but the guilt of seeing somebody suffer, and the impossibility of going about with one’s daily life during a period of socio-political turmoil.
The artist is tight-lipped about his next show, Your Silent Neighbour, at the New Museum. He says he is still in the note-taking stage. The only thing he lets slip is that the new work will hark back to earlier works about fetishism. “If you think about the implications behind the silent neighbour,” he says, referring to Stop Peeping, “you feel slightly creeped out.”