Wong Ping’s “Obscene” Art Moves Beyond Animation

Hong Kong artist Wong Ping has developed a signature style – and it has brought him global success. Wong makes provocative psychedelic animations featuring lewd storylines that slowly reveal themselves to be metaphors for human behaviour, politics and society. Since Wong was last featured in Zolima CityMag, his dazzling yet deep videos have been exhibited at a string of international institutions, including the New Museum in New York, the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth and, currently, at MAK-Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna.

But on March 25, in a solo show at Kiang Malingue’s four-storey gallery in Wan Chai, Wong is taking his art in a new direction. “It’s hard for me even to say it, but I’m trying not to make animations this time,” reveals Wong. “I need to push myself. Animation has become my comfort zone. But animation cannot always deliver the feeling, the sense, the texture that live footage can. So, I’m still working on the shooting and storyline, but I’m trying a live-action video.” 

Wong says there are several reasons he has avoided making live-action videos so far. The first of these is that he’s always been nervous of acting. He records the voiceovers for his animations, but he narrates these in a deadpan voice and there is never any dialogue, which would require him to collaborate with other people. He makes his animations alone. “I’ve never had the courage to write dialogue because then I have to act and direct others as well,” he says. “But I want to try: if I write dialogue, what will that be like?” 

To push himself even further, he’s also devising a performance that will take place at the exhibition opening, although Wong will be directing the participants, rather than performing himself. Wong had not finalised the details of the video or the performance at the time of writing but, as with most of his art, they will use carnal imagery. His new works will centre on the bum and might be both sexual and scatological. 

The explicit nature of Wong’s work is another reason why he has been reluctant to make live-action films. In Jungle of Desire, the narrator, a voyeur, watches his homemaker-turned-sex worker wife sleep with another man, while Sorry for the Late Reply follows a character who develops a fetish for varicose veins, to give just two examples

No matter how obscene the language or imagery in these videos, they’re conveyed through the medium of animation – in particular, Wong’s own cutesy style of cartoons, which softens what might otherwise be shocking. “My work can be very…” Wong trails off, pauses, then settles on a diplomatic phrase: “Visually strong,” he says. “Let’s say I want to do something crazy about a butthole. For some people, that would be a total turn-off if done in live action, but animation has the ability to deliver that. So I’m working hard on adjusting the line on what I want to say. The work can be provoking, but not cross the line too much.” 

Wong has cleverly avoided crossing any lines over the course of his career so far. His animations have titillated and shocked viewers but never caused mass outrage. In fact, they’ve been acclaimed by audiences, as well as by critics and curators. Few people — least of all Wong, who trained as a multimedia designer and never formally studied art — expected his homemade, smutty animations to be screened at prominent museums around the world, but that is what has happened. Against the odds, Wong, who is turning 40 this year, has become one of the most internationally celebrated contemporary artists from Hong Kong.

Curators who have worked with Wong have various theories as to why his art resonates with so many people. Gary Carrion-Murayari, the Kraus Family Curator at the New Museum in New York, first met Wong in 2017, then included Wong’s animation Fables 1 in the New Museum Triennial in 2018. “He quickly became one of the breakout stars of that triennial, which wasn’t surprising to me. His work really connected with a broad audience,” says Carrion-Murayari. Three years later, in 2021, Carrion-Murayari curated a solo show of Wong’s work, Wong Ping: Your Silent Neighbor, at the New Museum.

Carrion-Murayari thinks one of the reasons Wong’s art is embraced by so many people is because of the medium of animation itself, which has become so ubiquitous across cultures that it is part of the daily life of anyone who uses the internet or watches TV. This makes Wong’s art feel enticing and approachable for gallery-goers, even though it is probably unlike anything they’ve seen before. “Wong’s work is familiar, but still very, very fresh,” says Carrion-Murayari. “He uses animation, but he’s self-taught, so it’s not like [conventional] cartoons or anything like that.” 

On top of using a digital medium, Wong also regularly explores digital culture in his art. In his video Who’s the Daddy, a man begins a relationship with a woman he meets on a dating app. Carrion-Murayari believes that these references to how technology now shapes our relationships — and our lives — also speak to people around the world. “Wong’s solo show was actually supposed to happen in 2020, but it got postponed for a year because of Covid,” says Carrion-Murayari. “I actually think that became a really appropriate filter for the show. The newer work in his solo show was very much connected to social interactions becoming increasingly digital.” 

According to Carrion-Murayari, claims that Wong’s work shocks the public are overstated, and that much of his art only seems confronting because it’s presented in galleries, which are often conservative spaces. “I think any controversy says more about the institutional structures that he finds himself in than anything that’s inherently shocking in the work,” he says. “These fantasies, these nightmares, are familiar to many people.” 

Marlies Wirth, curator for digital culture at MAK in Vienna and curator of Wong’s current solo show at the museum, which runs until March 31, agrees that part of the appeal of Wong’s art is that it reveals universal — but often hidden — human fears and desires. She cites in particular Fables 1, which stars a chicken with Tourette syndrome, a pregnant elephant preparing to become a Buddhist nun, and an anthropomorphic tree. In one scene, the tree and elephant are on a bus and the tree sees a cockroach crawling over the elephant’s back. The tree deliberates whether to tell the elephant about the cockroach, a dilemma that causes the tree to panic. What happens if he tells her, then the elephant becomes hysterical and has a miscarriage? What if her fear scares the bus driver, and the bus crashes? Overwhelmed, the tree remains silent and retreats to the upper deck of the bus. 

“This, for me, is symbolic of so many things that happen on the daily,” says Wirth. “You encounter something that’s not right, you should say something but don’t. Like when you see someone has something between their teeth, but you don’t say anything. These moments of mini shame – that’s something he captured in this scene. And I think in many other scenes he captures deep-rooted, raw human emotions, and that makes his work globally approachable. He reflects part of ourselves that we don’t want to show others, or maybe don’t even want to admit to ourselves.” 

Politics is another aspect of Wong’s work that Wirth believes draws viewers in. Wong’s work is not explicitly political, but critics have interpreted his animations as reflections on the political tension in his hometown, which in Wong’s lifetime has changed from being a British colony to becoming a Special Administrative Region of China, and which has periodically been rocked by mass protests, most recently in 2019. “I think a lot of people can identify political shifts and rifts in their own lives and countries, since 2016 or even earlier,” says Wirth. The year 2016 is often seen as a point of rupture in global politics because of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Another element that makes Wong’s work appeal to diverse audiences is the feature that underpins much of Wong’s art: humour. Rachel Ciesla, curator at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) in Perth and lead creative of the gallery’s Asian art initiative, the Simon Lee Foundation Institute of Contemporary Asian Art (SLF ICAA) has worked with Wong twice in recent years. In 2020, she included his work Stop Peeping in the group exhibition BODIED, which brought together six artists or artist collectives who placed the human body at the centre of their work. Two years later, the SLF ICAA commissioned an installation from Wong that was installed in the lobby of the AGWA. Titled puberty, the work used rotating fans and five video screens, among other elements, to turn a wall in the lobby of the AGWA into a grotesque face with bloodshot eyes and an outstretched tongue. 

When BODIED opened, Ciesla immediately saw visitors responding to the humour in Wong’s work. “Amid the atmosphere of Covid-19 which was so lonely and isolating for us all, Stop Peeping brought some much-needed comedy and light-heartedness into the gallery,” says Ciesla. “Some people were a little grossed out, but in a good way.”

Even after the positive responses to Wong’s work in BODIED, it was a bold choice to install puberty in the foyer of the gallery, the space that gives visitors their first impression of the institution. But Ciesla says that it paid off. “We were hoping it would unsettle viewers, but it never felt like a risk as Wong Ping was aware of the context of the space,” says Ciesla. “If anything, its colourful façade and playful style of animation brought a lot of joy to the space, especially among our younger viewers. Children and teenagers really gravitated towards the work.” 

The three curators are unanimous in their belief that one of the keys to Wong’s success is his ability to understand audiences: he knows exactly how to provoke and surprise viewers without offending them. Ciesla’s experience with puberty reveals that Wong can do this as successfully with installations as he does with animations. The question now keeping Wong awake at night is whether he can achieve the same result through live-action videos and performances. It’s a risk, but one that Wong feels he must take.

“I think I have to jump out of the algorithm – not the algorithm online, but the algorithm in life,” says Wong. “I have a routine, I see similar stuff every day, on the same streets. I want to try something new.” 

Wong Ping’s exhibition at Kiang Malingue’s Wan Chai gallery runs from March 25 to May 4, 2024. His exhibition at MAK-Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna runs until March 31, 2024.

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