Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong praises a true provocateur
Tobias Wong’s provocative genius plays out in many forms—the big and the tiny, the subtle and the in-your-face. At the major new retrospective about to open at the Museum of Vancouver, you’ll have to squint to study his minuscule collection of pills, capsules crafted out of 24-karat gold and filled with minute gold-leaf particles. Or to appreciate his matchbooks, carefully cut to resemble the New York skyline, except for two matches—standing ready to be lit—where the Twin Towers stood. But then there is the giant Room Partition, fans stacked high into a massive, motorized sculpture all its own, kicking up the air around the exhibition hall. And there’s the showstopping Bulletproof Quilted Duvet slung against one wall: crafted from armourlike black Kevlar, stitched with a soothing floral design, and lined with soft flannel, it captures the frantic yearning for security in the wake of 9/11. All witty and understated. As for the side of him that earned the late Wong nicknames like “the enfant terrible of the design world”? Look no further than the glowing blue neon sign that reads “Anus”; it used to hang in the window of his East Village apartment.
Here, for the first time ever, is a sizable collection of the Vancouver-born, New York–based artist’s cheeky work: more than 50 striking pieces of wildly varying scale. And now—finally—it’s possible to take stock of what he achieved, and of how much potential was lost when he passed away.
The loss is still painful, and there are tears when Wong’s mother, Phyllis, who helps take the Straight on a tour of the exhibit as it’s being installed, speaks of how proud she is of the show.
“We’ve seen him do great work and to see this is very exciting for the family,” explains Tobias’s close friend Pablo Griff. “Some people have his items, but to see it all in one space—to see these pieces hanging out together is really exciting. We want Vancouver to know that there are so many great artists from here that people don’t realize.”
“To have his first big show here, in Vancouver, is really important to our family,” Phyllis Wong says, composing herself again, and adding that Wong would have liked it that his largest solo exhibition opened here.
Before he died suddenly at the young age of 35, Wong confounded and impressed the international art scene. (Manhattan’s chief medical examiner ruled his death in 2010 a suicide, but a New York Times article has linked it strongly to his parasomnia. As in Wong’s work, mystery lingers.) Was he a designer who dabbled in art? Was he an artist who brought in elements of design? Wong’s collaborations with other designers and manufacturers—from chocolatiers and candy makers to fashion and jewellery labels—plus his unsanctioned appropriation of both designer and mass-produced objects, further blurred the lines of authorship and art form.
At his death, his career was just starting to peak, with work exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, features in publications from Wallpaper* to the New York Times, and a near-iconic status among young conceptual-art students, which continues to this day.
It’s taken this long to collect a show of this scale (there has been one other recent retrospective, much smaller, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)—and it certainly won’t be the last. Project leader and curator Viviane Gosselin has worked with designer and curator Todd Falkowsky, as well as dozens of other curators, friends, collaborators, and collectors around the U.S. and U.K., to track down these pieces and tell the stories behind them in the exhibit, called Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong.
As is so often the case in Vancouver, Wong’s work has been much better known internationally than in his hometown. He started his artistic studies at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, where, word has it, he was already stepping into controversy at the age of 18. Gosselin recounts the story of Wong’s year-end-exhibit installation, in which he dotted a floor with little plastic bags containing live goldfish. After students complained to the SPCA, he switched the fish to cans of tuna in the baggies overnight.
At 20, he moved to study architecture in Toronto. Wong then headed to New York City in 1998, to attend the sculpture program at the acclaimed Cooper Union School of Art, and developed work that was highly influenced by Dada and Fluxus.
At the Museum of Vancouver, you can see some of these early creations, alongside the piece—called This Is a Lamp—that many credit with first bringing him major notoriety. In 2001, Wong upstaged Philippe Starck by inserting a light bulb into the famed French designer’s all-plastic Bubble Club Chair and turning the entire thing into a glowing lamp—exhibiting it on the night before the chair was to be unveiled to the American public via Kartell furniture. “The next night Philippe Starck was signing his new chairs, and he [Tobias] got in line with the Eames chair and asked him to sign it,” Griff says with a laugh, remembering the absurdity of bringing a famous piece of furniture by other designers (Charles and Ray Eames) to the event. “And Philippe Starck knew right away: ‘This is the guy that did that!’ Tobias was so dry and witty, and Philippe got that.”
By the end of 2001, Wong, like other New York City artists, found his work shifting dramatically in response to the tragedy of 9/11. But he still carried his subtle humour into this dark territory. Along with his bulletproof duvet, the museum is showing The Ballistic Rose, crafted out of the same black Kevlar—a brooch to be placed protectively over the heart. “The rose is this mundane fashion accessory and he turns it into a shield,” Gosselin observes.
Perhaps more controversial is his metal Box Cutter—a reference to the mass-produced weapon used by the terrorists on the doomed planes. Along its heavy nickel shaft, Wong has laser-etched a quote from fellow artist-provocateur Maurizio Nannucci: “Another notion of possibility.” It could be a message of hope or menace, depending on how you read it.
There are lighter works, as well: there’s the famous Smoking Mittens, a thick pair of winter mitts with a hole where you might tuck a lit cigarette—a droll reference to New York City’s then-new law banning indoor smoking. Meanwhile, Sun Jars are old-fashioned preserve jars with solar-battery-powered LEDs that literally allow you to can sunshine and make them glow at night (still a top seller on the funky housewares site SUCK UK). And then there are those gold pills, entertainingly titled Shitting Gold.
“He had hidden two of these gold pills for me in my cosmetics drawer,” his mother fondly recalls with a wry smile. “He was always hiding things; he would hide chocolates under my pillow.”
“You can see the theme of consumption and luxury, too,” adds Gosselin of the work of an artist who once gold-plated one of those old McDonald’s coffee spoons, so infamously used for snorting cocaine. “With these gold-plated objects, he was asking, ‘How far can we go as consumers?’ But you never really know if he’s condoning consumption or critiquing it.”
For his friends and family, the experience of seeing a show that Wong would have been so proud to have mounted in his hometown is bittersweet. But they know it would be equally important to Wong that there be laughter, even if it’s the quieter, inward kind.
“He was generous, nice, caring, and extremely funny, with a really great sense of humour,” stresses Griff. “I want to make sure that humour shows, and I’m glad we’re showing the funny side.”
Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong is at the Museum of Vancouver from today (September 20) until February 24, 2013.