The candy-coated morality tales of Wong Ping | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

The candy-coated morality tales of Wong Ping 

The artist, animator, and self-proclaimed comedian touches on the personal and political with his “Digital Fables.”

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click to enlarge Jungle of Desire - WONG PING
  • Jungle of Desire
  • Wong Ping

Wong Ping’s Vimeo page features a box containing key information about the artist, including this short—and, for those expecting something befitting a moving-image maker, perplexing—bio: “A comedian based in Hong Kong.” This isn’t meant facetiously: the 37-year-old animator views himself not as a serious artist whose audacious, excessively colorful renderings represent grotesque truths about society, but rather as something of a stand-up comedian, whose irreverent jokes, rendered via said vulgarities, accomplish that task just as well. In a video profile for Art Basel, he elaborates, “Comedies have different punchlines . . . but behind all the hilarity, there is always an underlying message.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Wong Ping didn’t follow the usual trajectory that leads to getting one’s work exhibited in galleries and at film festivals around the world. As a young person, his grades weren’t good enough to merit admission to a distinguished university nearby. Instead he went to Curtin University in Perth, Australia, where he majored in multimedia design—a program that, ironically, didn’t resonate with the reluctant iconoclast. After graduating he got a job at a Hong Kong television station, where he helped to smooth out actors’ faces. Later, and more presciently, he briefly worked in post-production at Cartoon Network. None of these jobs satisfied him, so in his spare time, he wrote and animated stories that he’d post online. His spry motion-graphic projects attracted the attention of various independent bands in Hong Kong, several of whom asked him to make music videos for them.

He then began attracting the attention of contemporary art curators and programmers, who took his work off the Internet (the place where he felt most comfortable displaying it, he’s said) and projected it onto the walls of high-end galleries, often with accompanying sculptural installations, and at such film festivals as Rotterdam and SXSW. The first American survey exhibition of his work was supposed to open at the New Museum in New York in mid-2020, but, like many events, was delayed due to the pandemic. Now, “Wong Ping: Digital Fables,” which includes six of his short works (63-minute runtime, in Cantonese with subtitles), will be streaming from April 12 to April 18 through Conversations at the Edge, a program of the Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that’s put on in collaboration with the Gene Siskel Film Center. These works are typically presented as large-scale video installations, but Chicago audiences will see them as single-channel animations sans their accompanying paraphernalia (which have included such objects as chattering gold teeth and Maneki-neko figurines with phalluses in place of the cat’s beckoning paw). While it would be exciting to see these artfully indecent works as they’re usually displayed, it’s undoubtedly more convenient to watch them in the comfort of one’s home—even though Wong Ping challenges that comfort via his candy-colored gracelessness and the ways his films expose the vexatious nature of everyday life.

The surreal Wong Ping’s Fables 1 (2018) and Wong Ping’s Fables 2 (2019) epitomize this ethos. Three animated stories comprise Fables 1, the first being a self-effacing parable about a turtle and his elephant ex-girlfriend. Following their relationship, the elephant aspires to become a nun but returns to secular life when she discovers she has two eyes instead of one. (Summarizing Wong Ping’s narratives is an act of futility, but I’ll endeavor to do it nevertheless.) The lesson, emblazoned across the screen at the end, reads like a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement by Wong Ping of his own unlikely success: “Your time will come when vulgarity and bad taste become trends.” The next fable, about a social media-engrossed chicken with Tourette syndrome, presents dire consequences for both the fowl and the society he inhabits, which is obsessed with presenting the facade of happiness and prosperity. The final story concerns an anthropomorphized tree who boards a bus, sees a cockroach exit the handbag of a pregnant elephant, and becomes nervous that alerting her to the insect may cause her to miscarry; it was, like much of his work, directly inspired by a situation Wong Ping experienced in real life. Similar to the tree, he too escaped to the upper deck of the bus to evade the weight of this moral conundrum.

Wong Ping’s Fables 2 presents just two stories. In the first, a wealthy cow accidentally gores a police officer during a protest and goes to jail. He later regains his wealth, reinvesting it into the lottery system in order to share his happiness with the public. In the second, three conjoined rabbits—two of whom wish to be judges and one who’s obsessed with magic—attempt to survive various struggles. The animation style in both Fables is more intricate than the artist’s previous works, with the nuances of each story happening on-screen even as a consistent tableau is maintained. They’re also less violent and sexually explicit, which Wong Ping attributes to his having wanted to make something for children. “They're fables, so they use a motherly digital voice,” he said during a live conversation at Art Basel in 2019, referencing the works’ use of a female narrator rather than himself, as per past films. He added, “I hope Wong Ping's Fables can one day replace Aesop's Fables in the library.” It’s an unlikely but undeniably bold desire.

The Modern Way to Shower (2020), a vertical video meant to resemble the phone screen on which its narrative takes place, is the most explicitly political of the works in this program, though many of Wong Ping’s considerations of the contemporary world have a distinct relevance to his life in Hong Kong and the region’s contentious relationship to mainland China. It opens with a person—Wong Ping as himself, but also not; the main character is an abstraction of the artist—checking his e-mail and letting a curator know that he’s only just realized the direction of his upcoming show, as a psychic told him the title which should adorn it. The screen switches over to the protagonist on social media, messaging a sex worker, Latex Ruby, who specializes in video communications where the client commands what’s done to her while she dons a full latex body suit. (One gets major Demonlover vibes throughout.) The protagonist requests that Ruby’s shower aligns with a 2019 protest in Hong Kong where authorities used a water cannon to project bright blue water onto activists, who had gathered in opposition to a controversial bill that would allow extraditions to the mainland. The person using the phone commands the session, with the chat between him and the facilitator communicating the details of what’s happening on screen; occasionally, we see advertisements and push notifications from dating apps, news sites, and even text messages from the phone owner’s mother. “WongPing,” as that person’s name appears in the chat, likewise exploits Ruby himself and questions anyone’s desire to do as such. He asks weird, random questions, to which the facilitator replies, “We listen to commands, not questions.” Ruby becomes a stand-in for protesters in Hong Kong, rendered silent by a government that’s not dissimilar to the impersonal deep-web interface through which WongPing commands the abuse she must suffer. Wong Ping’s clear evocation emphasizes the Kafkaesque reality of the contemporary sociopolitical landscape in Hong Kong.

Taking its name from a Chinese nursery rhyme, Who’s The Daddy (2017) obliquely charts the sparsely endowed male character’s journey from online dating to single fatherhood. Shame, subjugation, and the shame experienced in thriving under such subjugation lie at the root of this neon, pastel-colored tale, which also satirizes the political binary in how the man engages with women on a dating app—swiping left or right assumes literal meaning as those terms align with distinct political beliefs. The flatness of the psychedelic animation and Wong Ping’s narration underscores messages of toxic masculinity and hypocrisy inherent to politics and religion. Jungle of Desire (2015), the core work of his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, takes inspiration from the working-class neighborhood around the gallery where it was shown, an area in which sex work is proliferate and law enforcement is known for exploiting the women who do it. In the bizarre animation, an impotent man observes the relationship between his wife, who’s turned to sex work due to her husband’s inability to satisfy her, and the cop who blackmails her for sex. The husband’s impotence and the wife’s pleasure in her degradation represent myriad weakness of society, from our own personal vulnerabilities to those of humanity at large. (Wong Ping is quoted in Art Papers as saying, “Jungle of Desire perfectly manifests my feelings about Hong Kong. Look at the concrete buildings; each claustrophobic cubicle is filled with carnal desire.”) Both works are exceptionally lewd, though Wong Ping never belabors his choice to trade in such boorish (but still aesthetically compelling) motifs. In the above-referenced conversation at Art Basel, he noted, “Sex for me is like the guns in gangster movies—it's just the language of my work.”

Closing out the program is An Emo Nose (2014). Alienation here is personified by a nose that, having learned Cantonese, grows further from its owner as it perceives his negative energy. Much like Wong Ping’s Fables, this has the feel of being influenced by fairy tales—indeed, it even references Pinocchio. Grimm’s Fairy Tales also factor into Who’s The Daddy, the relationship between those simplistic tales and the lore of Wong Ping’s own practice evident in the simple, fabulistic, and admonitory stories he renders via his animated and live action productions. Through Wong Ping’s work and stunning, multi-colored animations viewers are exposed to ways of seeing the world that range from deeply personal to intrinsically political, and which simultaneously expose the world’s darkness and illuminate its gaudy brilliance.   v

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