Hong Kong's culture, captured in disturbing animations

Artist Wong Ping, an artist based in Hong Kong, whose videos are featured in the Guggenheim’s exhibition One Hand Clapping.
Artist Wong Ping, an artist based in Hong Kong, whose videos are featured in the Guggenheim’s exhibition One Hand Clapping.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Two years ago, as Hong Kong artist Wong Ping tells it, he had not even heard of the Guggenheim Museum. A self-taught animator with an online following for his child-like cartoons on disturbing subjects, he had a scant exhibition record.

He was new to the workings of the international art world when a gallery director suggested he visit the Guggenheim while he was in New York. His initial reaction was: "What an interesting name."

Now Wong, 34, is the youngest of five Chinese artists, including Cao Fei, Samson Young, Duan Jianyu and Lin Yilin, featured in the Guggenheim's exhibition One Hand Clapping, through Oct 21.

It is the last of three shows sponsored by the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative, a programme that allowed the museum to commission and acquire new works. With a virtual-reality piece featuring basketball star Jeremy Lin and a sound installation using imaginary instruments, this iteration will be the most playful.

Its theme, as Xiaoyu Weng, the museum's associate curator for Chinese art, put it, is: "How we can come up with more imaginative ways of envisioning the future."

As opposed to the increasingly homogenised visions of sci-fi movies, Wong imagines his own future in an animation, "Dear, can I give you a hand?", about a sexually frustrated elderly man and his seductive daughter-in-law. Inspired by an encounter the artist had with an 80-year-old man throwing away a stack of X-rated VHS tapes, this account of a perverted, yet ineffectual father figure, rendered in bright colours and naive design, could be read as a metaphor for Hong Kong and its precarious, often humiliating relationship with the alluring yet authoritarian power of China.

Weng said she was struck by Wong's "sharp, pungent, intelligent sense of criticality and humour" from the first time she encountered his work at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2016.

The exhibition is his second appearance in New York this year - he was featured prominently in the New Museum's 2018 Triennial, Songs For Sabotage.

This double dose of museum exposure is a bit intimidating for Wong, whose first brush with the mainstream art world was only in 2015, with the inclusion of one of his animations in a group show organised by the M+ museum in Hong Kong.

"I had no idea what I was expecting because I didn't know what curating means," he said in an interview in March in Hong Kong, speaking in flawless English. "I never heard of this term. What does installation mean? I don't know."

He is a one-man operation, writing short stories that he turns into scripts and then animates, without assistants.

By his own admission, Wong was a lacklustre student in Hong Kong when his parents - a cook and a housewife - shipped him off to Perth, Australia, for high school and college. Even there, he preferred playing video games to attending classes. He managed to graduate with a major in multimedia design at Curtin University, in 2005, and later taught himself editing software to secure a post-production job at a local television station on his return to Hong Kong. It was boring work requiring him to retouch images.

As an escape from the tedium, he began writing short stories that he posted on his blog and later tried to animate using his limited skills in Photoshop and After Effects software. He posted his first animation on YouTube in 2010. Titled Lin Pink Pink, it depicted a bald, middle-aged man commenting on his wife's nipples. Soon, local bands spotted his postings and asked him to make music videos, charmed by the way the low-tech look of his cartoons heightened the perversity of his adult-only psychosexual dramas.

In 2011, Hong Kong band No One Remains A Virgin commissioned Wong to animate their song, Under The Lion Crotch, a reference to a poor neighbourhood situated below the Lion Rock mountain in Hong Kong. He created a graphic nightmare, alternatively cute and vicious, with school kids wearing I Heart Hong Kong T-shirts jumping rope until their heads explode. The video was seen as a direct rebuke to a popular phrase, "Lion Rock Spirit", embraced by politicians to boost Hong Kong's work ethic and promote urban development.

Winning awards in Hong Kong, the video brought the artist the impetus to quit his job. Wong has been posting his animations online ever since.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2018, with the headline 'Hong Kong's culture, captured in disturbing animations'. Print Edition | Subscribe