Wong Ping at Camden Arts Centre, London

Cynical tales for desperate times...

By Louise Darblay

Wong Ping, Organic Smuggling Tunnel (Chunk 1), 2019 (installation view, Camden Arts Centre, London). © the artist. Photo: Luke Walker. Courtesy Edouard Malingue Gallery Wong Ping, Wong Ping’s Fables 2 (still), 2019, single-channel video animation, 13 min. Courtesy the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery

The scene in Camden Arts Centre’s garden might have come straight out of the gory cult-internet cartoon Happy Tree Friends (1999–): the body of a gigantic inflatable giraffe appears to have been exhumed from a heart-shaped grave, its neck ending in bare bone, its head missing. An accompanying text by the artist responsible, Wong Ping, offers a ‘back story’ (as well as an example of the Hong Kong-based artist’s taste for fantasy and the absurd): while digging a grave for his future lover, he uncovered this poor beast, whose neck was being used as an escape tunnel by Hong Kong’s chief executive to flee the SAR, thus solving the mystery of their ‘disappearance’ since Hong Kong-wide anti-extradition-bill protests started escalating in June. The upper part of the neck and head is ‘hidden’ in a storage facility on Mayfair’s Cork Street (this show’s second venue), Wong tells us, to trap the fugitives so that ‘they can have a taste of the suffering they’ve put hundreds of thousands through’: a metaphor, perhaps, of wishful thinking for a political separation between mainland China and Hong Kong.

Organic Smuggling Tunnel (Chunk 1 and 2) (2019), like the twisted and darkly humorous animations for which Wong is best known (and which earned him this show, as the winner of Camden’s inaugural Emerging Artist Prize), borrows from educational and moral narratives to describe the absurdity and alienation of life in a capitalist world. Two recent examples of Wong’s idiosyncratic digital-animation work, contrasting playful technicolour aesthetics with tales of fucked-up domesticity populated by decaying, sex-obsessed characters, are installed in Camden’s galleries. Playing on a giant LED screen at the bottom of which lie thousands of gold-toothed toy dentures, Dear, Can I Give You a Hand? (2018) tells the story of a widower who is seen in turn stealing his daughter-in-law’s dirty underwear, attacked by flesh-eating ants (sent to plague him by his dead wife) and buried under gold dentures (the only legacy left behind by his ex-spouse). Trapped in a post-human ‘online cemetery’, his avatar eventually escapes and infiltrates a porn server, where he can masturbate happily ever after.  

Here, as is the case with most of Wong’s narratives (delivered in deadpan Cantonese with English subtitles), everything revolves around sex: the character’s life is defined by endless loops of despair and pleasure, which feed into his pessimistic reflections about existence, desires and mortality in times of capitalism – his cynicism at times offset by some ironic situations (at one point the character resolves to throw his porn videos discreetly out in the street, but is lectured by a young woke woman on how best to recycle them).

Wong Ping, Wong Ping’s Fables 2
Wong Ping, Fables 2 (still), 2019, single-channel video animation, 13 min. Courtesy the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery

Over in Cork Street are a series of four animated Fables (2018–), shown on two LED screens, the space-cum-construction-site dressed up with a few inflatable structures to look at or sit on (including the missing giraffe ‘chunk’). Here, the widower has been replaced by equally messed-up animal protagonists, including a deviant three-headed rabbit and a formerly activist cow turned capitalist success-story; short and bittersweet, they each culminate in nihilistic teachings: ‘Striving for your own happiness by all means is already better than suffering together with your family’ one reads after one of the three rabbit-headed brothers, driven by jealousy and ambition, succeeds in killing his ‘siblings’. Yet these new works feel less cutting, as if the recourse to another layer of abstraction (the anthropomorphised animals as well as the geometrical simplification of the animation-style deployed by Wong) flattens the tragicomic effect delivered by works like Dear…

Leaving the exhibition, I notice what look like spiders feasting on glass turtle-shells; checking the exhibition handout for a title, I find Wong’s trenchant irony again: A luxury faeces cocktail bar owned by a middle-class fly after gentrification pushed some of the poorest turtles out of their shells (2019). In desperate times, perhaps the best way to cope with the futility of existence is with a healthy dose of cynical humour. 

Wong Ping: Heart Digger at Camden Arts Centre and 5–6 Cork St, London, 5 July – 15 September 2019

Published online on 11 September 2019