Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong
We first became aware of Tobias Wong in 2001 when he famously installed a light bulb inside Philippe Starck’s as yet unreleased Bubble Chair and presented the object, which he titled This is a Lamp, as his own. His cheeky humour, subversive tendencies and predilection for stunts made him the enfant-terrible of the design world, a provocateur who transcended the often artificial divide between the realms of art and design. While Wong was perhaps best known internationally, he was born and raised in Vancouver and to honour his prolific career that was tragically cut short, the Museum of Vancouver has organized the first comprehensive retrospective of his work. The MOV, has assembled more than fifty objects that run the gamut from Wong’s best known works – This is a Lamp, Bulletproof Quilted Duvet, Ballistic Rose – to more obscure interventions and performances – Room Partition, Anus – that collectively tell the story of the artist’s provocative investigation of the relationship between art, design and commerce. With his sudden death in 2010, the circumstances around which are as perplexing and mysterious as any of his projects, the design world lost one of its most inventive and irreverent artists, and Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong is a fitting testament to Wong’s singular approach to design.
Object(ing) traces the themes that occupied Wong throughout his career and curators Viviane Gosselin and Todd Falkowsky wisely offer a light curatorial touch, allowing the power and exuberance of the works themselves to be the driving force. From early works like Wong’s art school project, Unauthorized Burberry Buttons – in which he subverted the luxury brand’s mystique by mass producing buttons in its signature tartan – to later mischievous acts such as having a friend impersonate him during a public lecture, Wong’s interrogation of the nature of ownership and authorial identity is palpable throughout the exhibition and serves as a point of convergence for many of his conceptual projects. While there was undoubtedly a light and playful side to Wong, visible in works such as Silver Pills and Gold Pills that were designed to colour the ingester’s excrement in these culturally covetable hues, much of his work after September 11th assumed a darker and more ominous quality. Works like The Ballistic Rose and Bulletproof Quilted Duvet where Wong refashioned everyday objects into protective devices retain as much power today as they did at the time of their creation, as does his controversial Box Cutter in which he appropriated the terrorists’ weapon of choice and inscribed it with the phrase “another notion of possibility.” Wong is at his best when he’s exposing the contradictions that permeate contemporary culture and Object(ing) is replete with conceptual design objects – like the notorious Coke Spoon that recreates in gold the McDonald’s plastic coffee spoon that unexpectedly became popular with cocaine users – that reveal the convoluted relationship between high and low, and luxury and mass consumption.
Collaboration was at the heart of Wong’s activities and many of the works in Object(ing) are each accompanied by a label that offers a personal account of the piece by friends, collectors and collaborators, providing insight into both his artistic process and the relationships that shaped his career. This makes for an extremely compelling visitor experience as it affords a vast array of individuals a platform to share their memories which also help to establish the context that many of the works require to be fully appreciated.
The experience of walking through Object(ing) is absolutely overwhelming; it’s a homecoming of sorts for these objects that have never before been shown together, and for Wong whose work may be largely unfamiliar to Vancouver audiences. Wong’s brazen and unique approach to design, which elevated the everyday while questioning the cultural value of luxury, is conspicuous throughout, and one is left with a sense of sheer amazement at the quantity and diversity of what he was able to create in such a brief amount of time.