On ViewNew Museum
June 30 – October 3, 2021
Wong Ping might be a hedonist. Or I might take too much pleasure in his work, which basically depicts the depraved, the lonely, and the anxious. But his animations are irresistibly saturated with color. Like the cangiante of Michelangelo’s paintings, where strong highlights are described through a change in pigment rather than a modulation of tint, Wong Ping’s world is full of hyper-contrasting gradients within forms, and the neon sheen of his characters’ various body parts appears less like an effect of light than some sickly glaze on a dessert. In the New Museum’s darkened galleries, frames rush past almost too quickly, and scenes of longing and sex—mostly not actual sex, but frustration, budding fetishes, fantasies—are gemlike and addicting.
An Emo Nose (2015) might be the most touching of his videos so far. It’s a play on Pinocchio, where the protagonist’s nose grows not with lies but with negative thoughts. The nose itself looks a bit like an upside-down heart and a lot like a penis, perversely drifting out of frame as its owner fails at living the positive life. In one melancholic scene, the man slouches at a dinner table, his nose miles away, smelling “black truffle and women.” At home, he gives in to misery in the hopes that the nose will grow long enough to circle the globe and return to him. Like an ouroboros, the conjured image is one of destructive regeneration, of enduring isolation in order to regain harmony. And that reunion of nose and owner, complete with dinky guitar riff, is genuinely affecting.
Smells are funny, and Wong Ping depicts them in the comical shorthand of wafting stink lines and noxious green clouds. But smell is also the basest of the senses, the one most regulated by society into good and bad. As such, it presents an ideal motif through which to explore shame, which is the presiding emotion in most of these videos. In Stop Peeping (2014), our narrator becomes obsessed with the young woman next door after catching a whiff of her post-workout scent, and breaks into her apartment to wring out and collect the sweat from her jogging outfits. The grotesque final act shows popsicles of the accumulated liquid devoured in a toothy closeup. Even more pathetic than that Peeping Tom is the impotent husband in Jungle of Desire (2015), a self-described “sponge” who eavesdrops on his wife’s new prostitution business, jealous of the undercover cop that never pays but provides perfect orgasms. Learning of his persisting shame from a fart in high school, the husband fantasizes about performing degrading sex acts on the cop until he recognizes himself “as the origin of stink,” finally self-immolating in a concentrated cloud of his own flatulence.
Wong Ping’s stories remind me of the indulgent, terrible fable of Patrick Süskind’s 1985 Perfume, in which a man born without a smell becomes Europe’s most skilled perfumer, resorting to murdering women to distill their odors into a genuine human scent. His final product is so potent as to cause spontaneous public orgies, and as he douses himself in the elixir, a crowd gathers to consume his body. Is it smell’s invisibility that makes it such a perfect vehicle for shame, for love, for the sublime? Wong Ping seems interested in the overwhelming power of that sense, and how it fuels desire and regret. It is also prescient, or lucky, that he focused in on what would become a marker of the current pandemic. The absurdity of loss of smell as a hallmark symptom of a deadly virus fits squarely into the logic of these fablelike tales, and it is easy to imagine that for his semi-autobiographical characters, such a fate would be met with intense horror. Their world is one of instantly-gratifying stimulation, with painfully dialed-up colors, honking and beeping sounds accelerating like coins out of a jackpot, and a tectonic effect carried in each touch.
Wong Ping narrates the videos himself with deadpan delivery, often outpacing the visuals and subtitles onscreen. He has described the voiceover as a kind of “murmur,” especially since his work is now mostly shown to a non-Cantonese-speaking audience. It is like a hurried confessional, a story that has to get out, pulling viewers along with quick declarations. In the museum’s galleries, the projected animations proceed clockwise around a circular carpet, so that the audience scoots and pivots with every new video, Wong Ping’s recitation flooding the room as if a public service announcement. His most recent video, Sorry for the Late Reply (2021), accelerates that pace even further: a fisherman witnesses a lightning strike on the water, recognizes the image in an ad for varicose vein cream, becomes obsessed, travels to the antiquities department at the local mall, finds an elderly saleswoman, lusts over her veins, faints, and discovers he is trapped inside her leg.
More than other pieces, Late Reply is invested in morphology as plot, and so it feels natural to describe its various sections as painterly, dealing with the indeterminate time that an image takes to fix itself in memory. There is a dream sequence where a friend, exasperated by stacks of articles on discrimination, adopts a pet chameleon and slings racist slurs at it. The chameleon, slippery, resists that hatred by constantly changing color, and then dies of exhaustion. So it is surprisingly tender when the narrator presses his finger into the lizard’s dead eye, turning it inward in a kind of reverent play on the shutting of eyelids. It’s a bit on the nose, an open casket for a creature whose life and death were defined by pure sensation, its pale body mercifully numb; but the strength of Wong Ping’s animation is its brazen disregard for nuance. By linking plot to visual metaphor, Wong Ping gives in to an impulse hinted at in former videos. A driftingly long nose, a voyeur’s eyes displaced onto his hands, a cop’s menacingly blunt penis—these dysmorphic traits served to illustrate certain characters’ tendencies; but in Late Reply the body has been fully dissected, the antiquities manager reduced to a synecdochic thigh, the fisherman just a head with a giant hand.
In Süskind’s Perfume, the crowd that is tempted into cannibalism, a crew of “thieves, murderers, cutthroats, whores, deserters, young desperadoes,” is embarrassed at first, but they soon smile at each other, realizing that they have finally “done something out of love.” What does it mean to declare love in such a state, inebriated by the senses? When one of Wong Ping’s characters discovers dating apps (bio: “Warrior of sex revolution. Weekend vegan. My heart is what gets wet when you cry”) he confuses swiping right or left for a marker of political opinion, not sexual preference, and matches with a dominating woman who pokes out his right eye with her high heel. The violated organ reacts with a full gradient from green to red, as if the dying sense put out one final breath of its full spectrum. When she wears harmless clogs to their next meeting, he wishes she would blind his other eye instead of being forced to see the “disgusting” flats. He is a character like the cuckold who only dreams of revenge, or the neighbor hoarding stolen sweat, powerless and turning inward.
It is a frail masculinity on display in these videos, and the accompanying riot of color seems less and less pleasurable, more of a bulwark against anxiety, surveillance, boredom. When a son leaves home, symbolized by a mountainous depiction of his mother’s womb, he passes through a field of turnstiles, naked except for a briefcase. His backside, like a baboon’s, glows pink against blue skin, recalling the thrusting bodies through a closet door or the bulging muscles of the bachelor promoting himself online, in how desire is painted in sherbet hues. There is a roundness that is all-encompassing, a pleasure spoiling quickly into putrid breath.