January 30, 2023

Wong Ping’s animations give us a glimpse into a strange inner world – a world of hapless and depraved characters caught in a series of surreal twists and turns.

The New Museum Show “Wong Ping: Your Silent Neighbor” is showing six of the fascinating animated works by this Hong Kong artist, which have been shown in prestigious exhibitions around the world after he gave up a tedious post-production on television and Wong Ping, until October 3rd. Animationslabor founded in 2014.

With his deliberately crude creations, Wong seems determined to spurn the polished world of high-end TV. His characters are made up of basic geometric shapes. Scenes are rendered in cyan, red and lime green, which bring back memories of “surfing the Internet” on dial-up Internet (if available and me). But even if they look childishly simple, the videos are very adult. Grown up because they’re obscene. Grown up because they are tired of the world.

In these animations, fate repeatedly washes people into the sea and spits them back on land. Your fast-paced plot reversals can make you feel like you’re watching something between a stoner movie and the swirl of pixelated cherries across the screen of a video slot machine.

The protagonist in “Wong Ping’s Fables 2” (2019) is an anthropomorphic bull who accidentally impales a police officer to death during a political protest and is then sexually abused in prison. He also uses his time behind bars to write a doctorate. Dissertation on the immorality of slow cooked beef. Later, out of jail and destitute, he sells the jeans from his body. Surprise! You go for good money. Ripped jeans are chic, it turns out. Soon he builds a fashion empire and becomes one of Hong Kong’s richest animals. And that’s not even the first half of the story.

Wong’s show deserves attention – and not just because the works are funny. Your NC-17 salary is hard to miss and can be hard to take for some. Still, the fixation on its shock value misses the point. With their sly humor, the works are tragic comedies in the end. They are full of characters caught up in quirks and perversions and then beaten by forces beyond their control.

The dark voice-overs of the videos set the tone a lot. Wong’s male first-person narrators are reminiscent of the lonely, watchful detectives from Hong Kong’s neo-noir films, for whom all sorts of shock and bleeding were just another day of work. Complete helplessness is also described as stoicism. In “Jungle of Desire” (2015) the narrator, an impotent and poorly paid animator, observes how his wife becomes a sex worker who receives her customers at home. He’s trying to stay outside and give her space, but Hong Kong’s public spaces won’t cooperate. They are full of hostile architecture (“prickly things”) and people who wake anyone who sleeps in a park. The main character hides in a closet at home while his wife’s customers drop by.

Often times, Wong’s videos treat women with fascination and revulsion. Childlike focus is on their body parts: breasts, varicose veins, feet. That might not sound like high-priority viewing to you, especially since #MeToo is re-examining the disproportionate airtime and shelf space for stories about pure male desire. Perhaps when I add them you will be more inclined to see these works not entirely about a power imbalance between a lustful man and a helpless woman. If there is a power imbalance here, it is between people and the reality that overwhelms them. Stagnating wages. Corrupt law enforcement. The loneliness of screens and devices.

Political fears float on the fringes of the show like a ghost barely noticed by the living. In “An Emo Nose” (2015) a man’s nose elongates when he perceives “negative energy”. To appease it, the man stops talking about politics and gives his nose access to sex and ice cream. (In this scene the petals of the flower wither and fall on Hong Kong’s flag.) Elsewhere in “Who’s the Daddy” (2017), the main character thinks a dating app is one that helps him make friends with similar political backgrounds.

For many moments, Wong’s videos made me think of the artist Mike Kelley and his friends, whose chaotic work took the art world by storm a few decades ago. Kelley, who died in 2012, knew how to tread the line between sadness and provocation, whether it was exhibiting torn soft toys or showing a work of art by serial killer John Wayne Gacy in a project about artists and crime. Granted, Kelley’s art has often been shown against the backdrop of working-class American suburbs, while Wong’s work unfolds in urban Hong Kong. But, as Kelley has done to great effect, Wong seems to exhaust his own sense of inadequacy and depravity to arrive at something greater: how sociopolitical realities fuel the disappointments of adult boys who cannot be men.

Kelley, who had a penchant for ragged fabrics, knitted Afghans and cuddly toys, also seems to be channeling the exhibition design of “Wong Ping: Silent Neighbor” in part. The main room of Wong’s exhibition, organized by Gary Carrion-Murayari with Francesca Altamura, a former curatorial assistant, has a central mound made of bean bags and a shaggy carpet platform. Here visitors can sit back and watch Wong’s animations on the surrounding screens.

There is no illusion of cool sterility with this seating arrangement, which is significant given that Wong’s animations often allude to hygiene, body, and public space. Take the germ-conscious city dwellers in “The Other Side” (2015), who push their way through turnstiles with only their lower body. They would certainly look at beanbags with some hesitation. Perhaps you, too, as a visitor to this show. When standing, you need to allow the discomfort in your posture to add to the discomfort these works of art cause. Or you just do it: You squat on a soft piece of cloth and immerse your whole body in Wong Ping’s weird, humiliated world.

Wong Ping: Your quiet neighbor

Until October 3 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan. (212) 219-1222, newmuseum.org.