News

Tobias Wong: Designer as Conceptual Prankster

Tobias Wong, by Gowanus Studio Space (via flickr.com/gowanusstudiospace)

There aren’t many other ways to state the bad news, so I’m going to quote the press release from Aric Chen of New York Magazine:

D. Tobias Wong, the Canadian-born, New York-based artist and designer, passed away in the early morning of Sunday, May 30, 2010. He was 35.

Chen continues:

Wong was a keen observer, an original mind, a brilliant prankster, and an unerring friend.

Widely exhibited and widely praised, Tobias Wong’s work forced the design (not to mention contemporary art) world to reconsider art’s relationship to mass commerce and up-to-the-minute pop culture as well as face up to its own Ivory Tower insularity.

Chen’s description of Wong as a prankster couldn’t be more apt, a one-word summation of a designer who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty with material more aloof designers wouldn’t touch. The sense of play and humor found in Tobias’ work, tongue-in-cheek jibing to straight up insulting, is what makes it stand out for me.

Duchamp vs. Wong

The story behind one of Tobias’ most vicious pieces goes like this: in the 1970s, McDonalds distributed tiny spoons emblazoned with the company’s name in order to aid in adding sugar and stirring coffee. As it turns out, the spoons quickly found another use: scooping cocaine. This added functionality was noticed by McDonalds as the spoons became exhibit A in more than a few drug-related court cases. The company promptly pulled them from restaurants.

In a 2005 collaboration with Ju$t Another Rich Kid (Ken Courtney), Wong recreated the spoons — in gold. The piece, “Coke Spoon 2” (2005), is a wry commentary on the nature of design, the creation of usable objects and the gap between design for mass consumption versus design for luxury connoisseurship. What could be a better mix of high and low than the spoon, originally used for its quick and dirty lowbrow functionality, cast into an expensive collector’s item? Tobias’ twist is a secondary appropriation, a riff on a riff. That’s part of what makes it feel so fresh, naughty and fun.

Wong’s appropriations are cynical to be sure, but they’re also heartfelt. He takes objects that we’re already familiar with to the point of boredom and turns them on their heads in a way that makes us reconsider the possibilities inherent in the normal stuff of our daily lives. His work displays an affection for the weirdness of everyday objects normally overlooked.

Tobias Wong's Sun Jar (via Amazon.com)

Take a look at the “Sun Jar” (2006), one of the designer’s best-known pieces. Punning on the green movement with a rough-hewn readymade poetry, “Sun Jar” is literally sunlight caught inside a jar, but, of course, with a twist. A solar light placed inside a glass mason jar absorbs sunlight during the day and emits it at night, a conceptual bait-and-switch that substitutes the real thing with electricity.

When “Silver Pills” (1998) are swallowed their shell dissolves in the digestive system, leaving a pile of silver leaf to make “your shit sparkle,” as Wong’s website suggests. “Ballistic Rose” (nd) is a corsage made of ballistic nylon bound to save your heart from breaking, or being punctured, as it were.  “Smoking Mittens” (2003) solve the old-as-vice problem of how to smoke in the cold with a hole punctured between the appropriate finger spaces. You could even light it with Wong’s furry lighter — “Disposable Lighters” (2003). Each object is a take on a readily recognizable original, but a take ripe with cleverness, dexterity and originality. Maybe they’re less critiques of consumerism and more commentary on the vapid pleasure of most of our consumption.

Wong’s “Killer Engagement Ring” (2008) (via yankodesign.com)

Along with his love of stuff, Wong’s work is also shot through with a Duchampian hot streak, an iconoclastic willingness to destroy and remake his surroundings. But it’s not just nihilistic. “Perfect Lovers (Forever)” (2002) takes a Felix Gonzalez-Torres work entitled “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” (1991), two clocks set flush with each other slowly ticking out of sync, and corrects it. Wong’s clocks communicate with the U.S. Atomic Clock and miss only a second every million years. Such is the power of a single conceptual tweak.

Wong’s is my favorite kind of art. The work is super tough, funny, conceptually interesting without being boring and takes on life at the street level. His pieces are sparks that provoke, entertain, and poke us into new ways of thinking. Best to let the designer sum it up:

I just want any given project to address issues I am interested in. If I can influence other artists and designers, that’s where I can make the larger change. Maybe it creates a chain reaction — like one simple urinal-turned-fountain.

That simple urinal was probably the biggest game changer in the past century of art. I’m pretty sure Wong had a similar one in him, it’s just a shame we don’t have the opportunity to find out.

Tobias Wong's Ballistic Rose

Core77 has a worthwhile remembrance of the designer, and his sparsely updated personal site can be found here. Flavorwire has a retrospective of some of Wong’s more provocative designs here. The New York Timesobituary has noted that the death was, sadly, ruled a suicide.

comments (0)