Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong

If you live in the Vancouver area and are the least bit into art — especially the dark humour/pop art type rife with social and cultural commentary, a la Banksy or Warhol — I’d highly recommend checking out the Tobias Wong exhibition, running now through Feb. 24 at the Museum of Vancouver.

A brief bio: Wong was born in Vancouver and attended the University of Toronto before moving to New York in 1997 to study art and architecture. There, he flourished, becoming widely respected in NY art circles. His parents were from Hong Kong. “He often would tell his mom that he had to work three times as hard as people here to get recognized,” friend Aric Chen told the New York Times. Wong was also a chronic sleepwalker, able to accomplish elaborate tasks while asleep. It is believed he was asleep when he hanged himself in his Manhattan apartment in May 2010. For more on him, read the linked NYT story, as well as Marsha Lederman’s piece on the exhibition.

About 50 pieces of his work are on display at the exhibition. Below, a few of my favourites.

This is a Lamp, 2001.

Wong stuck a light inside a Philippe Starck Bubble chair and dubbed it a lamp. This piece debuted the night before the actual Starck chair was presented to the public.  Lederman writes: ” By putting a lamp in French designer Philippe Starck’s much-anticipated Bubble Club Chair – just before the chair’s North American debut – and giving it a new function and name, Wong created an entirely new work. Or did he? Was this theft? Inspiration? Before you answer, consider Starck’s own design: essentially a sleek plastic version of the art deco club chair. In any case, it earned Starck – and, yes, Wong – a great deal of attention.”

Coke Spoons, 2005.

Urban legend has it that McDonald’s stopped using these stir sticks — which were popular among cocaine users — after Tobias Wong dipped one in gold and it landed in magazines and web sites everywhere. Artist Douglas Coupland says this is the piece that “broke him wide open.”

New York I love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, 2010

From artist Josee Lepage: “Based on LCD Sound System’s song ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,’ the idea was to create a pendant made of a set of wooden beads of different lengths and shapes to form the title’s words in Morse code. The ‘bringing me down’ of the title would become, literally, the drop of the beads as they fell from ceiling to floor. … When he was planning the work, we talked back and forth about how it should look. He showed me a few pieces of wooden samples, and a few days later, he called and said, ‘It’s finished. I made it…but don’t remember doing it.’ I knew Tobi was a sleepwalker and often did things he didn’t remember. Still, when I saw this gigantic wooden pendant with its stunning message hung from floor to ceiling, I couldn’t help but wonder: How in the world did he manage to do this while asleep?”

Unauthorized Burberry Buttons, 1999

In a common jab at the big guys, Wong reduced a luxury brand into a cheap, everyday item by using the patented Burberry plaid design to make buttons. He handed out hundreds of these at New York Fashion Week events. While many big companies get up in arms over stuff like this, Burberry saw the traction it was getting and, in 2000, incorporated them into their advertising. They were visible in magazines, billboards and catalogues:

Burberry advertisement, spring 2000

Money Pad, 2000

From designer and culture writer Lauren Leon Boym: “Money Pad = $99.00 artist’s joke. To all innocent appearances at first glance, it was an iconic stack of money. The $100 worth of $1 bills were conveniently glued together in a peel-off, post-it note type format. Cool, right? When an unsuspecting (how could they otherwise be in on the joke?) design consumer bought the piece for $199 as a gift, there was a 100% profit immediately at retail. The overflow of cash was profit split by the artist, distributor, and retailer after sale.”

Anus Sign, 1998-2003

Not really a favourite, but let me tell you: It’s a neat moment watching arty types ponder the meaning of a neon “anus” sign.

So head on over to the Museum of Vancouver! $12 for an adult if you’re not a member.

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