The Provocative Art of Tobias Wong

The chaotic life and mysterious death of Tobias Wong will not settle down into a single, digestible narrative for years. We know two things for sure: Wong was born in Vancouver, June 10, 1974; and he died 35 years later in Manhattan’s East Village. Everything else is up in the air.

The real confusion began in 2001, when Wong got hold of an unreleased chair by furniture kingpin Philippe Starck. For his breakthrough work, Wong placed a light bulb inside the transparent chair and sold it as a lamp (cheekily calling it This Is a Lamp). Later he produced gold versions of the McDonald’s coffee spoon to point out the fact that drug users took cocaine with it. He dipped Tiffany earrings in black rubber, turned Issey Miyake dresses into computer dustcovers, stole the Burberry pattern and used it in a series of hipster buttons. Wong was a trickster. When asked to give a lecture at a 2007 design conference, he sent an imposter in his place and made the lecture into a performance piece.

It was tragically fitting, then, when Wong’s death became the subject of serious confusion amongst the international design set that thought of him as an enfant terrible, a “paraconceptual” (his term) disrupter. Was it a conscious suicide? Or an act he’d committed in his sleep? Wong suffered from severe sleep-walking and often talked about creating artworks while unconscious.

Parsing the confusions, the myths, the antics of the most notorious designer to emerge from Western Canada has been the task of curator Viviane Gosselin at the Museum of Vancouver as she’s prepared the first solo show of Wong’s output. She worked closely with family members in Vancouver, who knew a different man than the one who kept a neon sign reading “anus” in his New York apartment window. In fact, Gosselin commissioned written testimonials from 35 people connected with Wong, to map out with personal stories the ideas behind the more than 50 works on display. These writings run alongside the displayed works, creating a kind of collective eulogy.

One of those stories introduces a work completed shortly before Wong’s death, a piece called New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, taken from the title of an LCD Soundsystem song. It’s simple, in a way: a cotton rope, dangled from the ceiling, is strung with wooden beads-some short, some long-and the beads spell out in Morse code that sentence about New York. Josée Lepage, the creative director of Bondtoo in New York, describes becoming overwhelmed by the work, though. “I thought it was so human and real.” It looks like a set of humble Buddhist prayer beads, in stark contrast to the pop jokes that were his earlier works. Wong had no memory of finishing it. The piece, which would be his last, was completed in a state of sleep.

It’s horrible, and also appropriate, that Wong himself has become the object of the same confusion and appropriation that his work always called up. As Gosselin showed me around the museum’s holdings she lamented the way multiple players-curators, family, friends, lovers-now argue over his memory. Would Wong smile at all this? Weren’t those games of his directed only at the crassness of consumer culture? Didn’t Wong reserve a sincerity and sombre beauty (those prayer beads, for example) for moments when seriousness was called for?

Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong runs from Thursday, September 20, 2012 to Sunday, February 24, 2013 at the Museum of Vancouver.