In a space filled with Tobias Wong's work, it is hard not to think about departed possibilities. Fortunately, the work is distracting, and provokes other notions.
Wong – visionary, collaborator, anti-consumerist, provocateur, "paraconceptualist" (as he called himself), prankster – was 35 when he died two years ago. In his short career, the designer/artist created work that poked at North American consumer culture, posed uncomfortable questions about authorship and responded very much to his adopted home of New York City.
"His ripping off work and riffing on work really was cutting edge," says Todd Falkowsky, co-curator of the first major solo exhibition to feature Wong's work, Object(ing): The art/design of Tobias Wong, which opens Thursday at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV). "It's one thing to look at him through the lens of Vancouver. Go to New York: Tobi was taken very seriously."
The show features some 50 works representing Wong's career – from art-school projects (1999's Unauthorized Burberry Buttons, which blew up into a cultural moment) to commercially produced successes such as Mirror Puzzle (2004) and Sun Jar (2006) to attention-grabbing provocations (almost everything in the show) – and helps make the case that Wong is among the most influential designers of his time.
The concept seems so familiar now, but when Wong dazzled with the notion of design as an alternative to art – an art form in and of itself – he brought a new kind of accessibility to contemporary art, even if his work was at times controversial and unsettling. Picking up from his predecessor Andy Warhol (of whom Wong once told SOMA Magazine: "I am honoured to get to play with this platform that he created"), Wong's work felt as at home at an art fair as it did in a furniture store.
"I think that's a sign when people can't put you in a box because your work can't be easily defined," says Viviane Gosselin, co-curator of the exhibition and the MOV's curator of contemporary issues. "Because you're defining new terms, new boundaries. And I think that's [part] of the evidence that his work and his career are exceptional and remarkable."
Inspired by subversive movements such as surrealism, constructivism and Dada, Wong, who was born and grew up in Vancouver, literally imprinted himself with his ideas. He tattooed a square on his chin to pay tribute to his years studying architecture in Toronto. At a gallery opening in 2002, he approached the American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and asked her to write a sentence on his forearm, then rushed off to a tattoo parlour to have it inked right over her writing. (It said: "protect me from what I want.")
He was cheeky. His body of work includes Silver Pills (1998) and Gold Pills (2005) – capsules designed to turn the ingester's poop silver or gold – and The Ottoman (that is its commonly altered, censor-satisfying title) – a bright red ottoman made for a man that vibrates and features a 12-inch, mink-lined opening.
In his work The Imposter Lecture (2008), you see his friend Rama Chorpash (the imposter) impersonate Wong, delivering a lecture confidently and unflinchingly (there were a lot of rehearsals). The video that documents the performance cuts to Wong, listening raptly. Later, he is interviewed as audience member. "I'm a big fan," he says.
Annoyed at how seriously designers were beginning to take themselves, Wong took a Karim Rashid coffee-table book, published shortly after 9/11, and altered it – he cut a handgun shape out of the cover – to create a work poking fun at its title, I Want to Change the World, and by extension the author.
This is a Lamp (1998), glowing yellow as you enter the exhibition, is another great take-a-celebrity-designer-down-a-notch moment, and a breakout piece for Wong. 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.
Wong upset corporate giants such as McDonald's (for 2005's Coke Spoons) and fashion designer Issey Miyake (over Wong's use of Miyake's Pleats Please line). Burberry, on the other hand, ultimately used the momentum created by Wong (who had handed out hundreds of the pirated Burberry buttons at Fashion Week events in New York) by incorporating the buttons into its advertising campaign the following year.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Wong was in his East Village apartment with his neighbour and friend Dean MacGregor. In shock, they went out to rent videos (they never wound up watching them) and encountered soot-covered World Trade Center survivors. Wong was deeply affected by the event and created a number of works in response. He dared inject some whimsy into his incendiary tribute to the New York skyline, NYC Story Matchbook (2002). But other works were more serious, including Ballistic Rose (2004) and Bulletproof Quilted Duvet (2004), suggesting a need to turn to everyday objects such as blankets and fashion accessories for protection. And Box Cutter (2002) was a provocative work: a once-ordinary tool turned evil, inscribed with the words "another notion of possibility."
"People really got upset and hated it," MacGregor says. "He had the ability to hit a nerve."
It took Falkowsky – a friend of Wong's and show director at Toronto's Interior Design Show – a few months after Wong's death to be convinced this wasn't just another of his stunts. Then Falkowsky began pitching a show. He was concerned Wong's bizarre death (ruled a suicide, there was a strong belief among family members that he was sleepwalking when he killed himself) was overshadowing his work.
"It would be like talking about Van Gogh and all people talk about is the guy lobbing his ear off," Falkowsky says.
On Tuesday, friends including MacGregor, Vancouver-based artist Pablo Griff, Amelia Bauer (who collaborated with Wong on 2005's Transcendental Meditation) and Wong's partner Tim Dubitsky previewed the show. While Wong's work has been exhibited at venues such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, "As Paul [Pablo Griff] says, it's like a family reunion, having all the pieces together," Dubitsky said quietly. "They've never been in the same place at the same time."
As you tour the show, rather than being overwhelmed by what could have been, you are moved by what was, and what is.
"I think the ideas are big enough to endure. So Tobi has a long project now, which is essentially his work has become an inspiration pod that we all get to go in and look at," Falkowsky says. "His work's not going to die. It's going to continue to inspire."