Monday, June 7, 2010

Artist operated at fringes of the traditional design world

Tobias Wong wasn't "a name" to most Vancouverites. Yet by the age of 35, he was one of the artists who was helping add to Vancouver's reputation on the international art scene as a city that is an incubator for ideas and new artists.
It was Wong who came up with the whimsical brainwave of gluing 100 one-dollar U.S. greenbacks into a thick "peel as you go" wad, styled after Postits. Rip off the cash, by the dollar, as life demands.
He came up with black, Arctic mittens for the smoker/addict caught in the cold. They had a single hole to insert the cigarette, making it possible to puff without fingers. It wasn't so much a design innovation, though it was that, too, but a political statement of how deep the nicotine addiction can take people.
Wong dreamed up gold-plated stir sticks for McDonald's coffee and an edgy engagement ring where the diamond is mounted upside down, with the point exposed so the bride can scratch a message onto just about any surface he or she dreams up.
There were Wong's little pills full of 24-karat gold leaf to "literally indulge your 'inner' self and increase your self-worth." He thought up a mirrored jigsaw puzzle, whose subject is whoever bends over, tries to solve the puzzle and catches their own reflection.
My favourite Wong twist is a flip-book of paper matches, the sort many New York establishments once gave out for free to their patrons. Flip open Wong's Pocketbook, made a year after 9/11, and you see a cut-out of the New York City skyline, with the doomed twin towers being the only two matches left to be ignited.
Wong's breakthrough piece, which got him attention in the Big Apple and elsewhere, was the ballsy reinterpretation of Philippe Starck's famous Bubble Club chair.
He added a lamp inside the plastic armchair, and called it This is a Lamp.
He was poking fun at artistic pretension and showing how easily art and artists can be turned into a consumer product.
It was a move, Andy Warholish in style, that positioned the young Wong as someone who could take art and design, mash them together as a political statement and make a mark in the gallery world.
He summed his personal ethos up in his tattoo, etched into his right forearm by famous tattooist Jenny Holzer: "PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT."
Sadly, this emerging Vancouver voice is gone.
News has broken that Wong, at the age of 35, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment.
Manhattan's chief medical examiner has ruled the death a suicide, with no details.
But as with great artists, Wong's voice and work keep echoing. His death is moving through the international art world, getting to Vancouver a little late because it was the rest of the world, not Vancouverites, who seemed to appreciate him.
Here, it's time to bow to the New York Times, which offered the young artist a lengthy appreciation on the news of his death. Here's an excerpt, written by the estimable William Grimes:
"Mr. Wong first came to the attention of the design press in 2001 when he turned a Philippe Starck Bubble Club chair into a lamp, softly glowing from within. Adding spice to the stunt, 'This Is a Lamp' was shown the night before the actual Starck chair was presented to the public for the first time.
"A provocateur by nature, Mr. Wong operated at the fringes of the traditional design world, creating objects like a stack of 100 $1 bills, bound in peelable glue like a notepad; a gold-plated McDonald's coffee stirrer (a riff on the company's plastic version that was apparently popular among drug users before being withdrawn); and an engagement ring with the diamond mounted upside down, so that the wearer could use it to scratch graffiti."
Paola Antonelli, a curator with the Museum of Modern Art, told the Times: "As time went on his work became more and more ironic, sarcastic and pointed. He had an enfant terrible style of design that was very fresh in New York. Today you see all sorts of people doing conceptual design, but he was one of the first."
What's tragic here is the death of a young artist in his prime. But Tobias Wong reminds us of something else, too.
"Tobias Wong began his creative career by studying at Emily Carr and along with many other artists and designers, he moved from Vancouver to New York," says Ron Burnett, president of Emily Carr University, who had just heard of Wong's death last week.
"We tend to export our creative talent which is both a testament to the richness of Vancouver's art scene and a depressing comment on our inability to hold onto the talent we have nurtured."
So here's the message. Vancouver, a still-young city just reaching its 125th birthday, is actually creating artists, designers and conceptual thinkers of international reach. Tobias Wong, dead at 35, is a reminder of that fact.

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