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Tobias Wong

'Bad Boy' Designer at SFMOMA

Sometimes art speaks for itself and other times it needs explanation and context. The latter is the case for the work of the late artist-designer Tobias Wong, who takes the banally familiar and repurposes it into irony-laden statements about the things we buy and consume.

Now on view through June 19th at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Wong’s first-ever solo show of his irreverent and highly conceptual work, which includes objects, furniture, jewelry, lighting, and installation, is on display. But take note, unless you’re pre-acquainted with Wong’s designs and the materials he used to create them, the exhibit will leave you nothing but perplexed.

The Tobias Wong exhibit is housed within the museum’s larger ParaDesign exhibition, which features other “against the norm” designs. At the entrance to ParaDesign, a small monitor on the wall features a talking mouth that greets you with an abrupt, “Hey you! Want to buy a get rich scheme?” and other such jabs at consumerism. This trippy, futuristic display more than sets the tone for the forthcoming cultural oddities on view.

As you begin the tour, it’s super easy to miss the take-away exhibition maps, which feature brief descriptions of all the works on display including Wong’s designs. Definitely grab this! It will help diminish the all-consuming, “That’s cool, but I don’t get what the heck I’m looking at” thoughts. Unfortunately, the map itself is utterly confusing to follow, too, so be prepared to don a constantly furrowed brow.

As you pass through ParaDesign’s functional furniture made of phonebooks, wire, and other such materials, as well as a double urinal (reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s original “latrine as art” concept), you’ll arrive at Tobias Wong’s section. Almost immediately, it feels like you’re playing some sort of pop art game of whether or not you “get” Wong’s dark, twisted, clever musings.

What is clear is how he enjoyed poking a cynical finger into the concepts of luxury and consumerism in our society. One such example is how he knocked-off the instantly recognizable high-fashion, plaid Burberry pattern and replicated it into cheap, plastic buttons. Or how he printed the iconic Chanel logo (interlocking “C’s”) over crossbones on a black matchbook, possibly pointing to the cultural “evil” of status symbols.

But the majority of his designs are even harder to appreciate at face value without knowing the context in which they were created. For instance, Wong’s gold-plated McDonald’s beverage stirrer, named “Cokespoon No. 2” is, on the surface, visually amusing at best. But if you’re unaware that the original plastic coffee stirrers were taken out of production when the fast food company learned they were consistently being used for drug purposes – you’re completely left out of the artist’s mocking message about pop-cultural indulgences gone astray.

Similarly, his exhibit features a black blanket inside a glass case. Perplexing, right? But if you knew Wong constructed the quilted duvet with ballistic nylon (the same stuff bullet proof vests are made of), the nighttime cover takes on a whole new meaning of protection. Likewise, his white crystal chandelier appears, on the surface, to be nothing more than — well, a white chandelier. But if you knew the entire light was actually dipped in rubber and that now, rather than being an object representative of uber-luxury, it’s the ultimate statement of uber-tacky, you start to appreciate Wong’s idiosyncratic sense of humor. But again, without description and context Wong’s cleverness is all but lost on its viewers.

Unfortunately, this sentiment consistently holds true throughout the majority of the exhibition. With a wildly creative mind and a unique perspective on life and culture, Wong’s designs are worth checking out, but definitely do yourself a favor and read up on his witticisms beforehand.