By Carolyn B. Heller
Among the many people the late Tobias Wong shocked and surprised with his art was his own mother, Phyllis Chan.
“He really had lots of crazy ideas,” Chan admitted during Show & Tell, an event which brought Wong’s family, friends and admirers to the Museum of Vancouver to discuss the artist and his often-controversial work, now on view in Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong.
To make her point, Chan showed the audience a picture of her son as a young man. There he was, standing on a sidewalk in New York City, selling what he purported to be his own dreams in plastic bags.
If her son could successfully sell sacks of air as dreams for $1 each, Chan said, she knew that the then-aspiring artist “would be able to survive in his future.”
Wong’s audacity did indeed bring him to the fore of the international art and design scenes before his death in 2010 at age 35. Everything he made, every collaboration, every performance, had a story.
Tobias Wong on a Manhattan sidewalk.
From Selling Dreams to Selling Dots
Pablo Griff, Wong’s former roommate and frequent collaborator, described another art adventure that he and Wong launched – the “Dot Placement Project.”
They were working together in a New York design store, where they ordered an array of big, colourful dots.
When customers came into the store, Wong and Griff would offer themselves up as Dot Consultants, telling prospective clients, “If you pay $100, we’ll place dots in your home.”
They actually got several people to pay for their dot consulting services, including some who understood their ironic stunt and used the opportunity to talk with the two about their art.
Their little caper turned out to be a “good learning experience for Tobi,” Griff said, which helped him define and promote his artistic concepts.
For those who took the project too seriously and considered the dots some kind of status symbol, though, Griff confessed, “We looked through their drawers and everything. We basically did this just to look around rich people’s homes.”
Panelists Phyllis Chan, Pablo Griff, Tim Dubitsky and Omer Arbel. Image: Tilo Driessen.
Designer Omer Arbel told how Wong created his 2003 piece, Doorstop. Wong filled a curvaceous glass vase by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto with concrete, using the piece as a mold. To release his work, Wong had to smash the Aalto vase.
“It was an insult,” Arbel said, “a big ‘f**k you’ to Alvar Aalto.” But it was also more than that. For Wong, "the materials were secondary to the questions that a work raised in people's minds…..[he] had a symbolic way of working with materials that I find totally foreign and totally fascinating."
Another piece in the Object(ing) show, This is a Lamp (2001), also started with a famous artist’s work. Wong managed to buy a Philippe Starck Bubble Club Chair just before its North American premiere, then wired the chair to turn it into a glowing light fixture.
Displaying his lamp-chair a day before Starck unveiled his own chair earned Wong plenty of attention in the art world. As Pablo Griff told the audience, Starck was reportedly angry that he hadn’t thought of the lamp idea himself.
“It’s a nice chair,” Griff pointed out, “but it’s much more beautiful as a lamp.”
Doorstop, concrete cast in an Alvar Aalto vase.
“This Beautiful Soul”
Despite Wong’s sometimes outrageous antics, his friend Nancy Bendtsen said that Tobi “was very generous, always giving gifts. He had this beautiful soul, where things were always possible.”
Bendtsen met Wong at Inform Interiors, the Vancouver furniture store she runs with her husband Niels Bendtsen. Tobi turned up with “all these ideas. He had, maybe, 50 ideas” for projects they might do together.
Tobi’s world “was full of ideas and friends,” Bendtsen said, brushing away a tear.
Wong eventually worked with the Bendstens to design a sofa shaped like a pentagon, with all its padded seating facing inward. They built a prototype of the unusual five-sided couch, which they intended to display at a design show in Brazil. Unfortunately, Brazilian customs confiscated the crates.
It was shortly after September 11th, Bendsten recalled, speculating that the sofa – named “Pentagon” – may have been seized because of some imagined connection to the attack on the Pentagon building in Washington, DC.
They never retrieved the sofa. In one of the last conversations Bendsten had with Tobi before his death, Wong insisted that he would return to Brazil one day and track it down.
Tobias Wong/Inform Pentagon: disappeared in Brazil.
Design That (Really) Lasts
Wong loved working with other artists, his collaborator and romantic partner, Tim Dubitsky, recounted, frequently convincing them to “go out of their way to participate” in his projects.
One such venture was a pop-up tattoo parlour, in which patrons would pay “a significant amount” to have various artists’ works tattooed on their bodies.
The idea, Dubitsky said, was to test how far a fan was willing to go for a work they admired.
Wong himself was prone to this compulsion. At a gallery opening in New York, he convinced the artist Jenny Holzer to write her yuppie manifesto on his arm: “Protect me from what I want.” Wong promptly had the words tattooed in place, effectively appropriating the phrase as his own.
(Inspired by Wong’s tattoo parlour, the MOV will host its own tattoo event, “Love You Forever: A (pop-up) Tattoo Spectacle,” on December 8.)
Protect me from what I want: Nancy Bendtsen compares her temporary tattoo to the original on Wong's arm. Image: Tilo Driessen.
Coke Spoons in Heaven
After sharing their memories, Wong’s mother and friends walked the audience through the Object(ing) exhibit, where more stories – by friends, fellow artists, or others who knew or collaborated with Wong – accompany each work.
One of Wong’s most attention-getting creations was Coke Spoon (2005), in which he dipped a long, thin McDonald’s coffee stirrer in 18-karat gold. Pablo Griff said that McDonald’s, which apparently didn’t appreciate being linked even tangentially with the drug culture, got a cease-and-desist order to prevent Wong from producing more of the gold-plated spoons.
Next to Coke Spoon is a comment by artist and writer Douglas Coupland:
“The spoon hung on [my] kitchen wall above the sink for years, and then it vanished…. I hope that Tobi took it and has it with him in heaven.”
Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong runs through February 24, 2013.
As a child, Tobias Wong created this miniature scupture for his mother. He 'appropriated' the form from a sculpture in her home.
Within the history galleries at the Museum of Vancouver hangs one of the city's most beloved reminders of the local alt-rock and punk music scenes, a giant flashing neon sign of a bald red buddha. Originally taken from the neon strip along Hastings Street the sign belonged to the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret. Originally a reputable Chinese restaurant, the cabaret reinvented itself over 4 decades culminating as the home of the 80's punk scene. The sign was eventually donated to the Museum in 2008 by the band 5440. In 1995 they ended up with the sign and decided to take it on tour.
At the height of their popularity the alt-rock band 5440 released their 3rd album and named it after the sign and music venue.
Early in 2012 Vocalist Neil Osborne and bassist Brad Merritt visited the MOV history galleries and shared with staff the wild story of the Buddha tour of '95 and that giant neon sign.
When Tobias Wong released “This is a Lamp” – a Phillip Stark bubble chair installed with a light bulb and a pull chord – it was considered his breakout moment. It was the beginning of his acquirement of nick names like “Bad Boy” and “Enfant terrible of the design world.” He was showing what he did best – taking every day objects and twisting them to create a point of conversation.
Looking at it, I always wonder who got to sit in that chair. Would I sit in it, if it were in my house? Or would I put it on display. I dug into openMOV to see what Vancouver chairs we have in our collection, and who was sitting in them.
This cute almost wicker style chair was owned by Frances Barkley, the first European woman to view the coast of what would later be called British Columbia. She came while on a three-year honeymoon with her husband, Captain Charles William Barkley. The chair was made in Malacca between 1750 and 1775.
Then there is, of course, this lovely summery chair that was owned by Joe Fortes, the English Bay beach lifeguard and swimming instructor. He enjoyed the ocean view from his cottage at English Bay c. 1900-1920 while sitting in this chair, which he found at the cottage when he moved in.
And for the orderly and rigid Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, a more stiff chair. Begbie was the first Chief Justice of British Columbia, starting in 1858. Some say the orderliness and lack of crime during the gold rush in BC were probably due to Begbie’s rigid, but fair, enforcement of the law.
This evening we here at the Museum of Vancouver are extremely pleased to be putting on our first annual MOV Legacy Dinner, during which we will present the inaugural City Shapers Awards.
We began thinking about the awards more than a year ago, when asking ourselves the question “If the city itself is looked at as an artifact, to whom do we credit its creation?” We pulled in seven well recognized city historians, urban planners, and influencers (including David Jordan, Nancy McKinstry, David Sung, Jean Barman, Lance Berelowitc, Carol Alter Kerfoot, and Joan Seidl) together to help review over 50 families and individuals who have helped mould Vancouver as we know it today.
The resulting selection brought forward three extraordinary individuals for this inaugural year:
City Legacy Award: Milton and Fei Wong
Emerging City Visionary Award: Robert Fung
MOV City Legacy Award:
This award honours those individuals or families that have played a key role in building a foundation for Vancouver so that it could flourish and whose enduring legacy can still be felt in circles either small or large today. This may be a living or posthumous award.
Congratulations 2012 Honourees: Fei and Milton Wong
Why Fei and Milton Wong?
After studying 56 pages of impressive families throughout Vancouver’s history, Fei and Milton Wong consistently rose to the top for their extraordinary influence over Vancouver’s evolution as a city and their continued impact on it today. Specifically, for their extensive mentorship of a new generation of business and community leaders to believe in the power of diversity; their advocacy for human rights and arts and culture; their support and leadership of organizations such as the Laurier Institute, the B.C. Cancer Foundation, the Salvation Army and SUCCESS; and their continued philanthropic support of educational institutions.
MOV Emerging City Visionary Award:
This award honours those individuals whose actions and/or ideas demonstrate a vision for the long-term needs of Vancouver as an innovative, sustainable, and inclusive city. This individual shows signs of having a future transformative impact on the city and its people.
Congratulations 2012 Honouree: Robert Fung, Salient Group
Why Robert Fung?
For Robert Fung’s progressive leadership of the development firm the Salient Group; for his innovative work in restoring and revitalizing Vancouver’s built heritage and playing a key role in the revitalization of Gastown in such projects as the Flack Block, Paris Block, and Taylor Building; for his driving vision towards a more sustainable form of urbanism, building LEED certified developments; and for his mentorship of a new generation of developers in Vancouver demonstrating the successful combination of sustainability, conservation, and mixed-use commercial and residential development.
You can hear Robert Fung speak about receiving the award on the CBC Early Edition podcast from earlier this morning (October 10, 2012 - last interview of the podcast).
The awards were designed by Propeller Design, and mimic the exterior of the Museum of Vancouver building.
Robert Fung photo provided by Stephen Hui.
A few months ago I invited Jan Sippel, educator at the Vancouver School Board, to complement historian Mona Gleason’s research. Mona, a professor at the Faculty of Education at UBC, with a keen interest in the history of education had generated some cool exploratory research for the Sex Talk in the City project. Mona’s work (more in a future post) had focused on the 1900-1960s period. Jan was to extend the storyline to the present.
I am not an historian, but I have very recently become one. As a member of the Sex Talk in the City Advisory Committee and the coordinator of sexual health education for the Vancouver School District, I had been asked to research the history of sex education in our schools over the past 50 years. I expected it to be fairly straightforward — reflect on the twenty-five years I have been in the district, check the VSB archives, talk with current and retired colleagues, and canvas schools for ‘artifacts’ (old films, videos, and teaching materials) that may be collecting dust in cupboards and closets.
It quickly became apparent that sex education teaching materials tend to be thrown out when they become obsolete and it is unknown how many of these resources existed in the first place. The School Board archives, which are maintained by the Vancouver School Board Heritage Committee, a dedicated group of retired teachers and school administrators, are somewhat limited in scope by the storage space available. The archives yielded very few sex education artifacts, likewise the request to schools.
Probably the most important thing I have learned from this exercise is that much of the history of sex education in our schools resides with a few individuals, many of whom are retired. My ‘key informants’ thus far been teachers, counsellors, and administrators who have, in the past, had leadership roles in the school district that included responsibility for sex education. All had the task of helping teachers implement the Ministry of Education health and guidance curriculum of the day. Some had been the Elementary Curriculum Consultants. Others had been members of the VSB Family Life Education Team formed in the late 1980s to support teachers of grades 7–12 with the provincial Family Life Education Curriculum, developed in response to the “Aids Crisis”.
I was surprised to learn that sex education, in some form, has had a place in the BC education curriculum since the 1950s. For many years, it was taught almost exclusively at the secondary level, often with no guidebook and teachers sharing what resources they had with one another. Secondary students may have received ‘sex ed’ classes from their school counsellor or from a teacher in science, home economics, or physical education classes. Historically, in the intermediate grades, sex education came under the topic of “body systems” in science and students learned about the reproductive systems of mammals. Although sex education has been part of the BC curriculum, a teacher‘s comfort level with the topic was often the determining factor in whether or not it was taught. In the 1960’s and 70’s, public health nurses and some private sexual health educators began to play a significant role in addressing this topic in our classrooms.
Delving into the documentation and interviewing key people in the field has also allowed me to see curricular patterns emerging, patterns that appear to have been driven by the societal concerns of the time. For example, in the mid-1980s child sexual abuse prevention first appeared in the BC health and guidance curriculum; by the late 1980s, sex education curriculum had a strong focus on the prevention of HIV /AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. The 1990s saw a greater emphasis on healthy relationships, which seemed to reflect an increase in public awareness and discussion of domestic violence. These social issues exerted a strong influence on the curriculum and in some cases, renewed interest in sex education in our schools. The last 10 or more years has seen a move to include themes of sexual diversity and inclusion, and recognition of the need for comprehensive sexual health education at both the elementary and secondary level.
Tracing the history of sex education in Vancouver schools has been daunting and discouraging, at times. The research I have done to date seems to have only scratched the surface! I’m hoping that some keen historians and grad students will continue the process of unveiling and recording how we have taught — and are teaching — this important subject in our schools. It says so much about who we are as a society, and we have much to learn from that history.