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Family and Friends Share Tobias Wong’s Stories

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.

Material transgressions

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.

Welcoming Tobias Home

By Todd Falkowsky, co-curator of Object(ing): The art/design of Tobias Wong

The first time I met Tobias Wong was in New York City in 2004, where we both had shows at the Felissimo House.  As I was setting up my space, a small, very pleasant guy kept circling around and nodding his approval at what we were installing. As we were finishing, he finally came forward and introduced himself as a “big fan”. We chatted about the work and he shared some thoughts. It was only after he left, when I asked the curator who he was, did I find out that it was Tobias. Humble, interested, and filled with ideas. It was a genuine pleasure to meet someone with so much talent introduce himself as a fan when in fact he was a celebrated artist/designer with his star on an explosive rise. Well, the feeling was mutual.

I knew that designers appreciated Tobi’s work, but I realized his influence had run deeper when I was teaching at OCAD in Toronto. I was pleasantly surprised by how many design students wanted to do work like his. They were not looking to be designers in the traditional sense, but to become provocative and use product design as a mirror and comment on the status and purpose of our culture. They did not want to be Starck or Rashid; instead they wanted to be Tobias Wong, the artist who used design to break the rules. Tobi’s ideas and approach had impact on design practice, inviting designers to use their craft to create serious meaning and new ways of interacting with our communities.

Our paths continued to cross over the years and though we were able to work together a handful of times, we always talked about future projects to collaborate on, new shows, products, and publications. That opportunity was not meant to be — a reminder to grab the chances you have and to do the things you really want to do today, rather than tomorrow. I brought Tobias to Toronto in January 2010 for one of his last lectures, and showed his iconic “This is a Lamp” at the accompanying exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. This was the last time I talked to him.

Later that spring, upon learning of his passing, I immediately suspected that it was not real; the whole thing seemed surreal and mad, and in line with the shock that Tobi’s work sometimes embraced. I thought it was another irreverent yet more potent stunt, ratcheted up from past projects like his Core77 lecture or the elaborate installation, the Wrong Store in Manhattan. Reality settled in and as heartbreaking a loss it was for the art and design community, I felt his ideas and products would endure, and that his work should continue to be seen, discussed, and celebrated.

I had just moved to Vancouver and it struck me that Tobias’ international success deserved a long overdue homecoming, in the city where he was born and raised (and perhaps where his ideas had their beginning). For me, his work was avant-garde, blending design and art, opening both professions up to new directions; work that is still important and deserves to be promoted and shared.

The Museum of Vancouver has graciously opened their doors to me, and the idea for this show, bringing the work of this remarkable Vancouverite home. Tobi’s family, close friends, colleagues, and fans have opened their hearts to share with us their thoughts and experience to understand and contextualize the work (not to mention lending it to us in the first place). I am honoured to have played a part in bringing this exhibition together. I hope Tobias’ work lives on and continues to inspire, disrupt, and provoke. 

Object(ing) opens to the public September 20, 2012. A limited number of tickets are available to attend the opening night.

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