Some have called his animations “ugly,” but Hong Kong artist Wong Ping believes ugly can also be beautiful.
His surreal, brightly-colored animated shorts tell witty, absurd stories that often make viewers uncomfortable.
In one film, a man watches from a closet as his wife offers free sex to an undercover cop. In another, a man receives a fetus from his Tinder date, who believes that getting abortions will help redeem her of her sins.
Wong’s provocative works have been shown at museums around the world, including the Guggenheim in New York. He was also awarded the inaugural Emerging Artist Prize at London’s Camden Arts Centre, where his solo exhibition opened last Friday.
Despite the shocking storylines, the twisted faces of Wong’s characters belie their dramatic emotions. More often than not, they look wide-eyed and stunned, while Wong narrates the stories in a monotone voice that drips with weariness.
His stories delicately capture the feeling of helplessness among many of Hong Kong’s youth, who feel angry about what they see as an erosion of civil liberties and the skyrocketing costs of living in the city.
In recent weeks, their fury has spilled onto the streets in a series of mass demonstrations against a controversial extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong to send fugitives to mainland China.
I caught up with Wong before the protests to talk about these and other aspects of his work and life. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us about growing up in Hong Kong? Did you watch a lot of cartoons when you were a kid?
I didn’t watch a lot of cartoons. I didn’t have the patience. My mom also wouldn’t let me watch TV very much.
I was bad at school and did poorly on exams. I couldn’t continue my studies, but I also couldn’t be bothered to look for alternatives. So I just stayed home and became what they call “rubbish youth.”
My parents thought, “This can’t last. What should we do?” They looked at a map and picked a country where they had a friend. And that’s how I ended up in Australia.
I’ve never been an ambitious person. I just let them do whatever they want.
I’ve never been an ambitious person. I just let them do whatever they want.
I majored in multimedia design there. It’s not that relevant to what I do now. We were taught some 3-D animation, but I wasn’t good at it. There were so many keys. It was too much of a hassle. So I skipped classes.
You later came back to Hong Kong and worked in a TV station, retouching images. How did you get from there to where you are today?
While I was working, I got into writing as a hobby. And because of my job, I learned a lot of different software. So I tried using those programs to draw and animate the stories I wrote.
Later I got fired. What I want to say is, I didn’t choose this path. I got fired, so I just focused on doing my own thing. The timing happened to be just right.
What’s your creative process?
I put more emphasis on writing, and that takes quite a lot of time. Before I can write, I have to live in the moment every day.
Then, when I have time to sit down and write, I recall all the thoughts and experiences I’ve had in the past few months and put them into a story.
Before I can write, I have to live.
After that, I draw, animate, record the voiceover, and add subtitles. I do everything myself because I can make sure my work expresses me 100%.
What is it about animation that helps you express yourself 100%?
One thing about animation is that it’s a pretty fitting choice for someone like me who lives in Hong Kong. It’s convenient, I don’t need a lot of space. You know how expensive rent is here. All I need is a computer and I can go anywhere, anytime.
Another thing about animation is, nobody thinks they have to treat it seriously. Even if you talk about something that’s very personal or something that’s very horrible, the audience tends to think I’m joking, even if I’m being serious.
So it’s sly, it’s like a trick. I can comfortably talk about my experiences, and people will think, “Is this for real?” I like how animation can let me be very frank.
This seems to fit your personality pretty well.
My personality? I guess so. I imagine if my life story were adapted into a movie, it would be pretty hard to swallow visually, and the story wouldn’t be convincing. The audience would think, “Damn, this person is such a dick.” But if it’s animation, they’d think, “You’re so funny!”
Speaking of funny, in your Instagram, you describe yourself as a comedian.
I don’t really like defining myself. I don’t know what makes an artist, so I don’t want to call myself an artist. As for comedian, I really like watching stand-up. I think the way I write, create, and express myself is quite similar to a stand-up comedian’s. Every punchline is inspired by different aspects of their daily lives.
But at the end of the day, do comedians simply want to be funny? Mostly not. There’s a lot of food for thought, too.
Why did you choose such a low-tech style as opposed to, say, 3-D animation?
3-D looks pretty attractive, but I’m not interested in trying to learn it again. I find it difficult. I’m lazy and impatient. That’s also why I keep making short films.
But even if it looks low-tech and my technique is limited, within these limits, I keep trying to push myself and see what I can do.
Even if it’s ugly, I want to make sure it’s a beautiful kind of ugly.
Even if it’s ugly, I want to make sure it’s a beautiful kind of ugly. Sometimes ugly things are really ugly, but other times, an ugly thing is beautiful, too. Where’s the line? That’s what makes the difference.
I get the sense that your work is very Hong Kong, but you never intentionally draw anything that’s visually very Hong Kong, like dim sum.
I think it’s quite funny that people keep saying my work feels very Hong Kong. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Is it because everything looks so cramped on screen? Or is it because my voice sounds like it’s suffering? Like people think, “Wow, that’s so Hong Kong, he sounds so tired.”
(Read more: The perils of being a street artist in Beijing)
If you ask if Hong Kong gives me inspiration, I think it just happens to be that I live here. I mean, I wouldn’t be living here and getting a lot of inspiration from, say, India.
Do you think your work captures the feeling of helplessness among Hong Kong’s youth?
I think so. I never intended to capture it, but I think it’s part of the atmosphere of living here. And I think I’m one of those people who feels helpless.
In “Wong Ping’s Fables 1,” I talk about how I saw a cockroach crawling up a pregnant woman. That’s a true story from my own experience.
I was scared that if I told her, she would freak out so much that she would end up having a miscarriage.
I kept thinking, “Should I tell her?” And in the end, I chose to run away from all this pain. I just climbed to the upper deck of the bus and sat there.
So was this thought process useful, maybe even noble, or did it not matter in the end because I ended up feeling helpless anyway?
Why did I write this story? Because I felt so useless.
Why did I write this story? Because I felt so useless. Why didn’t I just grab the cockroach, throw it on the ground, and kill it? But at the same time, the cockroach was huge. A lot of things make people feel this way. I think that’s why I wrote this story.
But I think this is also pretty common around the world. I mean, where in the world can you find young people who are full of hope and energy?
Wong Ping’s latest show, “Heart Digger,” is on view at the Camden Arts Centre in London from July 5 to Sept. 15.