A happy accident

This conversation took place via Zoom on 25 November 2020 between Wong Ping in Hong Kong and Rachel Ciesla and Robert Cook in Boorloo/Perth.

RCo In those early days – when you were writing stories and creating videos after-hours – was the story key to how you were observing the world around you, or were you more actively looking for a voice in which to animate and create a visual experience for people?

WP When I returned to Hong Kong, I found a job in production. But my experience of working was as a kind of suffering, so I started a blog, like in the old times before the era of Facebook. And I started writing these short stories. I didn’t know what they meant, I just wrote, and it was quite organic. I didn’t plan anything. And then, because of my job, I got to know the software a little better, and started using it to draw and edit. Later on, I started working with motion graphics and began making animations which I’d combine with my writing. It’s similar to what I’m doing now with visuals – the colour, the shape and the movement – it’s still really low-fi. Not long after that a museum commissioned me, then a gallery approached me, and that’s how things roll. I didn’t really have a mindset for what I was doing or what it could become.

RCo You didn’t have a sense of there being any barriers to putting your work into the world? At no point were you waiting for permission?

WP The thinking was really simple. It was just my hobby. Some people play video games or play sports after work. My hobby was making animations and uploading them online for my friends to see.

RCo And you had no impulse to join the art world?

WP It was a happy accident. I still can’t figure out what being an ‘artist’ means for my work. I tend not to think too much about what’s next.

RC Did the very particular aesthetic you have – the saturated colours and the ‘simple’ animation – come from an interest in early computer graphics or computer games?

WP I wouldn’t say they influenced me or that my design was based on them, but as a teenager everyone was enjoying video games or comics, especially in Hong Kong. It wasn’t a part of my life but rather everyone’s life. I can’t tell if that was an influence, but, to be honest, I think it’s the limitation of my technique. My visuals represent how much I know. I remember when I first started using the software to draw, I didn’t even know how to draw a curve, I could only do sharp pointed shapes. So it was also an accident. People would say that’s my style but it was only because I didn’t know how to do it better.

Anyway, how did you know about me? I thought it would be because I’d been in Perth …

RC I didn’t know you lived in Perth. I saw your work in London back in 2018 [at The Store X]. It was the work with the police officer and his wife, Jungle of Desire [2016].

WP It reminds you of Perth right now … I’m kidding.

RC It is a bit like that isn’t it? I mean, the overly conservative, slightly Wild West state that we are in, so it seemed fitting. Maybe that’s why I gravitated towards it, because in a show of 20 video works you can get quite exhausted. And it was maybe midway through the show. I think it was like a sigh of relief, a moment where I could let my guard down. Yet even though your work is quite humorous on the surface, there is obviously some dense criticality in how you deal with desire and taboo. It was like getting a little bit of fresh air.
How did you feel when your work first started to be seen in the artworld? You said there are no taboos anymore because on the internet everything is there, yet the art world can be heavily policed?

WP Sometimes I think about those concerns: I might change some words, or I’ll find another way to say something, but I try not to back down too much. I also don’t think political correctness is a bad thing, but the point is rather, where is the line? I try to push the line as much as I can rather than tone it down.

RCo It’s a weird moment now. The concern is not about whether things are posted online but how they are read; everything is read very directly. And there’s little consideration about whether someone might be being ironic or turning things around. Because your work has a formal frontal quality to it – in terms of how the characters are presented, and you use subtitles or captions – there seems to be a playful messaging system at work that speaks to this moment. It reads almost like those public service announcements: it’s in your best interest to look at this and study how these people are behaving and not do that!

WP Yes, the videos seem to work on two levels. They have a story but they also feel like the short film that they show before you see a movie – almost like a moral tale, telling you to watch these people and see what happens to them.

RC In Stop Peeping [2014], Jungle of Desire [2015] and Slow Sex [2013], you’re looking through this particular window into people’s lives and taking away some kind of moral lesson. Like a fly-on-the-wall.

WP I think that’s because I always referred to my writing as a diary. It was my own little social study, looking at people around me, at society. And at the same time I was reflecting on myself and my behaviour. That’s why I watch so many popular movies, because I like to observe how people generally live: how they behave and particularly how they exchange words online. I always try to find the irony in these social relationships, to see the conflict in life. I would put all of this into my diary in page after page of random thoughts, and then when it came time to make the work, I would pull out everything that had happened to me over a few months and try to connect it all through one story.

RC What elements of Stop Peeping are drawn from real life?

WP The whole thing, I guess. It was one of the stories from my blog. At the time, I was living in my tiny studio in an industrial building. One day the elevator was not working so I had to take the stairs. I think I lived on the fifth floor. I saw my neighbour, it was the first time I’d seen her. She was pretty and we walked from our floor to the ground floor together. We became friends and she told me she was a singer, and I was so impressed but also shocked because at that time I didn’t have a job. I had to live in industrial buildings. But a young girl who is also starting her pop career lived beside me? I was shocked to learn that she also had to stay in this horrible place. She showed me her YouTube channel and she was singing and practising guitar in her room. I imagined her next door recording while I was looking at the YouTube channel. We’d hung out two or three times, and then one day I tried to see her again. I found an excuse, like borrowing an iPhone charger, and knocked on her door. And there’s a naked man there. She was with the naked man, so I said: Oh! No thanks, bye. And then we didn’t see each other anymore.

RCo You were so easily defeated.

WP He was naked! What can I do? But, yeah, that was the inspiration for this work.

RCo Sexuality is prevalent in the work and I guess you could almost only deal with that kind of material in an animated way or in a written form. But do you also think there’s something inherently sexy about cartoons themselves? I’m thinking of the way figures can morph and change; that sense of the animated body being able to expand beyond normal kinds of physicality.

WP Well, to be honest, I think cartoons and animations are definitely sexier than the physical body. I didn’t realise this at the time, but now I would say that I originally used animation to say something sexually terrible or violent so that people would see it as a joke. Even if I were telling a terrible story about myself – no one would really take it seriously. In that way maybe it is sexier or more imaginative. I don’t know about the audience, but I wouldn’t enjoy seeing those explicit scenes, if it was live action.

RC When you are journaling and writing, does the text produce the images, or do you sometimes pull these images from life as well? Or are they sort of side by side?

WP I think the process is that I separate myself into two departments. When I am writing, I do not think about the visual. I don’t really care about the visuals; I just write whatever I want. And then when I pass into my animation time, I don’t think about the story, I just draw the characters. So when they come together it’s never overly designed – like in Toy Story where the animators design the characters’ emotions based on a script. That’s too boring or typical for me. I prefer to have two different brains and then just bring it together. That has chemistry.

Extract from the interview ‘Wong Ping: A happy accident’ by Rachel Ciesla & Robert Cook, originally published in ‘BODIED’, ed. Rachel Ciesla & Robert Cook, AGWA, 2022