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.

RC When we were planning this exhibition, we had your work in mind, but didn’t know that you’d lived in Perth. It’s an obvious place to start, but maybe we can begin here anyway. Curiously, in previous interviews it was said that you were ‘shipped off to Perth’, almost as if it was against your will – as if you were sent here for bad behaviour.

WP To be honest, yes, it was. But that’s only because I wouldn’t have had the chance to study further in Hong Kong. My grades weren’t good and I was really lazy. My parents were pretty frustrated with my situation, and so they wanted to send me somewhere else. I guess they only knew one person outside of Hong Kong and he lived in Perth, so they sent me there. And I really don’t like to make decisions or to plan at all. So I just went with their will.

RC You would have had no idea what Perth was going to be like, right?

WP No, I think I had only travelled overseas once before that. My aunt took me to America for a summer trip. So at the time that was my only experience of places outside of Hong Kong. It was exciting because I didn’t even get the chance to fly to Perth first, to feel what it was like for a few days. I flew there and immediately started school, when I was fifteen or sixteen.

RCo You ended up studying multimedia design at Curtin University.

WP Yes. Curtin was one of the popular schools for overseas students, and it was the first time they had multimedia, so no-one knew what was going to happen.

RCo Was it your idea to study multimedia or your parents’?

WP Definitely not their idea. I don’t think they had any ideas. They just wanted me to have something to do rather than continue to do nothing in Hong Kong. For the first few months I studied English because I couldn’t speak the language, and then I transferred to a high school in Tuart Hill. I got into Curtin after a year and had no idea what I was going to study. I saw this new course which didn’t have any exams, only assignments, and I thought that was fantastic, so I just took it. At the time I didn’t have any idea what art or drawing or design was.

RCo As the course progressed, was your focus on learning skills to get a job in the industry, or were you thinking about ways to creatively employ what you were learning?

WP Well, I think that was one of the differences between the west and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong it’s really practical – they teach you every single button in the software. But in Perth I was more focused on developing my creative process. Learning the software was my responsibility. It’s a different approach. That’s why, when I finished my degree and went back to Hong Kong, I couldn’t find a job because everyone else was so professional.

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 Do you know whether she saw the work?

WP I don’t think so. We only briefly talked two or three times and then the last time was the door knocking and then … no more. Sometimes I would see her on TV performing, that was a few years ago, but I don’t know about now because I don’t have a proper TV set.

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.

RCo Wow! I had not actually thought of that but I can really see that being a factor now. There are two things kind of floating alongside each other. How long does it take you to write a script?

WP I would say collecting material is part of my everyday life but when I really need to write a script, maybe one to three months.

RCo So, you are doing draft after draft and then swapping out fragments and getting the pitch right?

WP Well, basically, it’s just the notes on my mobile phone and then I keep changing and fine-tuning things every day. Then when I feel like 80 per cent of the script is done, I move on and start to draw and animate. I then go back to the script for a little bit more.

RCo So literally, you are writing the script on your phone?

WP Yes. Isn’t it easy? I think everyone would do that nowadays.

RCo I don’t write essays on my phone but I’m always tempted to. It opens up a different way of thinking for me.

WP I’m interested: do you feel like your brain works differently when you write an essay on your phone, when you use a pen, or when you’re on a computer?

RCo On my phone I’m very free and I’m not worried about it. In my notebook not quite so much. And on the computer, it’s like everyone’s watching. That’s the worst, most awful thing, because it’s about finishing and a deadline. So when you’re out and about, will you be taking notes if you’ve just seen something?

WP Nowadays I don’t write it down, but I get a lot of inspiration from my Instagram stories – the instant ten seconds. They are basically my notes now. Whenever I need to sit down and start working on my script, I will just look back through my Instagram archive to see what’s been happening to me. That sucks. That sounds bad.

RC No, no, no.

WP So, I’m an Instagram writer?

RCo Well, we’re all Instagram curators these days. It’s kind of how that works. A couple more questions, before we end though. What is your response to what’s going on in Hong Kong politically and how is that shaping your work?

WP My work has always involved political and social issues in Hong Kong, or my observations of the politics in other countries. Online we basically have instant access to every political movement throughout the world. So, I don’t think my art or exhibitions need to fulfil that function because Facebook and Instagram are already full of people expressing their views. But I do think it leads you to question how powerful art is in dealing with the politics in Hong Kong. I tend not to be too politically direct in my work, but I would say that politics enters the work emotionally – in how the characters are suffering or how they react.

To be honest I’m not really concerned with how overseas audiences see my work, but recently … I don’t know if you know this, but people in Asia and especially Hong Kong tend to be pro-Trump. People from the west would text me saying, ‘What’s happened to Asia? Why are people in Hong Kong pro-Trump and how could this happen?’ What interests me is the interaction between these different groups of people and how they respond to each other. My focus isn’t on telling the news.

RCo To go full circle, I remember you saying that all places are equally bad right now, so wherever you are is wherever you are. Is that how you still feel?

WP For me, it’s human nature to complain, so I would consider all places to be equally bad. For instance, during the revolution a few years ago, a friend of mine moved from London to Hong Kong, and I asked him, ‘Why would you do that?’, because it was quite unstable, and the cost of living was one of the highest in the world. And he was complaining that the art circle is so small in London, the living costs are so high, and he’s frustrated with Brexit. And then he found that everything is the same in Hong Kong but slightly worse. But I guess as a foreigner, he didn’t care too much because the point was to move away from where he was. I guess I would do the same. If I moved to New York this week, people would be saying: No, you mustn’t do it – the politics, the living costs. I guess it’s part of human nature to leave where you are from so everything seems way better, but it isn’t. So, in that sense, I would say the world is equally bad for different people.

RC Yes, and I guess you also need friction and problems to make your work. Your work addresses the human condition, so you need to be in a place where it is evident. Where we’re not all living a blissful, peaceful existence.

WP I find that when I travel to America or Europe, I Instagram less than when I’m staying in Hong Kong or Korea or China. The streets are so crazy. It’s so packed. People interact a lot and shit happens. But in Europe – let’s say in Basel – it’s so clean and quiet; people behave. I wouldn’t say it’s not interesting, but there’s no chaos, no conflict, no contrasts for me to capture. It was interesting being there because it’s supposed to make me feel that life is more enjoyable, but I don’t know that it is. Maybe I’m used to a chaotic, crowded city like Hong Kong. But you’re right, I need tension and conflict for my writing.

I think the tension for me is also about making a choice. There is a game I used to play in which I forced myself to choose. Let’s say I was in an elevator, and there were four people in there, and they’re all 60 or 70. I forced myself to make a choice, like decide who I would want to have sex with. Or on the bus I’d pick one person that I could sleep with. The game was not about turning myself on, but through the choice I understood myself better. Let’s say in the elevator, all four of them were not my type. I still had to find the beauty in one of them, and through the choice, things became clearer. I use this as an example, but it works with social issues as well. When I create an extreme or ironic situation, I can be more honest, and so I can understand the situation better, through choices. So the tension is more about choice for me.

‘Wong Ping: A happy accident’ was originally published in ‘BODIED’, ed. Rachel Ciesla & Robert Cook, AGWA, 2022. Available for purchase online at the AGWA Design Store