IN A DREAM I SAW
A WAY TO SURVIVE
AND I WAS
FULL OF JOY
Quotation on Tobias Wong’s website, from Jenny Holzer’s Survival Series (1983–1985)
In 2002, a slim Asian-Canadian New Yorker in his twenties, who often gave the impression of being the most negligible person in a room, approached the artist Jenny Holzer at a Manhattan gallery and asked her to inscribe a message on his forearm. “If I had known he was going to have it tattooed, my handwriting would have been better,” Holzer told me several years later when we were serving together on a prize jury, and I asked how it felt to have her words indelibly printed on the limb of Tobias Wong.
“PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT,” Holzer’s semi-ironic battle cry for yuppies, was the slogan Wong chose as his own personal brand. And no wonder. Wong, who took his own life on May 30th, made his reputation by critiquing the urge to consume. Long before the economic meltdown rearranged our attitudes toward extravagance, his objects represented luxury and romance, the catalytic engines of craving, as twin follies. A black rose brooch fashioned out of bulletproof Kevlar. A solitaire diamond set upside down in its engagement ring so the point could produce scratchiti or gouge someone’s eye out. A crystal chandelier dipped in rubber. Ingestible gold and silver for producing glittering feces. Too sharp and dry to be sophomoric, Wong was the martini-maker of conceptual design. He was a practitioner of one-liners strung out between design and art (a genre mastered by Constantin Boym and Tibor Kalman before him). But he also brought the necessary component of respect to his send-ups of surplus — an understanding of the floaty feeling of delight that comes from indulgence, however unhealthy or tasteless it might be.
Which is why, last November in New York’s SoHo, Wong could be found surrounded by huge, blobby swirls of colorful candy and silver Mylar helium balloons — a joint promotion for the candymaker Papabubble and furniture company Cappellini. It took a while to notice him standing quietly among the artisanal sweets and sticky children and a few seconds more to figure out why he was there. “I should have known you were behind all this,” I told him. (He had produced the event with one of his regular collaborators, Josee Lepage.)
That was the last time I saw him. In the end, not even Holzer’s talisman could protect Tobi from what he wanted.
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