I was trying to be a good parent, expose my three oldest kids to culture at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Memorial Day weekend when we encountered Wong Ping’s chattering teeth in “Dear, can I give you a hand”. I immediately thought of blackface when I saw the piles of black footed teeth with gold grillz and searched for an explanation in the wall text.
Ping’s commission is situated in One Hand Clapping, “the title of this exhibition, is derived from a koan—a riddle used in Zen Buddhist practice to transcend the limitations of logical reasoning—that asks, ‘We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?’” Maybe we didn’t spend enough time in their Arthur Sackler Center’s Open Studio for Families to get high, but I cannot transcend the limits of my logic enough to accept a pile of mass produced coonery as art. *If you don’t understand the connection between the opioid epidemic and museum funding, read this NY Times piece about activists scattering pill bottles in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March.
I’m trying to understand so I google the museum’s description of the work, “Wong addresses intergenerational tensions caused by the relentless pace of the digital economy. Commissioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Wong created a viewing screen in the form of a wall of LED monitors, a first for the artist, and filled the space around it with kitsch wind-up denture toys with chattering gold teeth.”
“The animation features a sexually frustrated elderly man and his seductive daughter-in-law.” Barbara Pollack in the NY Times writes “Inspired by an encounter the artist had with an 80-year-old man throwing away a stack of X-rated VHS tapes, this account of a perverted, yet ineffectual father figure, rendered in bright colors and naïve design, could be read as a metaphor for Hong Kong and its precarious, often humiliating relationship with the alluring yet authoritarian power of China.”
The film goes on to explain gold teeth represent the resistance to banks by an older generation that decided to keep their fortune in their mouth. However, I cannot find any primary sources to substantiate this was at any time a common practice in China.
My best friend Dawn and her three year old came with us to the museum for the Open Studio and to walk around the exhibit. They are also African American. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons, but grew up in Kinloch, Missouri just northwest of Ferguson where Michael Brown was murdered in 2014. She agreed that the chattering teeth looked like blackface but felt it couldn’t have been intentionally racist coming from a Chinese artist. “If it was Mississippi, I’d be out here protesting but China don’t even got Black people.”
As we were debating, the security guard approached asking if the kids could stop throwing the teeth. I always try to leave before the kids are at full breakdown mode, so we make our way down the steps out into 89th street and Central Park East.
I continue thinking about the questions Dawn raised: Does blackface translate as racist outside of America? Could Ping have even known how the image was perceived outside of the Chinese context? Does Ping’s language of adolescent sexual fantasies make a radical critique of global capitalism that’s going over my head?
China Central Television (CCTV) acknowledged economic ties between China and Africa during a Lunar New Year special with an offensive blackface skit that included fake butts, camels and Chinese men dressed as monkeys. This is part of a larger pattern of colonialist and anti-Black messages in Chinese media, the cultural incompetence is magnified as the country deepens their infrastructure development in the African continent. In 2016, a Chinese laundry detergent broadcast a jaw droppingly racist commercial where a dark skinned man was placed in a washing machine only to emerge as a fair skinned Asian.
What about the Hong Kong native’s work overall, was this an inadvertent error in an edgy narrative exploring the psychological repression in the corporatized hub of international business? How do we understand “Dear, can you lend me a hand?” alongside Jungle of Desire, the core work in his first HK solo exhibition.
Wong describes the film as “An impotent husband, an unsatisfied wife and a megalomaniac policeman. A perfect ecosystem in the concrete jungle. The jungle where you can truly face your lust with no moral laws.” The husband hiding in the bedroom closet while his wife prostitutes hears the cop’s pillow talk shift to imagining a superpower to trace the source of farts. Deeply offended by the stupidity of the wish, the husband goes on an elaborate tangent that if he could become invisible, he would rape the cop in every orfice and the officer would die in the flames of a fart filled cabin.
I really CANNOT at this point so I look at reviews of his work to understand. Art Asia Pacific is the lone critic in their “Jungle of Desire” review, “In his most developed pieces, Wong adeptly captures Hong Kong’s illicit side and the fantasies it evokes, but other times his works unfortunately get stuck on one-note jokes.” Overwhelmingly, Pong is celebrated for his NSFW weirdness.
I’m not a prude searching for civil, polite art. My kids ranging from 3–11 years old can identify a labia and vas deferens. My kindergartener and 6th grader are attending a secular comprehensive sex positive/body positive sex education class Our Whole Lives. I’m not afraid to talk about masturbation but the lotioned tube socks of teenage bedrooms omnipresent in his psychosexual dramas exclusively feature his desires.
Even the the blackface teeth are wind up toys appearing discarded in the litter of consumerism. They don’t offer the agency or emotion of Zimbabwean artist (featured alongside Ping in the New Museum’s 2018:Songs for Sabotage) Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude’s work. “There’s no freedom of speech in my country, so I use our Shona tribe sayings metaphorically, and mix in camouflage motifs to further hide the true message,” Nyaude told GARAGE. Paul Laster writes “Adding to the eerie power of Nyaude’s figures are their wide, smiling mouths, which suggest a tragic willingness on the part of his long-suffering countrymen to simply grin and bear it.”
There’s so many layers of things that went wrong in the approval process of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative’s third exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. The 80’s nostalgia in Ping’s crude animation mirrors the revival of the recent past in the development of Netflix series like Stranger Things. The Root examined Ready Player One and the Unbearable Whiteness of ’80s Nostalgia, “Unfortunately, Ready Player One is also disturbingly brazen and comfortable in its erasure of women and black folks from ’80s popular culture. While ostensibly the movie is about nostalgia for the music, dress, toys and video games of the ’80s, it’s only through the narrow, white male view of the ’80s.”
Likewise, “Dear, can you hold my hand” imagines the future from the very narrow viewpoint of a sexually frustrated 34 year old fair skinned Chinese male. The flip-side of the model minority myth, Guggenheim asks us to voyeuristically peer into “the sexual deviance” of an Asian man emasculated in American society without considering how it implicates the museum itself in the historic disregard for women and the African diaspora. Are #MuseumsSoWhite they’re unable to differentiate the messages of the Umbrella Revolution from the privileged alienation of juvenile Otaku humor?