Through June 19, 2011, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents Tobias Wong, the first solo museum exhibition of the late artist-designer's work. Wong, who passed away at age 35 in June 2010, was widely recognized as design's most significant "bad boy" of the past decade. Featuring more than 30 objects, the presentation is organized by Henry Urbach, SFMOMA Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design.
Wong made his debut in 2001 and produced a protean body of work that he called "postinteresting." His practice encompassed objects, furniture, jewelry, lighting, installation, and performance and was infused with a distinctive mix of critical inquiry, conceptual pith, childlike wonder, and stubborn mischief. Wong focused on the allure of things, registering the fascination with and alienating effects of consumer culture, luxury brands, celebrity, and other forms of cultural seduction. A central theme of his work, especially in the years following 9/11, was the interplay of anxiety and materialism in America.
"Wong probed design's complicity with the culture of late capitalism, exposing its smoke and mirrors while exercising his own sleight of hand," states Urbach. "This intimate exhibition may be seen as a shrine—a tribute to Tobi's creative intelligence and the evocative, even enigmatic quality of the objects he left behind."
Wong was born in Vancouver, B.C., in 1974 and studied architecture at the University of Toronto before completing a degree in sculpture at New York's Cooper Union in 2000. He continued to live and work in New York until his death. Inspired by numerous art and anti-art traditions, Wong brought to design a degree of critical scrutiny and conceptual moxie seldom seen. This approach—along with his penchant for appropriating and misappropriating the works of others—secured his reputation as a provocateur without equal. His debut piece, This is a Lamp (2001), recreated Philippe Starck's Bubble Club chair for Kartell as an illuminated sculpture. Wong released the work at New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) exactly one day before Kartell launched the chair in the United States.
"Some companies and designers took to Wong's shenanigans, while other were not so charitable," Urbach states. Burberry, for example, ultimately used his Unauthorized Burberry Buttons from 1999 in their own advertising campaign. But Wong and sometimes collaborator Ju$t Another Rich Kid ran into trouble with McDonald's, which reacted forcefully against their gold-plated version of the fast food chain's discontinued coffee stirrer made notorious in the 1980s for its frequent appearance as evidence at drug trials.
Among more than 30 objects on view in the exhibition are 12 from SFMOMA's architecture and design collection, including Wong's Bulletproof Quilted Duvet (2004), a work made of black ballistic nylon lined with felt and crafted in a homey floral pattern. Other works on display include the NYC Story matchbook (2002), Killer Ring (2002), and Transcendental Meditation (2005), made in collaboration with Amelia Bauer and Swarovski, as well as Wong's final work: New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down (2010), a string of large wooden beads that spells out the title to an LCD Soundsystem song in Morse code.
Tobias Wong is presented alongside a larger exhibition called ParaDesign (also through June 19, 2011), which highlights more than 100 objects from SFMOMA's collection that call into question the norms, habits, and conventions of design. This exhibition has been organized by Henry Urbach, with SFMOMA Assistant Curators of Architecture and Design Joseph Becker and Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher.
The prefix "para" (whose meanings include "beyond," "abnormal," "alongside," and "against") has not previously been applied to design, yet it marks a central focus of the museum's architecture and design collection. Works on view range from furniture, installation, video, and photography to models, books, and small objects, including Ron Arad's At Your Own Risk chair, a lustrous aluminum rocking chair meant to smack the sitter from behind; Diller +Scofidio's His/Hers bath towels, embroidered with cheeky aphorisms; and An Te Liu's Cloud, a massive installation of 140 mechanical air purifiers, ionizers, and humidifiers suspended from the gallery ceiling.
Few art museums worldwide collect and exhibit architecture and design. SFMOMA, well ranked among them, established its department and collection in the early 1980s, around the same time "paraDesign" (yet unnamed) was beginning to emerge as a form of experimental and interdisciplinary practice. While the collection also maintains focus on other aspects of architecture and design (among them visionary architecture, iconic furniture, and Bay Area graphic design), it has opened its doors to objects that comparable institutions might reject as useless, unbuilt, not made by architects or designers, or overly conceptual.
"Even at SFMOMA, where such works are arguably most at home, they have until now suffered a degree of disrepute, known in the museum's database as 'other' or 'miscellaneous,' " says Urbach. "Rogue no longer, ParaDesign is here to announce its time has come."
The exhibition design, which clusters works in dense formations and makes ample use of reflective surfaces, serves to reinforce the "para" element of ParaDesign and its capacity to act as a double or mirror to more professional and normative forms of design practice.
Visitors can learn more about the concept and development of ParaDesign by listening to audio commentary from the exhibition curators. The audio clips are accessible by cell phone or through Making Sense of Modern Art Mobile, SFMOMA's free handheld multimedia tour that is available in the Haas Atrium.