Johnson Tsang is a sculptor from Hong Kong whose figures sometimes work as surreal political commentaries. We profiled his A Painful Pot work a few months ago and now he’s back with Who Did It? Again! (2014), an anti-war piece that, like all good black comedy, attacks real-life horror by mocking it.
Here we have a circle of infants surrounding the corpse of a dead child. Cartoonishly, the corpse has a tiny pair of angel wings (though at first glance I thought the wings looked more like viscera spilling from its back). Its form looks like a knick-knack of a cherub you could find on the shelf of your grandmother’s curio cabinet, but its posing, the expression on its chubby face is all wrong. The comic element is blended with the grotesque.
Circled around the corpse are other infants dressed in military fatigues and carrying baby-sized machine guns. They’re crying, (in a manner similar to many of those sentimental knick-knacks I mentioned) but perhaps a better word for it is the more informal “blubbering.” The fat tears and snot running down their faces makes them appear mawkish, insincere. It’s a display of sorrow that is born more out of a fear of punishment than compassion for the dead person lying at their feet. Like the cherub, they blend the comic, the familiar and the grotesque. Their emotions become uncanny, inhuman. One shudders to think what their expressions might have been leading up to the killing of child. I’m reminded here of the smiling men in the paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Yue Minjun, which show manic displays of emotion to similar horrifying effect.
The child soldiers are pointing at each other and looking up at the viewer as though the viewer is a parent who caught them doing something naughty. The first part of the work’s title, Who Did It? could be answered by the infants with, “Not me!” This is a defense so commonly used by children that it’s often parodied in Family Circus comic strips: the mother asks who broke her vase and Jeffy responds “Not me!” while Not Me, pictured as a malevolent ghost, sniggers off to the side.
The anger and contempt I feel when I consider these soldiers comes from the real world, a place that only appears cartoonishly horrible when it’s abstracted into works like Tsang’s. On its own the real world is only horrible. “Not me!” whine the pro-Russian militias while standing over the smoking wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. “Not me!” mewls the Cleveland police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. When Tsang’s work is applied to large-scale military conflicts, the actors in such conflicts seem all the more worthy of scorn. The infants are sitting in a circle, each pointing a finger at someone else. They are all, every last one of them, responsible for killing this child.
The instinct one may have as a parent is to punish them, but it’s here that the compassion I feel for the dead cherub attaches itself to the crying babies responsible for killing him. They are, after all, infants themselves. How much blame can you ascribe to them? How many of those tears came from a genuine place of sorrow? Similar to my thoughts about real life violence, I’m trapped between poles of rage and simply wanting the cycle of suffering to stop.
The cycle won’t, though. There will be wheelbarrows full of dead cherubs and enough blubbering to make you want to write off the whole sorry human race. But this is why we have black comedy, so you can process thoughts like this while still remaining sane.
More pictures of this and other works by Tsang follow. In particular, we at CFile are fond of Mandarin Ducks pictured below. It’s possible that Tsang’s riffs on kitsch combined with his astounding technical skill could cause some in the art world to write off his work, but that’s their loss. His surreal forms, heavy with narrative, horror and wonder, get our minds working in a way few works can.
Bill Rodgers is a Contributing Editor at CFile.
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