The Identity & Para Identity of Tobi Wong

by guy keulemans on June 26, 2010

The celebrated young designer Tobias Wong died recently at the age of 35, officially by suicide. However, it appears he may have killed himself accidentally while sleep walking, a condition with which he had long been afflicted. In this post I speculate on how and why his ultimately tragic condition may have also contributed to the startling originality of his work.

I was surprised and shocked last month to hear of the death of the  Tobi Wong. Its true that talented people die all the time, but the news came quickly that it was suicide, and this is unusual for designers. They don’t tend to have the angst or terrible passions that strike misery into the hearts of the famous musicians and artists who kill themselves.

Of course, Tobi Wong was an artist; his work provocatively poked fun at the establishment and critiqued the trappings of consumer society, fertile area for many contemporary artists. Considering this, was he an Ian Curtis or Vincent Van Gogh, troubled by depression and tortured by the imperfections of his own art? It doesn’t seem likely, because his work and personality was light hearted and, in general, ironically sweet and aesthetically pleasing. Although he played with the paradox of producing things that criticised material production (for example the Wrong Store, which never opened, or his collaboration with Paper magazine) actually his work sold well, and is found in many shops both physical and online. In one interview he relished the opportunity to have been published in Teen Vogue, a magazine with a circulation well beyond the specialty magazines of his own profession. In many regards, he was an artistically and commercially successful designer at the peak of his career.

Yesterday, a fascinating article in the New York Times written by Alex Williams, proposed that he didn’t intend to kill himself at all. Williams discovered that Wong was afflicted by sleeping disorders, and Wong’s boyfriend Tim Dubitsky is convinced he hung himself while sleep walking. Bizarre as this sounds, the anecdotal evidence is strong; his friends and family tell stories of Tobi getting up in the middle of the night and exhibiting strange sleep walking behaviour – cooking 3 course dinners, randomly billing clients and writing nonsensical emails. On one occasion he made costumes for his cats. When Tobi visited his mother in her high rise apartment, she would stack chairs by the doors to prevent him from accessing the balcony ledge. On another occasion, he was said to have removed a treasured painting from the wall and violently thrown it across the room.

I can believe it. I have a history of sleep walking too. Sometimes I wake up and act out conversations with strangers, or speak gibberish to friends. More than once I have left my room and woken up in strange beds, or found myself naked inside elevators, locked out of my apartment. Awkward situations. Parasommnias, sleep disorders and sleep walking tend to affect families, and my brother too once sleep walked while at college, falling down some steps and badly cutting his head open. Once, while camping in Croatia, my girlfriend tied her hand to mine with string, to prevent me from getting up in the night and falling off the nearby cliffs.  Never, ever, however, could I imagine a tragedy on the scale of what happened to Tobias Wong. And yet, it is not unknown; both the popular media and medical literature are rife with stories of misadventure, death and even manslaughter being commited by those technically asleep. In these conditions the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is disconnected, and the afflicted may have no more control over their actions than they would over a simple dream.

I think its interesting to consider that this condition of Wong’s may have been intricately linked to his style and approach to art, but I preface these ideas by saying its entirely supposition.

It appears he had a dual life; a waking life, and a dream life that was acted out, but vaguely remembered or known only through the recollections of family and friends. Did he feel like he had a dual identity? A somnolent doppelganger? Much of Wong’s work deals with appropriation of the work of others; my favourite is his Savoy doorstop. Its  a wry take on Alvar Alto’s famous vase, which was filled with concrete to make the doorstop. And each doorstop requires another Alto vase to be broken;  a bold move by a young designer to place his own work at a higher premium than that of the Finnish master. Of course, the other well known examples are the Starck chair he fitted with a light and the cut up Issey Miyake skirt.

Did he feel that these appropriations were possible, or more conceivable, because of his own fractured sense of identity?  Did he conceive that he was acting out the dream lives of those he appropriates by proxy? In a parallel universe does Starck dream of putting a light in his own chair? Did Issey Miyake have a nightmare of seeing his skirts turned into monitor covers? In our universe, Tobias Wong made these imaginery events delightfully real and amusingly tangible.

At the Core 77 Design, Wit, and the Creative Act conference in 2007, Wong staged an interesting fraud by substituting his friend, academic Rama Chorpash, in his place as speaker and panel member. This is by no means original to Wong – its a core aspect of Dutch artist Barbara Visser‘s oeuvre and more recently the avant garde International Necronautical Society pulled the same stunt at the Tate. However, one can speculate that Wong was not just playing with authenticity or circumnavigating his own fear of public speaking, but also performing a voyeuristic fantasy; an act of observing his identity externally. One can imagine that having his sleep walking activities related to him third hand, by friends and families, “the morning after”, may have cultivated an intense desire to observe himself in the way they did. Something he could not do while sleepwalking, could be done by proxy. Wong attended the event semi-anonymously and is described sitting with the audience, grinning with glee at his own prank.

Other examples of his work show an intent to observe himself externally. I had previously thought his 1997 self portrait The Stolen Shot, in which he photo bombed a picture at the beach by popping his head into the frame of a couples own photograph, was a early expression of his interest in appropriation and inserting his personality into the work of others. Yet, an alternate explanation is that he was struggling to see himself as his sleepwalking phantom, a ghostly and distant entity. Perhaps, a way to see himself in the same way his close friends and family had seen him. Was his later work, Sleeping at Agnes, in which he slept at night in the window of a boutique, visible from the street, an attempt expose his condition to the public? An attempt to share his families’ experiences with a wider audience? 

Some aspects of Wong’s life and work take on dark new meanings in light of his sleeping disorder. His well known tattoo, “Protect me from what I want” scribbled in pen by the artist Jenny Holzer on his arm and later tattooed permanently, now seems presciently sinister. Wong described his own work with the name paraconceptual. The prefix para, when used as from its Greek origin, means beside, adjacent, and resembling, but also abnormal. The term describes Wong’s work well, working alongside the mainstream and resembling it, but also subverting the mainstream with beautiful abnormality. I can’t think of a better example than his diamond ring, the diamond flipped around to act as a weapon, or tool for destruction.
However, the prefix para also has a Latin origin, from parare meaning “to shield” and its from this origin we have words such as parasol and parachute, objects which protect us. Some of his work expresses this concept directly, notably his kevlar rose brooch and duvet, but I think his work is also protective in a more abstract and significant way. Tobi Wong was familiar with the experience of somnolence, the feeling of automatic and aimless nocturnal wandering, the moving and performing of actions without awareness. Maybe he saw all of us as sleep walkers; wandering through life buying, producing and consuming automatically. Perhaps he recognised this somnolent-like, but daily behaviour as dangerous? If so, what Tobi Wong really did with his life and work was to give us is a collection of ideas and objects – things to protect and guard us from the problems of production and our own blind, happy consumerism.

NOTE: The majority of the images I use in this post were sourced from Tobi Wong’s own site which is currently offline. But I hope can be restored because it gives a good sequential overview of his work, including lesser known work from early in his career.  Update: looks like there is a mirror at

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The CANADIAN DESIGN RESOURCE - Designer Tobias Wong at the Museum of Vancouver
August 3, 2016 at 1:40 am

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