Chicago

Adrian Wong, The House That Snoopy Built, 2019, mixed media, 96 × 105 × 36".

Adrian Wong, The House That Snoopy Built, 2019, mixed media, 96 × 105 × 36".

Adrian Wong

Carrie Secrist Gallery

In 2013, Adrian Wong was approached by the custodians of an extremely rare complete triceratops skull. They requested that he transform it into an artwork without damaging it in any way. (The owners hoped to take advantage of a Hong Kong law suspending sales tax on works of art.) While the commission fell through, the series Wong began in 2015, “Communiqués from the Rainbow Bridge,” is ongoing. The oil paintings superimpose red text atop blurred images of the dig site where the dinosaur’s remains were discovered. The writing details episodes from the creature’s life as received by twenty-five students from Hong Kong’s Institute of Scientific Animal Communication (ISAC), supervised by its founder, Thomas Cheng, and fellow telepathic animal communicator Rosina Arquati. They vary from cold reportage (I WAS KILLED BY A VOLCANIC ROCK) to poignant lament (MY GREATEST REGRET WAS THE TIME I ACCIDENTALLY STEPPED ON AND KILLED A YOUNG DEER. I SPENT MUCH OF MY LIFE PLAGUED BY GUILT OVER THE INCIDENT). The communicators would caution that such memories may not be completely reliable, given that the triceratops has reincarnated countless times in the past sixty-five million years.

“Crossing the Rainbow Bridge,” Wong’s first exhibition at the Carrie Secrist Gallery, collected works related to the artist’s roughly decade-long investigation of animal communication, a branch of the new-age movement. In séance-like sessions, telepathic communicators call on animal spirits and engage in conversations about their past lives. Many of them, including some in the ISAC, do not believe that animals can reincarnate as human beings, because this would contradict Christian scripture. Wong has worked with such esoteric specialists to, in theory, allow animals (in some cases his own living and late pets) to codesign objects and architectures to their liking. His rabbit Ernesto designed the labyrinthine (yet actually quite modernist) Telepathically Designed Bespoke Rabbit Warren No. 2, 2015, with the aid of the communicator Isabel Yu. Lynn Schuster, another communicator, relayed to Wong that his recently deceased rabbit Omar had also identified himself as Snoopy, a previous family cat. Together, the group designed a cat condo, The House that Snoopy Built, 2019, produced at a massive scale in the gallery. The polyester banner A Very Old Soul, 2019, monumentalizes Omar’s many past lives in a descending chain of host bodies: rabbit, guinea pig, horse, pig, cat, dog, rabbit, cheetah, lion, horse.

Fascination with, and indeed belief in, spirit worlds has long marked art and has been a driving force of modern art since the age of Wassily Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint. But for Wong, exactly where his collaborators fall on the spectrum from fact to fiction is beside the point. Rather, this is about collaboration itself. Surrendering to the expertise of the communicator offers the hope that the true collaborators are, in fact, the nonhumans. Wong was originally trained in developmental psychology at Stanford University; his sustained engagement, and disillusionment, with empirical social science is what led to his work in animal communication. For “Rodentia in Absentia,” 2012, the artist altered his apartment so that he could live with twenty rats, four hamsters, a rabbit, two parakeets, and a chinchilla to explore the limits of their instinctual behavior. He later hoped that he might teach them a dance routine. The concept of animal motivation might be seen in Wong’s catnip-laced pleather work November Guacamole, 2013. For Dream Cosmography, 2015, a cat, a dog, three hamsters, and two rabbits provided six hundred pages of dream journals, which Wong condensed into a video and which led to his design for a rotating circular habitat for the animals; the video shows one of the rabbits wandering within the structure, munching on carrots and lettuce in its path. What a sustained look at the exhibition reveals is that this nonhuman design work is undergirded by the artist’s profound tenderness—which becomes clear in the blowups of sympathy cards he was sent following Omar’s death. It is as if Wong has slowed the mounting species collapse of the Anthropocene to a mournful crawl, one companion at a time.