Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung: The Madcap Laughs


Obama suckles the breast of a Madonna-like Oprah Winfrey. Hillary appears with multiple heads and the body of ASIMO the robot. Giuliani, as a reindeer in drag, humps Bernard Kerik. And McCain prances around in a cheerleader’s outfit imprinted with the Democrats’ donkey. All of them (and plenty more) entertain a masturbating couch potato, who achieves his climax through the nation’s signature phallus, the Washington Monument.

Welcome to Residential Erection, the latest chaotic animation (now playing at Postmasters) from Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, the Web designer/artist/social critic who last created the anti-war cartoon Washington Is Hollywood for Ugly People and Gas Zappers, a short animated preview (shown at Sundance this year) for his upcoming game that mocks the world’s response to global warming.

Residential Erection runs only five minutes, but its overwhelming number of current-events references, many of them obscure even for news junkies—Erin Davies’s Fagbug, the defacement of John Edwards’s headquarters on Second Life­—is akin to the symbology of Renaissance painting. “I don’t want to make art that doesn’t make people think,” Hung says.

Hung, who lives in Chinatown, is no slouching curmudgeon. A model for the Gap’s Japan market who bears a resemblance to baseball superstar Ichiro, he claims to have once embraced an angry nihilism, but now projects, at age 31, a bright and affable energy that becomes, in his work, a manic force. “I love Andy Warhol, I love Kiss,” Hung says, referring to Warhol’s endless film of couples sucking face, “but I can’t watch it. I tend to like things that are very busy.” Hung’s lampoons, as biting as they are, flood the screen with candy-colored cheer and childlike, Monty Python humor. Even a hardened neocon might feel disarmed when seeing, in Hung’s Washington, a grinning Condi Rice emerge from Karl Rove’s ass as a dog turd, gleefully ascend to the heavens, and give birth to an orange bomb that destroys the world.

Though politics brought him as a teenager to the U.S. from Hong Kong—his family fled before China reclaimed control in ’97—Hung took a while to get concerned about world affairs (“I was clueless”). At art school in San Francisco, he produced a series of surrealist photographs that he now dismisses as “self-indulgent art.” With titles like Lambent Pseudopsia and Procrastinated Analgesia, they hint at his later madcap imagery. He experimented, too, with the still-nascent Web. Rebelling against the corporate trend of attracting “hits,” he designed an intentionally confusing site that he hoped few would discover, registering it one drunken night as When spoken, says Hung— “60 ones dot-com”—it sounds like a Cantonese phrase that means “Whoever eats the most shit wins the goat.” Naturally, the site became wildly popular.

It wasn’t until Hung met a friend of his mother, a woman named Morgan Morris, that he started to think about combining art and activism. A representative for the U.N.’s refugee agency, Morris told Hung “a lot of crazy stories.” In August of 2001, using photographs that Morris had taken in Sri Lanka, Hung produced a poster that addressed the suffering caused by the country’s enduring civil war, his first political work. Just a month later, he was developing similar anti-war images for events much closer to home.

Hung’s growing interest in social, cultural, and economic news found a natural expression in layers of collage. He was especially intrigued by the pasted magazine clippings of Winston Smith, who designed album covers for one of Hung’s favorite bands, the Dead Kennedys. Smith’s work led to a more significant influence: John Heartfield (a/k/a Helmut Herzfeld), the nearly forgotten but vital Dadaist whose slick photomontages in the early 1930s mocked the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. The connection comes full circle in Washington Is Hollywood for Ugly People, in which Hung makes a side-by-side comparison of Dubya and Adolf, their noses grown into hawks’ beaks and, between them, the swastika merging with the letter B. “Maybe it sounds really cheesy,” says Hung, “but I feel that I have the obligation to participate in changing the world.”

Bit by bit, he’s making the attempt. He designed the website for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, founded (an international guide to exactly that), and donates 5 percent of his art earnings to his account on, which arranges micro-credit loans for the poor. And with backing from the Tribeca Film Institute, Hung will soon be turning Gas Zappers into a Web-based game: Play the polar-bear hero and swat away waves before they flood Venice, race the Hummer limousine on a bicycle, and defeat an exhaust-breathing Bush by stuffing an energy-saving bulb in his mouth. It’s a fitting project for a guy whose Chinese name, Tin-Kin, means “healthy sky.”

Residential Erection is on view at Postmasters, 459 West 19th Street, through May 10