Why Is This Dystopian Work of Chinese Art From the 2019 Venice Biennale Going Viral on TikTok?

Artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's installation, "Can't Help Myself," is the subject of widespread debate on the social-media site.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. Can’t Help Myself (2016). © Sun Yuan & Pen Yu. Photo Courtesy the artists.
Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. Can’t Help Myself (2016). © Sun Yuan & Pen Yu. Photo Courtesy the artists.

An art installation with an enormous robotic arm scooping blood-like red paint that wowed visitors to the 2019 Venice Biennale is making the rounds of the internet.

A wave of video memes inspired by the China-born artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation, Can’t Help Myself (2016–19), has cascaded upon TikTok, with some clips getting millions of views.

Many of the most-seen posts were uploaded in November, and are paired with a sad soundtrack.

“It’s only getting sadder and sadder to watch,” said @yolkfather, whose explainer post has accumulated 8.9 million views and 1.6 million likes.

“At the beginning it looked pretty nice, and everything was clean. But now everything’s just like a mess.”

The work was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim for the 2016 exhibition “Tales of Our Time,” and its current resurgence in popularity appears to be linked to a November 2021 Facebook post by a software engineer who wrote that no art “has ever emotionally affected me the way this robot arm piece has affected me.”

Yet others on social media pointed to another work by the same duo, dear (2015), as even sadder. In that work, a a rubber hose tied to chair flails wildly inside a glass box.

“dear is sadder than I cant help myself,” user @inlovewlen suggested. “It’s not a competition on which is sadder it’s the artist putting serious health problems art.”

Still, others are just having a bit of fun with the whole thing.

TikTok user @graciegal1552 made a video of a man at a playground playing with a toy that looks goofily similar to Can’t Help Myself. The post already has more than 1.7 million likes.

“i love how we have inside jokes with millions of strangers online,” user VALERIE VERSACE commented.

Meanwhile, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are currently working with top luxury fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo to create a lively, limited-edition Lunar New Year collection inspired by the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. The collection includes silk scarfs, handbags, and shoes.


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