Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation Can’t Help Myself (2016–19) is one of the most fondly remembered works from the 2019 Venice Biennale, and it has found a new afterlife in the most unexpected of places: TikTok. Now, with the piece going viral on that app, it has also found a wide following on Twitter, where users circulated misinformation about the piece and faced the scorn of others seeking to correct them.
In November, video of the Venice installation, which features a robotic arm that repeatedly swirls around and scrapes up a dark red substance resembling blood, became a meme of sorts on TikTok, with users setting it to sad music. “It used to be so clean..,” wrote one user with the handle @julia_bernard_, whose TikTok featuring the downcast Patrick Watson song “Je te lesserai les mots” has since accrued more than 262,000 likes.
That TikTok seems to have spurred others to add their own commentary about the work, finding unusual forms of empathy with the machine. “‘a piece of art won’t hurt you,’” jokingly wrote the user @anike_edits, along with an edit of the Lana Del Rey song “Dealer.” “this is what trauma feels like. you can sweep it away but it’s always there no matter what you do,” wrote @0peachsoda. “You can feel its agony,” wrote @autisticqueen, casting video of the work to the TikTok-famous song “Arcade” by Duncan Laurence.
Others simply could not believe fellow TikTokers were falling for the piece. “me watching y’all cry over a robot scooping red paint,” wrote @avenugly, who filmed herself collapsing on the floor laughing for a TikTok that now has about 500,000 more likes than the one that made the Sun and Peng work go viral.
Sun and Peng works have periodically been in the public eye for potentially unexpected reasons—video of their 2003 work Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, for which they placed canines on treadmills facing one another, was famously removed from a 2017 Guggenheim Museum show in New York after animal rights activists spoke out against it. But what, you ask, is Can’t Help Myself, and why is it so popular with TikTok teens?
Can’t Help Myself was commissioned by the Guggenheim for the 2016 exhibition “Tales of Our Time,” and in addition to the giant robotic arm, the liquid substance, and the polycarbonate wall containing them, the piece also contains some less visible elements: visual recognition sensors that can detect the movement of the colored water (which is not blood, contrary to what it seems). When the liquid pools too far away from the arm, it will scoop up the substance. Periodically, the liquid is sprayed across the walls, hinting at carnage and unseen violence.
The intention of the piece is to animate this machine and make it seem more human, according to Xiaoyu Weng, a former Guggenheim curator, who organized “Tales of Our Time.” The arm is programmed to do several motions that the artists term “scratch an itch,” “bow and shake,” and “ass shake,” and viewers are meant to look on as it performs these strange actions. “In this case, who is more vulnerable: the human who built the machine or the machine who is controlled by a human?” Weng asks in a description on the museum’s website.
Within the 2019 Venice Biennale, where it appeared in the main exhibition, titled “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the work was also lent an oblique social context. It appeared alongside works by Shilpa Gupta, Arthur Jafa, Teresa Margolles, and many more presented to refer to the divisiveness and anxiety of the moment.
“No piece of art has ever emotionally affected me the way this robot arm piece has. It’s programmed to try to contain the hydraulic fluid that’s constantly leaking out and required to keep itself running… pic.twitter.com/77VIqMbKgt
— #luckygordy (@LuckyGordy) January 11, 2022
On Twitter this week, several viral threads affixed other interpretations to the work. Many revolved around an unsubstantiated claim that the robot essentially “died” when it ran out of liquid in 2019. One Twitter user who branded himself #luckygordy claimed the piece was about “the hydraulic fluid in relation to how we kill ourselves both mentally and physically for money just in an attempt to sustain life, how the system is set up for us to fail on purpose to essentially enslave us and to steal the best years of our lives. to play the game that the richest people of the world have designed. How this robs us of our happiness, passion and our inner peace. How we are slowly drowning with more responsibilities, with more expected of us, less rewarding pay-offs and less free time to enjoy ourselves.”
“the robot isn’t leaking fluid,” wrote another Twitter user named aidan lang syne. “it uses computer vision to futilely keep the fluid within an arbitrary zone; it’s about automated surveillance and border control, not robot depression or whatever.”
Artworks are naturally open to interpretation, and whether Can’t Help Myself really is about “robot depression or whatever” is an entirely subjective matter. One alternate reading could suggest that it is about a lack of autonomy—the robot literally cannot help itself because it is programmed to continue performing “ass shakes” until the end of time. Another would apply that line of thinking to the political state of China, the country that both artists call home.
Yet one thing is clear: Sun and Peng’s work has lodged itself in the collective conscience. It’s obvious that part of the piece’s allure is its amorphousness—its weird ability to seem to mean something without ever spelling out what that something is. You could look to Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, which has been seen as a metaphor for the way power is exercised, and say that Can’t Help Myself is a retranslation of its themes. You could also know nothing about Sun and Peng’s art, and walk away moved, as many TikTok users were.
Or maybe we should just think of Can’t Help Myself as a provocation. After all, the artists themselves do. Sun told Artsy in 2020, “We see how the robot and the liquid finish by torturing each other.”