Macabre Chinese art piece has TikTok entranced — still. Why?

“This art piece will forever make me cry,” one of the millions of viewers wrote on TikTok.

“This art piece will forever make me cry,” one of the millions of viewers wrote on TikTok.

Screengrab from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Facebook page

At first glance, the art installation “Can’t Help Myself” may easily be mistaken for a crime scene: red fluid everywhere, spattered on stark-white walls and glass surrounding the display, pooling across the floor under bright fluorescent lights.

After a second glance, it remained burned into viewers’ minds for years to come. Over five years after its creation, “Can’t Help Myself” continues to keep social media in a chokehold.

TikTok seems particularly attached to the piece of art, with videos of it getting millions of views on the app.

While 2016, when the art debuted, is far from historic, the enduring prominence of “Can’t Help Myself” puzzles (and tires) some social media users. Why is it that an app like TikTok, which is full of new trends all the time, continues to hold onto the installation?

“This art piece will forever make me cry,” one viewer wrote on a TikTok of the art piece published on Aug. 18, which has 6.5 million likes as of Aug. 31.

“I know it’s a machine, but it looks sad and tired,” another person wrote — a common observation among viewers.

“Can’t Help Myself,” created by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu with the help of two robotic engineers, was commissioned for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2016, according to the Guggenheim archive.

Stuck inside a glass box, the industrial robot arm has one job, day in and day out: to scoop the red, blood-like liquid seeping out of it back inside itself.

“When the sensors detect that the fluid has strayed too far, the arm frenetically shovels it back into place, leaving smudges on the ground and splashes on the surrounding walls,” the Guggenheim archive said. “Observed from the cage-like acrylic partitions that isolate it in the gallery space, the machine seems to acquire consciousness and metamorphose into a life-form that has been captured and confined in the space.”

When the exhibit first opened, the machine was new and quick at its sole task. As time progressed, the fluids spattered across the metal bogged it down, giving it a worn, exhausted look.

The piece was also part of Guggenheim’s Tales of Our Time exhibit, which states that while the pieces are from China, the messages in the artwork reach beyond borders and into the lives of many.

“All of them, however, dispute the line between fiction and fact in order to make and unmake boundaries,” Guggenheim wrote in its exhibit notes. “Those dividing communities, regions, nations, and continents, as well as those separating past and present, reality and dreams, and rationality and absurdity.”

TikTok comments sympathizing with “Can’t Help Myself” are a testament to the fact that Yuan and Yu’s effort to humanize the machine was a widespread success.

“This breaks my heart still,” one viewer wrote on TikTok. “It’s a piece of art that portrays a human who works hard to survive despite the endless pain but he never gives up.”

“I always feel sad anytime I see this…because it reminds me of me,” another wrote.

The idea of “Can’t Help Myself” has parallels to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which a man is condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill before it rolls back down again for eternity.

While many online remain infatuated with the piece, others accused the aficionados of being overly dramatic.

“It’s a machine, what do you mean it looks tired?” one person challenged.

“It’s crazy how humans will personify anything but continue to destroy the life around us,” another said.

Despite critics, “Can’t Help Myself” aficionados remain at full force on TikTok, defending their interpretation of the art piece.

“This piece has a deeper meaning than just a ‘robot’ or a ‘machine.’ Of course that’s what it is, but it’s built to represent something,” someone defended. “To make you feel.”

This story was originally published August 31, 2022 6:34 PM.

Alison Cutler is a National Real Time Reporter for the Southeast at McClatchy. She graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and previously worked for The News Leader in Staunton, VA, a branch of USAToday.

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