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Can’t Help Myself (2016-19)
Can’t Help Myself (2016-19)Photography Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

The Can’t Help Myself robot took over TikTok. What does it all mean?

The 2016 Guggenheim Museum artwork found a new life on TikTok. Is it a ‘tragic’ commentary on contemporary life or are we all missing the point?

Back in 2016, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu — two of China’s most scandalous artists, known for using controversial materials such as live animals and human tissue in their work — debuted a new installation, commissioned for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Titled Can’t Help Myself (2016-19), the artwork featured an industrial robot arm in a large glass box, where it had one task: contain a pool of viscous red liquid seeping out across the floor.

Fitted with a custom-designed shovel, the mechanical arm detected when the liquid (which, despite the artists’ previous controversies, was not actually blood) moved outside of a predetermined circle. Then, using one of 32 pre-programmed movements, the machine would twist around the case, scraping the liquid back into place.

When Can’t Help Myself appeared in the main show at the 2019 Venice Biennale, however, the movements — dubbed “scratch an itch”, “bow and shake”, “ass shake”, and so on — looked different. Over time, the robot arm had slowed down, as if it was tired of the eternal task it was programmed to perform. What’s more, the glass walls of its box were spattered with red, and the white floors were smudged an eerie pink.

It’s this tired version of the artwork that has since found new life on TikTok. In several videos, users document its gradual decline, adding their own soundtrack: Lana Del Rey’s “Dealer”, or Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)”, or another sentimental TikTok fave, “Je te laisserai des mots”.

If that playlist didn’t tip you off already, people are sad. The slowing-down of Can’t Help Myself, and its rumoured “death” when it ran out of hydraulic fluid in 2019, have clearly touched a nerve, with one of the video tributes topping 90 million views. But is TikTok right to mourn Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s artwork, or is it completely missing the point?

It goes without saying that there are plenty of theories about what Can’t Help Myself is actually about in the comment section. “Continuously cleaning up the pieces of yourself as you endlessly fall apart,” writes one user, hinting at an underlying commentary on mental health. “Alone, while everyone watches you and uses you for entertainment.”

“No piece of art has ever emotionally affected me the way this robot arm piece has,” reads another interpretation. “It’s programmed to try to contain the hydraulic fluid that’s constantly leaking out and required to keep itself running… if too much escapes, it will die so it’s desperately trying to pull it back to continue to fight for another day.”

Admittedly, it is tempting to project human emotions onto the arm. In 2016 its movements gave off a comical urgency, and in 2019 its “absurd, Sisyphean view” of the world (as described by former Guggenheim curator Xiaoyu Weng) really began to shine through. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out why the hopelessness of its task resonates with TikTok’s audience, a generation facing poor job prospects, toxic work environments, and a pandemic that’s left them “unable to cope with life”.

However, the robot arm isn’t actually struggling to contain hydraulic fluid that’s vital for its survival: the liquid is simply coloured water mixed with a thickening agent. Apparently, it was never meant to be a meditation on mental health, either. “It’s about automated surveillance and border control, not robot depression or whatever,” says one Twitter user. “It’s not ‘tired and hopeless’; it’s just clogged bc it’s been running for 5yrs.”

“It’s all fine and good to empathize w/ the robot but the piece is a specific statement about authoritarianism and automated state violence and making stuff up is disrespectful to the original intent.”

Addressing the widespread online commentary, another TikToker simply falls to the floor laughing, with the caption: “Me watching y’all cry over a robot scooping red paint.”

While the debate about the real meaning of Can’t Help Myself is entertaining, the official Guggenheim description sheds more light on the situation. Supporting the border control angle, it suggests that the artwork was actually meant to address “contemporary issues surrounding migration and sovereignty”.

“The bloodstain-like marks that accumulate around it evoke the violence that results from surveilling and guarding border zones,” the description reads. “Such visceral associations call attention to the consequences of authoritarianism guided by certain political agendas that seek to draw more borders between places and cultures.” The growing use of technology to aid in policing these borders is also highlighted by the mechanical arm, it explains.

In the end, it’s difficult to say whether the creators of Can’t Help Myself had mental health in mind, or wanted to comment on humans’ self-centered tendency to see their own reflection wherever they look (art can have multiple meanings, after all). What is clear, however, is that Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s artwork can be considered a success, which is still causing people to pause for thought, share ideas, and maybe even break down in tears, years after it first arrived in New York as a spry, young robot arm.