Can't Help Myself

Can't Help Myself

Updated Oct 13, 2022 at 04:53PM EDT by sakshi.

Added Oct 13, 2022 at 10:54AM EDT by sakshi.

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Can't Help Myself is an installation made by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu for the Guggenheim Museum's 2016 exhibition, Tales Of Our Time. The artwork consists of a robotic arm twisting and "dancing" while scraping a viscous red liquid towards itself behind tall acrylic walls. Over time, the robot began to slow down and "dance" less, scraping the viscous red substance less efficiently before being unplugged in 2019. Videos comparing the robot's early and later days went viral on Twitter and TikTok in early 2022.


On November 4th, 2016, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's installation for the Guggenheim Museum's "Tales Of Our Time" was unveiled. The work consisted of a KUKA industrial robot that could act out a set of thirty-two "dance" movements, dubbed “scratch an itch”, “bow and shake”, “ass shake”, etc, and was programmed to scrape hydraulic fluid in the form of a viscous red substance towards itself.[1] The robot used a visual sensor to see where to scrape the fluid from, as well as to sometimes interact with it's audience.The installation was on view at the Guggenheim for four months. A video of the robot when it was first unveiled can be accessed via a December 29th, 2016 video uploaded by The Guggenheim Museum's official YouTube[2] channel, where it gathered nearly 600,000 views in nearly five years (seen below).

In 2019, "Can't Help Myself" was unveiled at the Venice Biennale as part of it's "May You Live in Interesting Times" exhibition. The robot's programming remained dedicated to scraping the fluid to itself, but it appeared noticeably debilitated and "danced" less. The acrylic walls were now splattered with dark fluid, and the mechanics of the robot groaned as if to indicate strain. This exhibition was the last time the robot was displayed before it was eventually unplugged in the same year. A video of the robot from 2019 can be accessed via a September 19th, 2019 upload by YouTube[3] channel PopCinema, with over 1.7 million views in three years (seen below).

According to Xiaoyu Weng, a curator at the Guggenheim involved in the selection of the piece, the artwork is a commentary on modern surveillance practices, representing an "absurd, Sisyphean view of contemporary issues surrounding migration and sovereignty." Moreover, Weng asserts that "the bloodstain-like marks that accumulate around it evoke the violence that results from surveilling and guarding border zones."[7]

On November 7th, 2021, TikToker[4] @ikismixo posted the earliest known viral video comparing the functioning of the piece from it's first exhibition to it's last. The video has gathered over 60 million plays and 8 million likes in nearly a year (seen below).


Videos of the robot continued to go viral in subsequent months, with various people discussing the possible meaning of the installation. Popular early opinions of the installation's meaning likened it to "The Myth Of Sisyphus," a story about a man eternally cursed to roll a boulder up a mountain. Such individualistic interpretations of the robot as representing personal struggles grew popular in comment sections of TikToks and on Twitter, with people noting and sympathizing with the robot's apparent "pain." One such example of this theory was posted to Instagram[5] by @kricked on November 9th, 2021, alongside a caption that included the following interpretation,

Extended interpretations: the fluid in relation to how we kill ourselves both mentally & 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, less rewarding payoffs and less free time to enjoy ourselves with as the years go by. Continued 👇.. 💜

The post has gathered over 1 million likes in nearly a year (seen below).

This caption remains an often quoted popular interpretation of the art piece, however, it appears to detract from Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's artists intentions behind the piece. On January 10th, Twitter[6] account @AerialShading reacted to a tweet that reposted the aforementioned interpretation by @kricked, and criticized it for detracting from the exhibit's presentation of the artwork as a comment on surveillance states, border politics and migration. The tweet gathered over 20,000 likes in nine months (seen below).

It Looks So Tired

The installation also became the subject for various memes that parodied the robot's movements. The memes were sometimes accompanied by the phrase "it looks so tired," a phrase that was often used to describe the robot's later years.

On January 5th, 2022, TikToker[8] @graciegal1552 posted a video lampooning the exhibit, gathering over 20 million plays and 2 million likes in ten months (seen below, left). On March 29th, 2022, TikToker[9] @killzak posted a video of a robot monkey alongside a text overlay the read "it looks so tired :(." The post gathered over 400,000 play and 40,000 likes in six months (seen below, right).

Various Examples

Search Interest

External References

[1] Guggenheim Museum – Can't Help Myself

[2] YouTube – Guggenheim Museum

[3] YouTube – PopCinema

[4] TikTok – ikismixo

[5] Instagram – kricked

[6] Twitter – AerialShading

[7] Guggenheim Museum – Can't Help Myself

[8] TikTok – graciegal1552

[9] TikTok – killzak

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