In his videos and installations, the Berlin-based Singaporean artist Ming Wong explores the intersections of language, identity and performance. Wong’s recent works adapt landmarks of World Cinema into intentionally stripped-down video productions. Made in 2005, the multi-channel installation Four Malay Stories, for example, is based on films by the post-war period Malaysian director P Ramlee. Here, Wong plays all the characters from the original films – both male and female roles – charting his attempts to recreate the original Malaysian dialogue through repeated takes of the same scenes. His use of cheap wigs and props and his stilted repetition of the lines inverts the melodrama of a man being whipped for adultery or a mother chastising her daughter for engaging in an inappropriate romance into absurdist comedy, but also draws attention to the values informing the original material. Other works borrow from films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) or Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), and feature the artist himself or other actors struggling with the intricacies of German, Italian and Cantonese.
However, even early works reveal a consistent line of inquiry into the complex relations between media and society. The three-channel video installation Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now? (2000) inserts additional Asian family members into the cast of the seminal American film on black-white race relations, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), wryly dissecting the expressions of discomfort and unease that carry forward the performances of the original. Turning the objectification of language on its head, Whodunnit? (2003/04) updates the classic English-manor mystery genre of theater with a multi-ethnic cast comprised mainly of second- and third-generation Britons, who periodically switch between the English accents they grew up using and “ethnic” accents that they had to create largely on their own.
The focus of increasing international attention, Wong was awarded a Special Mention for his solo presentation in the Singapore Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and is participating this year in major exhibitions including the Biennale of Sydney and Gwangju Biennale. In Tokyo earlier this year for the Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions, Wong agreed to meet with ART iT to discuss his works as well as topics ranging from humor and cross-dressing to national identity.
Part I: Beginners: Black-Afro-Caribbean, Black-African, Asian-Indian, East Asian, Chinese, Irish, Welsh, Eastern European, Jewish
Part II: Intermediate: Ablegen, Anlegen, Auflegen, Auslegen, Belegen, Beilegen, Darlegen, Einlegen, Erlegen
Part III: Advanced: Yishmór, Tishmór, Tishmór, Tishmrí, Eshmór, Yishmrú, Tishmórna, Tishmrú, Tishmórna, Nishmór
Essay I: The Scene is Elsewhere: Tracking Ming Wong by Adele Tan
Essay II: Stranger on the Road by Hu Fang
I. Beginners: Black-Afro-Caribbean, Black-African, Asian-Indian, East Asian, Chinese, Irish, Welsh, Eastern European, Jewish
Ming Wong describes his early works and the perversities of managerial multiculturalism.
Cinema billboard designed by Ming Wong, painted by Neo Chon Teck (2009), variable dimensions, acrylic emulsion on canvas.
ART iT: You are best known for videos investigating the performance of language through the appropriation and reinterpretation of scenes from international films, but I also understand that you have a background in theater. Was your experience in theater an essential part of your development?
MW: Not entirely. At art academy in Singapore I studied traditional Chinese art: calligraphy, ink painting, seal carving. I was interested in getting a foundation in traditional arts while it was still an option, since I was already planning to go abroad for further studies. But traditional Chinese art was such a strict discipline that I got restless and started working outside the academy as a playwright in Singapore’s English-language theater scene. That’s when I started exploring language, one of my other loves. It wasn’t until I moved to London for my master’s degree that I began working with digital media and combined my experience in two-dimensional art and my work in the theater.
ART iT: What kind of theater were you doing in Singapore?
MW: I worked mainly with a company called Action Theatre in the early to mid-1990s. It was a conventional company doing comedies and social satires. The biggest thing we did was a musical called Chang & Eng the Musical, about the Thai-born Siamese twins who in the 19th century were a worldwide curiosity attraction. I wrote the script and some of the lyrics to the music, and experienced the process of casting and training the actors and collaborating with the musicians and choreographers. I watched the directing process sitting next to the director so that was actually a very precious learning experience for me.
ART iT: And was it a serious script or a comedic script?
MW: It was serious; it was everything. It was different for each script but I think I specialized in things that were in-between, bittersweet, where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s the area that I like to deal with.
Both: Video still from Honeymoon in the Third Space (1999).
ART iT: At what point did you start consistently looking at theater and theatrical situations through video?
MW: I think even my MFA graduation piece for the Slade School of Art in London was quite theatrical. It was a film installation of footage of a fake wedding staged in London Chinatown with one groom and two brides, Honeymoon in the Third Space (1999). The actor who played the groom was of mixed Singaporean- and English-heritage, one bride was British and the other Asian. One actress would be in a white wedding gown and the other in a red Chinese wedding dress, but they both had veils over their faces so you never knew who was who and it kept changing.
But I didn’t start directing myself as an actor until 2005 with Four Malay Stories, so in a sense that work was like a new chapter opening in my practice.
ART iT: What compelled you to start acting in your own works?
MW: I was working on Four Malay Stories for a two-person show with the Malaysian artist and curator Khairuddin Hori for a Malay cultural festival at the Esplanade in Singapore. I had this ambitious idea to do remakes of old Singapore-produced films by the Malaysian director P Ramlee, but there was absolutely no budget. So I thought I should play all the roles myself, which actually made sense conceptually because there was also the responsibility of representing an entire community from a certain point in history. I had to be a Malay man, a Malay woman, a Malay boy and girl; I had to be a rich Malay, a poor Malay; I had to be everybody, and it had to be very clear that it was one artist embodying an entire community – the Malay community in Singapore of the 1950s and ’60s – because it has evolved since then. If I had directed, for example, a Malay actor, then there would be other issues of sexism or racialism or ageism that could have clouded the theme for the project.
Both: Video still from Four Malay Stories (2005).
ART iT: Was that uncomfortable for you?
MW: Not at all. Khai and I decided to work with something that we both knew, which was P Ramlee’s movies. We watched the movies together and he would point out the impact they had on the Malay community – lines that had become classic quotations in everyday conversations, or gestures that had become iconic. So I was also watching the movies through his eyes and learning about how the movies had this kind of power over different people. Khai also told me at an early stage when I broached the idea of reenacting these lines and images that many of them are taboo today and that if he, as a Malay Muslim, were to do such a project, it could produce adverse effects for him, whereas because I’m Chinese-Singaporean I could get away with it. There was a clear difference between what I could do as an outsider compared to someone from within the community. I have a certain distance that I think heightens the attention viewers give to the original material. It was this positioning that was crucial to the work’s resonance.
ART iT: How sympathetic were you towards the material? When I watch the videos they have a strong comedic element, but was that necessarily your goal?
MW: Humor is a good tool. You can get straight to the audience’s psyche when their guard is down. How sensitive am I to the material? I wanted the work to be relevant to different audiences, whether Malay or non-Malay, an older generation who remember the movies or a younger generation who don’t know anything about P Ramlee. I also wanted it to mean something to foreigners who have no reference whatsoever to the original material. The work operates on different levels. Those familiar with the original material might get an added layer or dimension of appreciation, but the stories are universal and the characters are universal.
In making the videos I tried to pick up on things that could mean something today, points where the action reflected changes in values, particularly in Singapore and within the Malay community. Today you would never see a Malay actress showing her cleavage, for example, which was common in those movies. And that’s something I think even non-Singaporeans or non-Malay people can appreciate. Somebody trying to be a Malay woman, showing her cleavage and talking about sexual relations, that’s kind of new, but it’s also not new – that was the point. And I also wanted to showcase the rich heritage that we had through the film industry, which is being forgotten. That was another impetus for making the work.
Both: Video still from Whodunnit (2003/04).
ART iT: The interesting thing is that earlier works like Whodunnit?, in which you restage a typical English-manor mystery using a multi-ethnic cast, seem to develop from the identity politics in England, while Four Malay Stories suggests a bridge between the specific and universal.
MW: I’ve always been interested in issues of identity. Studying traditional Chinese art at university was unfashionable but it was a necessary journey of self-discovery for me. Being from Singapore is peculiar: you’re not one thing or the other. I used to think of that as a liability, but it’s an advantage if you can see it in the right way. It allows me this outsider’s view on the mechanism of managerial tactics as applied to nation building or identity politics.
My time in London coincided with a period when authorities in the UK were promoting cultural diversity, and in the arts these policies affected how people looked at artists in general and non-British artists especially. Whodunnit? directly addressed some of the problems that came out of category-based “managerial multiculturalism.”
There was something called the cultural diversity monitoring form that came with every funding application, and applicants had to tick boxes regarding whether their proposals would be relevant to or employ various ethnic groups, broken down literally to “Black, White, Other.” It evolved over the 10 years I was in London to the point where you had Black-Afro-Caribbean, Black-African, Asian-Indian, East Asian, Chinese, Irish, Welsh, Eastern European, Jewish and then mixed heritage with White-plus-Black-Afro-Caribbean, White-plus-Black-African, White-plus-Asian and on and on.
It was ridiculous and damaging because institutions and individuals seeking funding would respond to these requirements by hiring an obviously “diverse” person to work the front desk without actually changing their status quo. Or they would create separate programs for diverse arts. The Royal Ballet might have the regular program for young dancers, and then another program for young Asian dancers doing Asian-inspired dance or Brazilian dancers doing Brazilian-inspired dance. It was completely shortsighted with regard to the actual complexities of cultural diversity.
So I took the list and cast actors according to the categories. On my application form I ticked all the boxes and got the funding to do the project. That’s actually a big part of the work, and I included the cultural diversity monitoring forms as part of the installation.
ART iT: Were the supervisors also aware that you were tweaking the system?
MW: I think they were. But you have to know how it works: they hire “cultural-diversity specialists” and then that’s the end of their participation. The people who run the organization have nothing to do with it, they have done their jobs and it ends there.
ART iT: That sounds like the kind of situation that could easily happen in Singapore too.
MW: I think that’s where the interest originates. In Singapore there are four categories, CMIO – Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others – that were inherited from the British divide-and-rule concept whereby the colonial administrators divided the population into different enclaves in order to diffuse racial tension. And I think many people in Singapore still look at their identities through these narrow categories.
For Whodunnit? in particular I was dealing with accents. In the work the actors’ accents switch from classic Received Pronunciation – think 1930s BBC – to a fake English accent, to a fake foreign accent. The actors I worked with were mainly second- or third-generation British, so in order to do the foreign accents they either had to either remember how their grandparents or parents spoke or just invent it. The Chinese actor, Jonathan Chan-Pensley, grew up first in South Africa and then moved to Essex. But as a professional actor he’s always being asked to do roles as a Chinese-speaking waiter or gangster and he had to produce this fake Chinese accent based on American Hollywood films. The actor who filled the Middle Eastern category, William el-Ghadi, is of mixed Egyptian heritage and knows only a bit of Arabic, but during the time when we were working together it was post-9/11 and he was getting steady work playing bad guys with the Arabic accent. They were all professional British actors so they could all do great Shakespeare but they had to develop certain skills because of how they look. I think Whodunnit? exposes this situation and the mechanics of the popular-culture industry.
All images courtesy the artist.