April 7, 2014

To Live Life Between Roles. Ming Wong at Carlier⎢Gebauer, Berlin

Ming Wong, "Biji Diva!" (Part 1) 2011, two channel video installation Performance at "In Transit Festival", Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, video still. courtesy: carlier | gebauer, Berlin and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou

But what is the big deal? a friend asked me after seeing Ming Wong’s latest show Bülent Wongsoy. Biji Diva! at Carlier⎢Gebauer, Berlin. In that exhibition Ming Wong shows a video piece of his 2011 performance in Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in which he, together with his mother May Wong, portrays the Turkish transsexual singer Bülent Ersoy. Ming Wong is known for reenacting famous film roles: he imitates actors and their roles in video, like a digitally cloned body he slips into the skin of persons of various Gestalt: young, old, woman, man, Asian, European, American, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, etc. He goes at it like a real pro, preparing meticulously, which involves hours of make-up, taking language classes, and picking the costumes. In the Bülent Ersoy performance he is not playing a movie, yet almost: Ming Wong portrays the life of the Turkish popdiva as a film in four stages: Boy Bülent, Trans’ Bülent, Woman Bülent, and Mother Bülent. Additionally we hear a recording of the Turkish singing lessons Ming Wong took. Leaving the Carlier⎪Gebauer exhibition I couldn’t immediately give my friend a straight answer on his question: it is not easy to put your finger on what Ming Wong is exactly pointing at. And the good thing is: I guess one will never succeed in totally nailing it down.


Ming Wong, "Biji Diva!" (Part 1) 2011, two channel video installation Performance at "In Transit Festival", Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, video still. courtesy: carlier | gebauer, Berlin and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou

It is always easier to define things by what they are not. What Ming Wong is doing, is, for instance, not like Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Whereas Meryl Streep is all about creating the illusion, Ming Wong deconstructs not only the film role, but also the music, the setting, the actor, and the projections that come from the outside. In many of his works Ming Wong doesn’t restrict himself to one role in the film, he takes over all of them. On other occasions he has casted, ironically, real actors to play the actor and his/her role. Ming Wong's endeavour is thus not the same as Meryl Streep's, nor are his portrayals comparable to the parodies you can watch on Comedy Central. Although grotesque, Wong’s portrayals are no caricatures. They are not laughing at something, nor do they allow the spectator to laugh it off. In his adaptation of Passolini's Teorema, for instance, Wong's portrayal of the mother after being raped by street gamins, is very touching without any comical note. With a thoughtful and precise approach Wong incorporates the other while leaving space around him/her. He characterizes, yet without emphasizing the separating categorizations: the other is not identical, but not necessarily different. 


Ming Wong, "Biji Diva!" (Part 1) 2011, two channel video installation Performance at "In Transit Festival", Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, video still. courtesy: carlier | gebauer, Berlin and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou
In his portrayals Ming Wong is not disguising himself, he is not hiding behind his imitation - nor is he looking for his roots. Although the imitations are very well done, he is clearly present - yet where exactly? The life story of Bülent Ersoy could be seen as one that is marked by a so-called continuous “search for identity” while simultaneously subverting that stereotype: becoming a woman without having to change the name (Bülent can be used for both male and female); the overdoing of make-up and dressing-up that emphasizes the fake, and taking up the identity of a mother to make a political stance. Ming Wong’s portrayal of Bülent Ersoy multiplies the clichés, which also includes himself, a gay artist from Singapore based in Berlin: The western projection on  asian culture as so-called losing its identity, mimicking the West and its so-called first-class culture with cheap imitations. In his work Ming Wong shows the violence that comes into play with the construction of identity. In Carlier⎪Gebauer the visitor can by the way only enter the exhibition while gender blending, passing underneath a rainbow placed as a horseshoe above a door.  


Exhibition view at carlier | gebauer, "Bülent Wongsoy: Biji Diva!", Berlin 2014. 
courtesy: carlier | gebauer, Berlin and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou

One could compare Ming Wong’s artistic approach to the city of Los Angeles, where the Mecca of film is based. Ming Wong himself told me about the specific urban layout of Los Angeles when meeting him there on Chinese New Year in 2013. Creating his Making Chinatown for REDCAT Ming Wong spent considerable time in the city. In Los Angeles every building is a unity by itself, he told me. A gas station is a gas station and it is separated from the motel next to it - a kind of Über-reality, in which the building is extra marked and foregrounded. At the same time it is also possible that the gas station is used exclusively as a film set. Real and unreal are strangely blurred. That also counts for life in Hollywood, as Andy Warhol noticed in his America-book: “I love it when you ask actors, ‘what ‘re you doing now?’ and they say, ‘I’m between roles.’ To be living ‘Life Between Roles,’ that’s my favorite.” 

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