Ming Wong: Life of Imitation

Absurds/excerpts for life

Life of Imitation by Ming Wong. Images with permission from the artist.

We often hear the expression, ‘cinema imitates life’. Ming Wong’s body of works uses the mechanism surrounding cinema – the magical darkened space, editing, narrative, fans, architecture, billboards –  to provide a critical reflection on living, and being lived in films. The body of work shows a deep understanding of the power of the media as well as the actor’s rituals of acting before a camera.

Ming Wong’s work may be described as possessing/revealing the panache of film.  The body of work richly displays various aspects of the cinema, pushing our understanding of society embodied within the culture of cinema. The works include three video interventions,  3 commissioned videos by Sherman Ong, movie billboards canvases by painter Neo Chon Teck, Wong Han Min’s cinema memorabilia collection,  2 sculptural pieces, lush red walls, Shaw cinema seats and accompanying cinematic exhibition signs. The breadth, no doubt, engages with our personal connections with ‘cinema’. If films ‘projected’ aspirations or reflections of society, preserving local film preserves an aspect of our collective national heritage.

In the ‘video interventions’, the familiar narratives from In the Mood for Love (2000) et al, are suspended and intervened for poetic effect. The cheesy title, In Love for the Mood (2009) hints at the artist’s fascination with parodies, humour that punctuates life on screen and off screen. This work is presented with 3 flat screens, with 3 different (foreign) language subtitles. Each screen shows a particular take, and by comparing the three, we realise they are different shots of the same scene. The central idea for the work is apparent in very nuanced facial expressions, hand gestures or voice intonation; the difference in mood reveals itself. The work is more complex when the actress is made to speak in (foreign) Cantonese instead of the nasty voice-overs.

The pastiche is complete by replacing the lead Chinese character with a Caucasian actress. Race, skin colour, identity become entwined with our own stereo-types of owners of voice, and authenticity to ‘real’ life. Reel life is measured against real life.  We might laugh as the actress struggles with a dialect dialogue. But we can’t help feeling the actress’ discomfort too. The subtitles on 3 screens in 3 different written languages, accentuate the alienation language has on the viewer. The only comfort we have and can understand, is the body language. Some say that alone, communicates 80% of the intended message. That, body language is the soul of acting.

The subterfuge of cinema is again seen in Life of Imitation (2010), after Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), a hollywood drama that addresses racial identity. 3 male actors switch roles repeatedly to act out a scene involving 2 female actresses. We are left bemused and affected by the role-switching and simple screen dialogue that hints racial discrimination and shame/guilt. The installation includes 2 large screen sized mirrors that reflect the opposite-facing projected images – what we see from any angle in the room is effectively a full screen, and a partially obscured reflection.

The inclusion of Sherman Ong’s ‘creative documentaries’ reinforces the wile of cinema. They are cleverly put together in the style of mockumentaries or pseudo-documentaries. The viewer plays sleuth to the interviews of the billboard painter, the private memorabilia collector and movie-ticket seller, picking up nuances that suggests fictionalisation by actors.

The exhibition served as excerpts of a bygone cinema boom of the 1950/60s. The beauty of cinema is sees us embracing the absurdity of reel life, even if it is sometimes a reflection of real life. Film is very much part of life of our generation.  Not everyone will agree with this, or agree with the function of art/film. Especially if you abhor television or any form of big screen entertainment.  As “Alfredo” (Phillpe Noiret) puts it in Cinema Paradiso (1988), “life isn’t like it is in the movies, life is harder”. Life is inevitably harder because our real lives are not played in an air-conditioned, cushioned chair theatre of imaginations. But for those of us who are intrigued by the mechanics of film, recalling our first loves of movie,  this sophisticated body of works leads us to ponder on deeper issues of racial identity and equality that we take for granted.

8 of 10 stars for the love of the mood of the curatorial display and concepts of the artworks

curated by Tang Fu Kuen

Singapore Art Museum
22 April to 22 August 2010

Hardcover catalogue Life of Imitation available at S$88.

More information on the artist may be found here: http://www.mingwong.org/

One response to “Ming Wong: Life of Imitation

  1. Hi Mr Lim!
    I think I saw this artwork being set-up, but I didn’t manage to see it properly installed ): it sounds interesting! Do you know if it’ll be produced on disc or something?

    Anyway, nice review! (:


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