Ming Wong’s “In Love For the Mood”.
Ming Wong’s “In Love For the Mood”.

The exhibition, “Life of Imitation” has literally opened up a window on a country of which I knew little about. Ming Wong, 40, who hails from Singapore, makes his U.S. debut with this show. Frye Art Museum mounted the exhibition of paintings done in movie poster style enhanced with video and film installations. Using these media, the artist conveys the complexity of living in a multi-ethnic world.

Although Wong is a Chinese from Singapore, the country itself is located in the middle of a Malay population that inhabits Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore has four official languages: Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and the principle language, English. The country is a history lesson in itself — once invaded by Portugal, colonized by the British and occupied by the Japanese.

A tropical rain forest once covered the islands of Singapore at the bottom tip of the Malay Peninsula. The Srivijaya empire established a trading post there where diverse Islamic people engaged in maritime trades long before the British East Indian Company established their trading post in 1824. Now the country is urbanized with a dense population of 5 million composed of diverse ethnic backgrounds with over 70 percent from Chinese descent (including mixed heritage). When the artist was growing up, he was exposed to a lively mixture of diverse cultures in films from the 1950s and 1960s. He took pictures of all the film theaters from that era, which are now demolished or in the process of decay. He tries to recreate the glory of that cinematic utopia, while living in the confined yet diverse ethnic land that is Singapore today.

A set of three large paintings, “Life of Imitation II” are designed by the artist and painted by Mr. Neo Chon Teck, the last surviving painter of film posters in Singapore. The three portraits of the same woman carry the look of a nostalgic old film with a steamy, tropical yellow background. At the same time, the printed text references a more contemporary language art with a message. There are subtle differences in skin color and facial features. One of the letterings says “I’M WHITE, WHITE! WHITE!”

The exhibition is fascinating in concept, but it’s a little like an inside joke, in which you can’t just laugh until you understand the context. In “Four Malay Stories,” he takes on the challenge to transform himself into various roles. There are four video screens of him impersonating the different roles of Malay actors in early films. On the wall, he presents examples of varied excerpts from early black and white films, which have a cheesy, low-budget quality. These old films seem to come from the folk tales of the native land of Malay, and perhaps early monster films from Hong Kong. Wong immerses himself in these crazy roles: He is trying so hard to be a Malay in the film but his cross-gender performance is neither sexy or zany enough to mask his own identity as an urbanized Chinese man in contemporary Singapore. And that’s probably the point.

Wong now lives in Berlin and has developed a deep interest in foreign languages. He tries to blur our consciousness regarding the definition of ethnicity. Using a Caucasian actress, he created his re-make of the well-known film, “In the Mood for Love” and titled his, “In Love for the Mood.” She wears a Chinese dress with make-up to help her look exotic. Here, he teaches her to speak Chinese while three screens demonstrate each step of the mastery of her foreign language. Her beauty and impersonation of her male lover refers distantly to the intoxicating, sensuous quality of the original film.

With government sponsorship, he represented his country at the Venice Biennale in 2009 with this exhibit. It must be a delicate balance to deal with the government and retain his artistic freedom yet he pulls it off. It took patience but I enjoyed watching his explorations between culture and language unfold layer by layer behind the glorious aura of film.

The “Ming Wong: Life of Imitation” exhibit is featured at the Frye Art Museum through February 27.

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