Ming Wong: Making Chinatown
REDCAT Gallery, Los Angeles
February 5 through April 1, 2012
Sometimes, an account of the process of the making a work of art is more than simple fact-stating -- sometimes, it counts as a conceptual explanation. Such is the case with “Making Chinatown,” an astonishing work by the Singapore-born, Berlin-based video and performance artist Ming Wong -- and one whose production process contains and expresses as much of its meaning as does its final form. In other words, in sifting through the various levels of meaning operating in this ambitious filmic and sculptural installation, the physical way in which it was produced is as important to its meaning as its the final state of its presented form. If this sounds like the “process-oriented” idiom common in visual arts that display the residue of how they were made, that’s only partly accurate -- because evidence of Wong’s painstaking process is not residual, it’s very much to the point.
So here’s pretty much what Wong did. Always a huge fan of the illusionistic finesse and international narrative impact of cinema on personal identity, social structures, and institutional perceptions, Wong conceived to remake the Polanski classic “Chinatown” more or less on location in and around LA, and starring himself in all the major roles. He broke down key scenes and locations, built projected backdrops on the REDCAT stage, in front of which he pulled a latter-day Cindy Sherman in moving pictures and sound, and finally exhibited the film in a series of sequential vignettes projected onto those backdrop screens in a darkened gallery space. If this sounds like idiomatic Deconstructivism, that’s only partly accurate -- because the elemental dismantling is only half the point. As impressive and skillful as the production is, the emotional and notional impact of the work lies in the elegant ways in which the modified elements are reassembled into the new whole.
It helps that Wong turns out to be a talented actor; and that he has a well-developed sense of humor. It’s not irony -- he means what he is saying and pursues his craft in earnest -- it’s humor that leads him to let the face-lift tape show under his wig in a close-up as Faye Dunaway, and to take obvious relish in playing Jack Nicholson with his famously taped-up and bloodied nose. He also has an obvious enthusiasm for costumes, jewelry, and detailed flourishes -- one that turns what might otherwise be initially mistaken for a send-up into an homage with a distinguished air. It’s possible that the same exhibition staged elsewhere than a venue mere blocks from its eponymous setting might lose a tiny bit of oomph and locale-flattering charm -- although if his trans-nationalist thesis about the language of cinema is true, then everywhere has a sense of everywhere else and itself in relation, and his audience becomes truly global.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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