Ming Wong, the chameleon artist, on Hong Kong cinema and Turkish porn

Ming Wong, the chameleon artist, on Hong Kong cinema and Turkish porn

Singapore's star artist Ming Wong is coming to Hong Kong, the city that inspired much of his work in video art installation
ming wong artist
Ming Wong in "Life and Death in Venice," 2010.

Berlin-based Singaporean artist Ming Wong has been a blond bartender, a hysterical mother-in-law, and a Moroccan mechanic -- among other things.

The chameleon artist impersonates multiple movie characters in his video installations. For Wong, age, sex, race and class are all fair game.

“It’s more like non-acting -- I actually play myself trying to be this other person,” he says of portraying the characters in his videos.

Drawing inspiration from the history of world cinema, Wong is fascinated by Hong Kong films and Malaysian films which he remembers watching as a child.

In 2009, Wong received special mention for his works exploring the golden age of Singaporean cinema at the Venice Biennale.

This week, Wong will be flying into Hong Kong to speak at the Intelligence Squared Asia debate. He will also be staging a surprise performance for ART HK 11 at the fair’s VIP event "The Wedding" (also known as "The Wedding Banquet") presented by Para/Site Art Space and Vitamin Creative Space.

According to rumors, he could be playing a bride or groom, or both. He refuses to confirm details.

CNNGo: Your work is obsessed with cinema. If you could live inside a film which would it be?

Ming Wong: It has to be some kind of dreamy musical.

I’d like to be in Federico Fellini’s "8 ½." How’s that? A film about film-making. It’s dreamy and black-and-white and there are surprises at every turn.

Yes, I think 8 ½ is a good movie to live in.

CNNGo: How did you become so fascinated with films?

ming wong artist"A lot of my work is about my own identity," says Ming Wong.Wong: I take my inspiration from cinema, much more so than art history because it’s what I grew up with.

I watched movies from Hong Kong, Hollywood movies, British movies, the odd Bollywood movie and the made-in-Singapore Malay movies. So the references are very diverse and rich.

A lot of my work is about my own identity so movies play a big part. But also, I started using myself in my videos with the work called "Four Malay Stories" from 2005. That’s when I reenacted made-in-Singapore Malay movies from the 1950s and 1960s.

This was a turning point in my practice and it started with looking at my own cinematic heritage from Singapore.

CNNGo: You mentioned watching films from Hong Kong. In one of your works you explore Wong Kar-Wai’s "In the Mood for Love." Why this film?

Wong: Well, Hong Kong from the 1960s is one of my favorite eras geographically and historically. That’s the golden era of film-making -- a lot of the movies that I grew up with came from this period.

It was a time where there were influences from America and Europe and films were being localized for Chinese audiences.

Wong Kar-Wai made a film about that era so there is a lot of resonance for me. There’s also a lot of melodramas from the 1960s in Technicolor with these wonderful female stars.

It was a unique moment in world cinema history when women actresses were top billing. They were very glamorous and totally unreal like Linda Lin Dai, who was the Elizabeth Taylor of the East.

CNNGo: Your works are often deeply personal. What has been one of your most challenging pieces to create and why?

Wong: My experience of being at Venice Biennale had a big impact on my career as well as my personal life.

I felt too young and too old at the same time. I felt too young to be on such a big platform for art, then once I did it, I felt too old.

After you’ve done Venice, you ask yourself: 'How are you going to top that?' I had conflicting thoughts and experiences. The only way I know how to deal with these experiences is to create a work of art.

I went back to Venice and made "Life and Death Venice." It was inspired by "Death in Venice", with the 50-year-old artist who was in a crisis and the object of his desire or obsession.

It was totally self produced, directed and acted. I pulled some friends together and did it without knowing what it would be in the end. I just had to do it to make sense of what had happened to me.

ming wong artistMing Wong in his video installation "Eat Fear" from 2008.

CNNGo: What is your daily routine like?

Wong: I’m doing quite a lot of research on films from Turkey as well as films about New York for a future project.

I am also practicing singing in Turkish that is part of my next project. I don’t sing normally.

For my projects I need to use go-betweens -- people who can be my entry point to these cultures, languages and cinemas. I have a lot of help from my Turkish friends.

I live in Kreuzberg, the Turkish neighborhood of Berlin, which has the highest concentration of Turkish immigrants in Germany. So it’s all Turkish around where I work and live. Part of me is Turkish now.

CNNGo: Tell us more about the Turkish fascination.

Wong: Turkey is a place that I am very interested in for its position as the last frontier between Asia and Europe.

I find that fascinating and somehow crucial. Looking at Turkish cinema was part of the process.

The cinema industry follows the ups and downs of Turkey’s political history. There were booms and busts. In order to survive people had to turn to whatever they could. They made a lot bad remakes which I found very interesting.

There was also a big porn industry which was a form of survival. At the same time there was a surge in religious movies and some of these were made by the same crew and cast who made the porn films so it’s totally unique in the history of world cinema.

CNNGo: You have an interesting accent, it sounds like it’s becoming German.

Wong: Yes. It’s very disturbing [laughs]. It changes. I tend to mirror who I’m speaking with. When I’m back in Singapore I speak Singlish. Then my accent changes when I speak to my Hong Kong friends because I also speak Cantonese which also creeps in. But there’s also the Hong Kong accent which I find very endearing.

CNNGo: What's next for you?

Wong: I don’t know, it’s been a very intense year. I haven’t had time to think about the grand future but let me hazard a guess.

CNNGo: Maybe you can come up with a creative answer?

Wong: Yes, that’s what I was thinking. I want to climb up the Wong mountain. I call it a Wong Mountain but it’s Huangshan. Huang is my surname in Mandarin but it also translates to the yellow mountain [situated in Anhui Province in China]. Whether it’s real or metaphoric, I want to climb it.

Ming Wong will participate in the Intelligence Squared Asia Debate "Art Must be Beautiful" on May 27, 7 p.m. at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. www.intelligencesquared.asia.

A freelance writer, Payal Uttam found her way back to Hong Kong after a prolonged stint in Chicago.

Read more about Payal Uttam