by Geraldine Kang
Homegrown video artist Ming Wong is known for his ‘role-switching’ performances, a technique he uses to explore issues regarding cultural exchange and identity. Often using actors (himself included) of ‘mismatched’ criteria, Wong references films that are of specific historic and cultural significance, and Devo Partire. Domani / I must go. Tomorrow is no exception. The work is based on the infamous Teorema by Italian director Pier Paulo Pasolini, a tale of a young, ravishing Stranger’s visit to a bourgeois household. Reportedly a divine force, his presence seduces every single member of the family, and appears to release them from personal repressions and inhibitions. His sudden departure sends each individual spiraling into existential crisis, save for the house servant (presumably not part of the bourgeois class) who is suddenly gifted with the power to create miracles. Devo Partire consists of five synchronized videos of equal length screened simultaneously in separate rooms. Each room is dedicated to every character’s development with the Stranger. Customary vintage posters and paraphernalia also accompany the work on two sidewalls.
Wong has chosen to play the entire cast of (male and female) characters from Teorema himself, with supporting actors to fill in the roles of other characters who are not of main focus in each video. What hits viewers immediately is the humour of the piece, from the awkward acting to the inaccurate Italian dialogue that Wong struggles to nail. In an interview with online magazine ART-iT, Wong establishes that “both the original material itself and what I do with it has to be slightly ridiculous, because it gives the viewer a sense of distance”, allowing him/her to understand foremost that this is not mere re-enactment. It is amusing at first to see Wong, in the role of the Stranger, try to seduce “his other self” in the role of another character. But the laughter gradually evolves into a quieter, inner chuckle as I progress to the next room, and the next, and the next, constantly confronted with Wong’s image.
While Wong’s performance is entertaining, it places a tenuous balance between the heavy religious moral overtones of the original film and its mockery. Wong iterates that humour allows him to “get straight to the audience’s psyche when their guard is down” but it is unclear what he really wants to achieve with the comedy, and if it is a genuine distraction from the real matter of the film. Devo Partire also seems a little more egocentric than it needs to be. Wong’s decision to play all roles is open to question, having done so previously with only one other piece, Life and Death in Venice. As each part of Devo Partire involves the Stranger having a private affair with an individual member of the family, it is as if Wong has a relationship with himself five times over, and each time he is bound for tragedy, except when he plays the part of the servant. Wong’s overwhelming presence as the creator and the created is evident but leaves us confused. Is this a self-reflexive take on the makings of authorship, a metaphor for self-destruction, or neither?
And certainly, two modest walls of posters and paraphernalia lauding Teorema were not going to help. Apart from introducing the rebel film and its characters, they do little else to inform us about the context of the Pasolini original. I noted that a hand-painted poster of Devo Partire was missing. Hand-painted posters are a common element that Wong includes as part of the installation for his work. Interestingly, such a poster actually exists (although not hand-painted), as seen in the image below of the Ming Wong retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum last year, but for some reason was excluded from the Biennale set-up. These posters usually feature the title of his piece in various languages relevant to the work, directing attention immediately to issues surrounding language itself, and consequently “age, gender, class, nationality, everything” which I felt was lacking in the Old Kallang Airport site.
Having watched Teorema in anticipation of Devo Partire, I found it impossible for anyone uninitiated with Pasolini or Wong to grasp the work in its entirety. Even I, armed with this knowledge, was unable to determine for sure why Wong had made certain decisions, such as the abovementioned. In Wong’s defense, he chooses the most telling and important scenes to give audiences the main thrust of each character’s development, but viewers would still be unable to spot his personal spins on the plot. For instance, the Son, who in the original, withdraws into painting after the Stranger leaves, becomes a video artist in Devo Partire—a stealthy autobiographical reference on Wong’s part. Wong, however, is unperturbed and seems to prefer a variety of readings from people of different positions and backgrounds. He also reminds that his work should be looked at as a piece on its own, and not be tied too tightly to the original material he is referencing. Wong recognizes that prior knowledge of the original would contribute an added layer of understanding, but it is not crucial in experiencing the work for what it is. His piece definitely deserves to be interpreted independently, but I find it hard to agree entirely with his justifications because the political weight of films seems to be a deciding factor for him to choose them as reference materials in the first place. When asked about his motivations for selecting films by Fassbinder and Pasolini, Wong expresses admiration for both directors, labeling them “idols”, “outsiders” and “critics of society”, suggesting an interest in films that push buttons and boundaries.
Nonetheless, he does succeed in doing certain things, particularly pulling off a logistical feat with a more elaborate and coordinated site installation and beautiful cinematography that remains largely faithful to the scenes from Teorema. He also manages to garner curiosity in audiences about the original films—I am a clear example. The understanding of his work is perhaps difficult to pinpoint because its issues are so complex and intertwined, and he targets a very specific audience.