Double Vision

Blurring the lines between self and other in Ming Wong's Persona Performa
by Michael Connor  posted November 8, 2011
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Earlier this month, the artist Ming Wong stood in front of a lineup of 18 actors and dancers in the foyer of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. In preparation for his newly commissioned work Persona Performa, Wong was sorting the performers into matched pairs, duos whose faces bore some mutual resemblance. It was a tricky business: the cast is as diverse as Queens itself (Wong told me that his casting was "inspired by the No. 7 train") and, while some of the performers had obvious doppelgängers, others were more difficult to match. During the shuffle, a lanky, affable-looking man with a generous nose was incongruously paired with a petite, delicately featured woman. "How did you two end up together?" Wong asked, steering them toward new partners.

For Persona Performa, a site-specific performance for the Performa 11 biennial (on November 10 and 11), Wong will make a composite portrait of each pair, combining the left side of one performer's face with the right side of the other's. The work restages a haunting image from Ingmar Bergman's 1966 film about a nurse (Bibi Andersson) and a famous actress (Liv Ullmann) who, in the middle of a stage performance, loses the will to speak. The twosome—both blond, both beautiful—repair to a remote Swedish island for convalescence. Over the course of a summer, caregiver becomes increasingly intertwined with patient, until it seems that they may be two manifestations of a single character. Bergman reinforces this interpretation with a dramatic close-up that matches half of Ullmann's face with half of Andersson's to create a single hybrid visage, unsettling in its familiarity.

Wong's Bergman-derived hybrids will be projected on a 16mm film loop in one of the Moving Image's new exhibition spaces. Along with two other moving image works, this installation will make up the first of three parts in an ambitious, multifaceted new work. In the second part, 24 performers will form a looped procession that winds its way through the architecture of the Museum like a strip of film through a projector. These "human frames" will enact a series of movements drawn from Persona, including the moment in which Ullmann seizes up onstage. In rehearsal, each of the 24 performers offered slightly different interpretations of this moment. One after another, they stopped short and stared, stricken, into space, near-exact copies of one another repeated in series. The third and final section will play out on the stage of the Museum's main theater.

The slippage between original and remake has been a central area of investigation throughout Wong's work. In his 2008 piece Angst Essen/Eat Fear, Wong plays all of the roles in a condensed version of Fassbinder's classic love story about a German woman and a much younger Moroccan man named Ali. Angst Essen/Eat Fear retains the emotional charge of Fassbinder's film: even while performing opposite himself, Wong invests his love scenes with great tenderness and his confrontations with great malice, speaking the whole time in a pidgin German. Through this performance, the boundaries between German and guest worker, young and old, self and Other—treated as social reality by Fassbinder—are revealed as psychological constructs. Through his multicharacter performance, Wong offers a vision of a porous subjectivity that embraces all forms of alterity.

Wong also uses a single actor to re-perform a range of roles in his 2009 installation In Love for the Mood. The piece restages a scene from Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, in which a woman (Maggie Cheung), accompanied by her lover (Tony Leung) rehearses for a confrontation with her husband. In Ming Wong's version, a white actress plays both roles, clumsily parroting lines of Cantonese dialogue delivered by an offscreen coach. In the gallery, the resulting scene is repeated across three screens, each showing a slightly different take so that the actress's voice is layered upon itself, slightly out of sync, over and over again. The piece is a nested series of duplicates—the three screens, the two lovers, the remake, and the original—all of which are slightly off-kilter, made strange by the alteration of variables including language, race, and sex. But where Wong's doubles in Angst Essen/Eat Fear stage an exuberantly polymorphous identity, the actress from In Love for the Mood is divided neatly in two. Despite the obvious artifice of the scene, we find ourselves identifying with the actress, and when she switches from the male character to the female, it is unsettling. Like the famous composite close-up from Persona, the reversal destabilizes the relationship between viewer and onscreen character, highlighting our identification with her and calling it into question.

In Wong's recent works, location has played an increasingly important role. Life & Death in Venice uses the Visconti film as an opportunity to consider the relationship between the crumbling Renaissance city and the contemporary art installations that inhabit it every two years. The 2010 installation Devo partire. Domani moves Pasolini's Teorema to Naples, where the failed monuments of an industrial past and the volcano of Vesuvius form the backdrop for a psychosexual drama staged by Wong's uncanny multiple selves.

Persona Performa continues this interest in responding to site; the piece commingles the mythical landscape of the original film with the realities of its immediate surroundings. Wong traveled to Bergman's original location—the remote island of Fårö—and made a film of the landscape to be projected in the windows of the Museum café. He responded to the context of Queens by using local residents as many of the cast members, and his choreography responds explicitly to Thomas Leeser's glowing white architecture. "I wanted the performance to be in Queens," at the Museum of the Moving Image, Wong said, "because this is the origin of cinema in America." The Museum is located in a historic movie studio that was the home of Paramount Pictures during its early heyday.

By interweaving cinematic setting and the immediate, embodied space of the performance, Persona Performa continues the interest in blurred boundaries that has characterized much of Wong's work. The lines between self and Other, real and onscreen space, original and copy are never as stable as many of us pretend they are. Like Bergman's image of Andersson and Ullmann, we are all hybrids. And in Wong's world of strange and shifting doubles, we cannot help but recognize ourselves. 


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Ming Wong. Photo: Carlos Vasquez
Persona Performa, work-in-progress by Ming Wong
Photo Gallery: Double Vision


November 10–11, 2011 Persona Performa by Ming Wong


Michael Connor is a curator specializing in cinema and its relationship to contemporary art. He co-curated 'Essential Cinema', the opening exhibition of the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the permanent exhibition 'Screen Worlds' at ACMI in Melbourne, Australia. From 2005 to 2007, he was Head of Exhibitions at the British Film Institute.

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