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Originally published Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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Frye Art Museum hosts Ming Wong's first solo show in U.S.: 'Life of Imitation'

Singapore artist Ming Wong's "Life of Imitation," at Seattle's Frye Art Museum, is a head-spinning, multiscreened video meditation on language barriers — and language openings. This is Ming Wong's first solo show in the U.S.

Seattle Times arts writer

EXHIBITION REVIEW

'Ming Wong: Life of Imitation'

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays through Feb. 27, copresented by the Singapore Art Museum and Frye Art Museum at the Frye, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org).

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We learn language by imitating sounds — and in "Life of Imitation," a playfully mind-bending trio of video installations by Singapore artist Ming Wong, all the stresses and fractures of mimicry are put on revealing display.

The Frye exhibition is the first solo show in the U.S. for the Berlin-based Wong, whose work has been shown at the Venice Biennale as well as at museums worldwide.

"In Love for the Mood" finds a New Zealand actress getting through a scene from Wong Kar Wai's film "In the Mood for Love," phonetically parroting lines in Cantonese fed to her off-camera.

In "Life of Imitation," three Singaporean actors of Chinese, Malay and Tamil descent continually change roles as they impersonate three female characters in a pivotal scene from Douglas Sirk's race-focused 1959 drama "Imitation of Life." And in "Four Malay Stories," Wong himself plays 16 roles on 4 screens, as he re-creates episodes from a comedy, melodrama, period epic and horror story by Malay filmmaker P. Ramlee.

What's going on here?

One answer: A fascinating exploration of the innate musical meaning that words can have, even when their speakers have no mastery of the language they're mimicking.

Wong's language obsessions stem directly from his Singapore upbringing. Born in 1971, he grew up speaking Cantonese at home and English at school (where he studied Mandarin as well). On the street he picked up a "smattering" of Malay. But he and his friends were also fond of Singapore English, he said in an interview last week at the Frye Art Museum, where "Life of Imitation" is on display.

"Singlish," Wong explains, "is English words, but the grammar is — well, there is no grammar. It's Chinese grammar. So it would sound like broken English. And it also has lots of colloquialisms thrown in."

Wong's background set the stage for his language-obsessed multimedia artwork. But the official language policies of 1980s Singapore dictated, to a degree, where he could explore his obsessions initially. In the 1980s, he explains, Singlish was "something you could only do in a theater because on radio and TV it was not allowed." (Singapore's government banned the use of dialects in the media.)

While Wong didn't train as an actor, he did take part in his high school's drama club. He turned to playwriting due to his frustration with performing classics. What he wanted was to set stories in Singapore and explore the way people used language in the city.

In his early 20s, he won a playwriting contest, which led to his involvement with a professional theater. At 25, he left for London to continue his art studies. It was there, in 2005, that over the course of two very busy weekends he filmed "Four Malay Stories."

For the project, he became his own "one-man production company," doing the lighting, sound, costuming, makeup and editing, not to mention all the acting.

It's clear, when you watch it, that he's having a ball as he fondly ribs Singapore's brief moviemaking heyday in the 1950s and '60s. "They were trying to become like Hollywood or Bollywood," he says, "but at a fraction of the budget. So this aesthetic of low-fi, cheap imitation was very much the aesthetic that I wanted to put across. The makeup's a little off, the wig's kind of falling apart."

Still, there's a palpable yearning to his performance.

"I knew it was tapping into the past," he says, "a past that's disappearing."

The films of the day, he explains, were Malay stories with Malay actors produced by ethnic Chinese movie moguls, with film crews of mostly Indian background. The resulting movies, he feels, represent a "vibrant" past with a free intermingling between different cultural groups "that we don't have so much today." (Ancillary exhibits presented with Wong's show help fill in the background on Singapore film history.)

Wong inhabits his Malay characters with an almost zany intensity. But, he emphasizes, no Malay would ever mistake him for a native speaker. In all four video sequences he has to keep repeating the Malay dialogue until he gets it more or less right.

That repetition, central to all three video installations, is Wong's way of tapping into something mysterious about language itself: the fact that it can move us or amuse us, even when we don't know what's being said. He also addresses the way that words, with enough repetition, can be emptied of meaning and become pure music.

Wong and his actors are clearly trying to find rather than obliterate the sense of the phrases they're mimicking. But they do it less by latching onto specific words than by learning to handle the rhythms and tones of a language unfamiliar to them.

One challenge for his actress in "In Love for the Mood" was that "the process was going to be part of the product." He acknowledges that it was a tough call for her. "She had to be a brave actress, to be comfortable to show her weaknesses."

Playing both the male and female roles in a scene involving quarreling lovers, she's viewed in three widescreen monitors. On the right are her early efforts, in which she trips up on syllables, gets impatient with herself, cracks an involuntary smile, falls out of character. In the middle, she's making progress, although still breaking character occasionally and addressing comments off-camera. On the left is her most polished performance. The sound on all three screens is in near-synch, and the physical action is in near unison, too.

The effect is of watching a dance come together in the interim stages of rehearsal.

The title work in "Life of Imitation" is more complex still. Wong's three male actors, in drag, inhabit their characters without any winks or irony. But the logic of their performances is repeatedly sabotaged, superficially at least, by the way they're continually rotated in and out of their roles.

Not only that, but the process is happening on two enormous screens that face each other, each with a giant mirror beside it so you can monitor both video feeds (one of them mirror-reversed) at once. It's enough to make your head spin, as you try to keep track of what, exactly, is going on. Yet the power, momentum and emotional continuity of the scene remain intact.

All the gender-bending in Wong's work raises the question: Is this gay art?

That's one aspect of it, he feels. But it's also about age, race, class, the cultural heritage of Singapore and the fluidity of language in a polyglot society.

"It's everything," he says. "I'm gay, so of course that's going to inform my work." But, he cautions, it's not the be-all and end-all.

"I don't like to separate it out," he says. "I think everything is kind of intertwined."

However you label it, "Life of Imitation" serves up some fascinating puzzles. By teasing its way around language barriers, it delivers something both cheeky and deep.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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