Visiting Scholar – Joan Kee

I attended Joan Kee’s lecture “Ming Wong’s Cultural Studies” on February 14, 2012.  Joan Kee is a professor at the University of Michigan whose studies in art focus mainly on contemporary east asian painting, but she also has a law degree from Harvard and has studied art’s relationship with the law, which I find very interesting.  Her lecture on the 14th was primarily on Ming Wong, a contemporary performance artist from Singapore.  Ming Wong’s pieces are most often reproductions of scenes from cinema or theater in which he replaces the characters with himself and other actors and/or actresses.  Wong’s performances, according to Kee, are an examination of identity. She stresses that this does not necessarily refer to self identity and expression, but to a broader cultural, linguistic, and gender based idea of identity.
Kee compared Wong to some other artists that are also dealing with the issue of identity, namely Cindy Sherman, who also dressed up in outfits and adopted certain personas in her art.  However, she emphasized the importance of the fact that Wong does not totally disguise himself, nor does he try to formally recreate the scene exactly as it appears in the movie/play.  Wong leaves details that make the scene appear somewhat “off” or strange in order to call attention to the differences between the original and his version, therefore highlighting different perceptions of identity and mixing identities.  For example, in his 2009 readapted scene from the well known Hong Kong film, “In the Mood for Love,” (2000) called “In Love for the Mood,” Wong uses a actress from New Zealand in place of the Chinese actress in the original.  He feeds the actress lines in the original Cantonese script that she just repeats to the best of her ability, without having any prior knowledge of the language, and she wears the same traditional clothing that is worn in the original.  The scene is startling because of the obvious “out of place” feeling that having a white actress in such an obvious “asian” scene creates.  Wong uses this out of place effect and feeling to force viewers to confront their expectations about what is “asian” and what is “white.”
One of the pieces by Wong that I liked best of the ones Kee showed us during her lecture was a video clip from a remake of the Shakespearean play “King Lear.”  In typical style for Wong, the play was redone from the classical western style of the original and made into a distinctly asian experience.  Kee described how his use of traditional asian forms of theater, like Japanese Noh and Hong Kong opera, changed the meaning of the play itself and the way that viewers perceive the story based on cultural stereotypes.  It is through these cultural “mix ups” that Kee believes Wong uses his art to examine the differences between ethnic and gender groups, and why she calls her lecture about Ming Wong “Cultural Studies.”
Seeing the videos was by far the most effective way to experience Wong’s pieces, as screen shots do not really capture the feeling and complete setting of the scenes, which are deliberate and carefully planned by Ming. Kee’s use of videos was a very effectual way of illustrating her points and thesis about Wong’s work, and watching them with someone who has studied them extensively and can point out small details I would have ordinarily missed.

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