Cantonese opera has always fascinated Ming Wong and when he was a student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the Singaporean artist researched wayang (or street opera), which led him to write several plays in English, including Wayang Sayang, which tells of a fading wayang actress facing a mid-life crisis and reflecting on the struggles of her work and her art form.
Today, the artist, who represented Singapore at the 2009 Venice Biennale, is best known for his role-playing in his videos that engage with world cinema while dealing with issues of identity as he casts himself in roles both female and male in well-known films like Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic, Chinatown, and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). Nevertheless, his interest in Chinese opera has endured and the Berlin-based artist often reflects on the concept of “future” in Chinese modernity.
Having first studied how Cantonese opera went from stage to screen and how the innovations of cinema have affected contemporary stage performances, he has recently started to explore the role of Cantonese opera in today’s rapidly changing world.
With Windows on the World, he created a spaceship-like “tunnel” leading to a looped video that shows him in a spacesuit moving as if weightless in space to the tune of the Cantonese opera aria Princess ZhaoJun on the Border. Meanwhile, in the experimental live-performance Looking at the Stars, he referenced Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and fused elements of sci-fi and Cantonese opera. More recently his installation at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Scenography for a Chinese Science Fiction Opera, blended the aesthetics of a spaceship with traditional cloud patterns based on the Chinese cosmology, allowing visitors to walk through an unusual universe that seemed oddly familiar.
“I started researching the historical relationship between Cantonese opera and cinema in 2013. It led me to question if this meeting of media of tradition and technology could be extended to ponder the question of the future, with the rise of China in the international arena. In these works I am exploring the legacy and future of diasporic Chinese culture, and its relationship with an ever-changing mainland China and its increasing influence on the global stage,” Ming Wong says.
For a new work he will present at the Busan Biennale in Korea from September 8 to November 11, Ming Wong continues to reflect on the unlikely relationship between Cantonese opera, cinema and science fiction, as he looks at the “mothership” of wayang, tracing the histories of Cantonese opera troupes from the early days travelling on ships along the coast of southern China to performances, initially on bamboo theatres and then modern theatres, and finally the meeting of Cantonese opera and cinema.
“I’ll be looking at the persistence, survival and projection of the future of Cantonese opera as an act of resilience and resistance,” he shares.