Study for Ming Wong’s Making Chinatown (2012)
The Future Projections series is a fantastic idea that has never managed to sit entirely comfortably within the broader world of the Toronto International Film Festival. On the one hand, having a corner of TIFF devoted to experimental film, and art that uses film as a medium, and harnessing the concentration of people that TIFF attracts to highlight such work seems naturally smart. On the other hand, the film festival has long since grown into its own particular animal — or more appropriately, its own particular zoo. And that zoo of publicists and parties and glitz and celebrity, of industry deals and schmoozy networking, does not provide the best accommodation for experimental, sometimes abstruse, artistic experimentation. But it is a relatively new program (it’s only been around since 2007), and so there’s time yet to figure out how best to integrate this odd little creature into the menagerie of hype that TIFF has come to represent.
I took a gander at the Future Projections program, and settled on the following three installations to sample:
Luther Price at the CONTACT Gallery. Any didactic statement that begins by telling me that an artist is best known for something else always makes me nervous; it’s a dubious gambit to bait an audience on the merit of work not included in the show. Price is known as an experimental formalist filmmaker: experimental Super 8 films and handmade/hand-processed 16mm found-footage collages/reconstructions. The work that’s on display at the CONTACT Gallery is neither: here, Price is represented by his work with glass slides.
Handmade experimental film is a relatively immense field of study, and one that I’m not at all familiar with. This is not to say that the work here is lost on me; merely that I approach it from another angle entirely. I view the work at the CONTACT Gallery as its own artistic entity, rather than a reference to or an extension of a film practice. And yet, to be perfectly honest, as I sat with Number 9 and Number 9 II, I began to wish they were films.
These slide shows of hand-altered filmstrips exposed onto glass slides are the main focus of the exhibition. One is mostly formal — dots and dashes and lines, with the occasional recognizable form (dead insects, mostly) — and the other is of a toddler walking along a beach shore, the image distorted, swelling and pooling in abstract blobs, and reforming again. They images represented within these two processions are unquestionably gorgeous, embracing the aesthetics of desiccation and disintegration. But I think, if there’s a point to be made with these images — for instance, a meditation on the material disappearance of a powerful mass-medium — it would be more effectively transmitted as a film projection, rather than a series of repetitive slides.
Moreover, the show suffers from poor installation. The two slide shows are projected in the same room, and the ambient light from each slightly washes out the other. Some slides are scattered about a light table, with no magnifying glass available to examine them more closely. What good is all this finely wrought handiwork if I can’t actually see it in any detail?
Ming Wong at the Gladstone Hotel. I first encountered Ming Wong at the 2009 Venice Biennale, where he represented Singapore. He created an ersatz cinema, where he screened his appropriations of In the Mood for Love and Imitation of Life. Wong recreates these movies, casting himself in all the central roles, thereby shifting the meanings of their central themes. For Future Projections, he has recreated key scenes (and publicity posters) from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and he plays all the main roles: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and Belinda Palmer.
All the artificiality of his recreations are highlighted — sets and props consist of printed facades glued onto plywood, costumes are decidedly of the thrift-store variety — but Ming Wong’s performances, though stilted, are nevertheless genuine, straight-faced; no sly winks or mockery of any kind. It’s just as much a dedicated homage as it is a deconstruction. In Ming Wong’s deft, sly hands, all of the troublesome gender and racial politics of the film come to the fore. There’s something profoundly strange in hearing the pillow talk between two Asian men — the same Asian man, one in drag as a femme fatale, one in drag as a hyper-masculine sleazy gumshoe — talk about the orientalist dangers and mysteries of the mythically debauched Chinatown, or re-tell an awful joke about how a “Chinaman” fucks. It’s a glorious game of reference and cross-reference, the themes of the film simultaneously enmeshed in and picked apart by Ming Wong’s multiple performances. As one of the peripheral characters tells Ming Wong, his nose in stitches, after he’s watched himself get shot in the face trying to kidnap himself in the passenger seat: “Come on, Jake — it’s Chinatown.”
Peaches at the Drake Hotel. The show at the Drake was meant as both a response to and a reflection on the genderfucking rock star’s new rock-musical biopic, Peaches Does Herself, which premiered at TIFF. The show was split into various “scenes” — Berlin performer Mignon clad in a black leather get-up, doing a biker chick cover of “Lovertits” on the Drake Sky Yard; a laser-light show with Peaches herself (including her band the Sweet Machine, stripper-comedienne Sandy Kane, transsexual performance artist Danni Daniels, and the Fatherfucker dancers) in the lounge; and a rave-up in the Drake’s basement, with opening act the Jolly Goods, and the whole rest of the crew in tow.
There were some hiccups — for one, the entire procession, from sky-yard to basement, took about two and a half hours, with a lot of waiting around and room capacity troubles in-between. To be perfectly honest, I expected something a bit more controversial, although I guess it says something about the circles I travel in where a bib made of silk boobs and naked transsexual dancing onstage seems a fun par for the course.
There were some great moments, notably at the end of the lounge performance, when the lasers were going full blast and all the dancers were going wild in the windows; it seemed joyfully reminiscent of Paula Abdul’s video for “Cold-Hearted,” crossed with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And in the end, the Peaches performance, while it was less arty and more of a straightforward rock show, suggested how best to make the Future Projections more at home in maw of TIFF: embrace the spectacle; go big or go home.
Sholem Krishtalka is the Toronto Standard’s art critic.