Ming Wong

SGP (1971). Lives and works in Berlin and Singapore.

Life of Imitation, 2009
Two-channel video installation, 13’ (loop)

Originally commissioned for the artist’s solo exhibition at the Singapore Pavilion of the 53rd Venice Biennale, this work is inspired by a scene from a classic melodrama by Douglas Sirk, Imitation of Life (1959), where a black mother meets her mixed-race daughter who has been running away from her true identity.

Ming reworks the pivotal scene in which the character Sarah Jane, who has abandoned her mixed-race background to pass as white, is visited for the last time by her black mother. The tearful farewell is a typically heart-wrenching Sirk moment, with Sarah Jane rejecting her mother at first and then holding her tight and weeping as her feelings take over. Ming replaces Sarah Jane and her mother with Chinese, Malay and Indian male actors from Singapore (representing the dominant racial groups in the country), who change from shot to shot so that the interpersonal dynamics continually shift.

The scene takes place in a hotel room, in the town where Sarah Jane is working as a chorus girl, under the assumed name Linda. Despite her protestations to the contrary, she can’t pretend to her mother that she is the white woman she has been passing herself off to be. In Ming’s version, none of the men are white either (nor black for that matter) and furthermore, are in drag: passing as women. Yet, as Judith Butler has argued, we can think of drag as a performance that “implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation. If this is true, it seems, there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.”