One of the best things I saw while in Los Angeles was Ming Wong’s Making Chinatown at REDCAT. The Singapore-born, Berlin-based artist turned the gallery space into a fake studio back lot and projected pivotal scenes which he’d re-shot from Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown. Multiple videos play on large-format print stills that have been captured from the original film. They are mounted onto plywood facades of various sizes throughout the installation. The result is a layout references set design for theatre and film but also contemporary painting and sculpture.
Filmed completely in the REDCAT space, the videos consist of scenes where Wong plays Chinatown’s main characters himself. He is Jack Nicholson as the detective J.J. Gittes, Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Mulwray, Mrs. Mulwray’s daughter Katherine and her billionaire father played by John Huston. Sometimes the artist is in bed with himself or caught arguing with himself in the role of another. It’s pretty complicated and somehow Wong plays it subtly, tongue and check nods to the original film.
All of the roles are connected by blood, sex or (unspeakably) both. Here Wong talks about the project:
Ming Wong is of Chinese descent and this is what I found most interesting about the installation especially once I got home and re-watched the original. In Polanski’s film we never actually see Chinatown till the final scene and even then it is empty of people except for the actors. But the place is constantly referred to as dark foreboding evil, a sentiment that seems to link the otherness of the space to an inherent immorality. Most of the movie takes place in LA’s downtown offices, Hollywood homes or the Valley’s orange groves. When we actually see Chinatown, the streets and buildings become characters in the same mysterious way that Chinatown has been referenced throughout the film.
Most of the domestic workers in the film are Asian and seem to hold some importance to the family’s mystery but their connection is never truly revealed or discussed. The references to Chinatown in a film set in the 1930s reflect a type of racism that was prevalent in LA and the West Coast not only in the period of the film but when the film itself was being made in the 1970s and beyond. The history of race relations with Asians and Asian-Americans in the US ranges from the troublesome Japanese internment camps of WWII, the influx of railroad workers in the 19th century as America worked its way out West, and even the not so subtle stereotypes seen in this commercial for Calgon from the 70s.
So when Ming Wong plays the roles of the white actors in a film that seems to be related to Chinatown’s supposed incest, corruption and scandal, he erases all obvious racial differences. But by erasing them, he makes them more evident. Wong proposes an investigation of racial, ethnic AND gender identity – pretty interesting for a non-American’s analysis of Los Angeles history.
Wong’s gesture of reenactment (a fiction about a fiction, based on partial truths) is very much tied to the history of Los Angeles as a place of artifice. It is a place where dreams are promised and seldom rewarded. It is a desert that can bloom into paradise, if given enough water. It is place that is made of and about film. Walking through Wong’s installation, we feel like we are walking through a city and a medium where race, gender and space itself have the potential for change.
Making Chinatown is up through Sunday, April 1, 2012.