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Ming Wong’s Imitations


The article "Ming Wong's Imitations" analyzes the installation Life of Imitation, created by visual artist Ming Wong for the Singapore Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Life of Imitation restages a key scene from Douglas Sirk's 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life, in which the African American character Annie visits her daughter Sarah Jane who is passing as white. In Wong's restaging three male actors from different ethnic groups in Singapore reenact the scene, but switch roles at every cut. The article traces the shifts from the original literary source, Fannie Hurst's 1933 Imitation of Life to John M. Stahl's 1934 film of the same title to Sirk's version. Emphasizing melodrama's organizing structure of "too late," I show how Sirk shifted the melodramatic emphasis from the white mother/daughter pair's romantic conflict to the African American mother/daughter pair's racial conflict. Addressing the question whether such a shift implies a progressive politics, I turn to the contentious discussion of Sirk's earlier film work in Weimar and Nazi Germany, pointing to ideological and formal continuities.

In contrast to these significant shifts in the different instantiations of the text, I propose that the different versions share the subordination and disavowal of ethnic difference in order to construct a racial binary, which then becomes the setting of the passing narrative organized around the 'tragic mulatta'. I illustrate my argument with the instances of ethnic passing of the writers, directors, and actors involved in the different versions of the text. However, I also show the appeal of racial passing narratives can have for a gay camp imagination, identification, and appropriation. I conclude the article with a discussion of Wong's double move in Life of Imitation of returning ethnic bodies that have been excised from the original diegesis to their significance and appropriating the gendered melodrama through cross-dressing. After a survey of the term "remediation" as it emerged from the discussion of new media, I show that Wong's piece belongs to a group of works by visual artists who remake film in digital media in the environment of the art space. I conclude with reading the effect of rotating the actors at each cut, which does not subvert spatial and temporal continuity, but challenges spectators' perception of ethnicity and gender, and produces unstable identities.


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