Art Much as we can agree that the new Open Eye Gallery at Mann Island has an infinitely superior display space, I’ve really missed its old haunt on Wood Street which was just in the right place for popping into during my weekly walk down Bold Street, especially since its programme tended to change with greater regularity than FACT up the road. So I’m very pleased Liverpool Biennial’s chosen to inhabit the old building for a few months and with a piece which is just the sort of thing which used to appear here, oddly covering similar themes to the Open Eye’s own official exhibit in 2010. But it is just a shell with the offices at the back turned into display spaces, fulfilling the same kind of display function as the Europleasure/Scandinavian Hotel or the Wood Street garage back then.
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In the visually complex video work Making Chinatown, artist Ming Wong remakes or “swedes” key scenes from Roman Polanski’s film with himself in all of the main roles as Jack Nicholson, Fay Dunaway, John Huston and Diane Ladd, all in costume in sets that recreate the original locations with some digital augmentation. Fans of the film will instant recognise these moments, but it’s worth adding that if you haven’t seen Chinatown yet (what is wrong with you?) that it’s best ignored until you have because Wong’s work is laced with plot spoilers and definitely gives away the ending. Happily because I’ve seen too many films, I was instantly absorbed and marvelling at Wong’s ingenuity in reproducing John A. Alonzo and Stanley Cortez’s camera work especially with the requirement of being in the same scene as himself.
Luckily for me, Wong has himself written a very lucid explanation as to the underlying themes of the work. As he explains, he’s reacting to the pulp fiction of the 1950s which utilised oriental settings for its detective stories, from the Fu Manchu novels through to screen portrayals in the likes of The Lady of Shanghai, The Big Sleep and Mysterious Mr Wong. But this kind of nod to “the other” stretches back even further than that to Edwardian fiction and the works of Conan Doyle amongst others (there an excellent Matthew Sweet documentary about the topic in relation to Limehouse in London on the newer dvd release of Doctor Who’s The Talons of Weng Chiang, itself a homage to these kinds of fictions). Of course it’s notable that the majority of the later neo-noir isn’t actually set in Chinatown, which has greater mystical significance.
But Wong’s homage works because he’s noticeably a very good actor himself and goes out of his way to provide decent performances throughout without direct impressions of the originals, he doesn’t offer us his Nicholson, preferring instead to supply his interpretation within certain limits. After a while it becomes apparent that he’s purposefully holding up a mirror to how Caucasian actors might have approached playing characters of oriental descent in 1950s albeit without the kinds of gross stereotyping committed by the producers of the film version of The Mask of Fu Manchu or later in the Mr Wong or Charlie Chan series (and arguably Michael Spice in the aforementioned Who story thankfully “explained away” because he’s playing an alien in disguise) (sorry, is that a spoiler?).
A display area at the back has original posters advertising some of these films and its impossible not to grimace at what used to be the norm in Hollywood. As the wikipedia’s thorough history demonstrates, there are still a few rare instances of similar tactics, but more regularly yellowing up tends to be utilised to comment on past stereotyping or most often a previously Asian character being written to accommodate a Caucasian actor perhaps most outrageously in 21, a true story of an incident which happened to an all Asian group of people all of whom were recast as other ethnicities. Wong’s work is a timely reminder that however much we might think our sensibilities have been enlightened, if we’re not careful we’ll simply create a different mistake by remove the Asian image out of the picture altogether.