MING WONG, Life and Death in Venice, 2009–10, production still, in which the artist is applying makeup to become one of the film’s characters Tadzio. Courtesy the artist.

Making Career Movies

Singapore Italy

Ming Wong’s entry for the Singapore Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, Life of Imitation (2009), presented a multiethnic cast of cross-dressing actors reenacting iconic film scenes from Hollywood director Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) and Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). Employing the hypnotic formal fracture of homage and repetition, Wong exploited the intense and equally formal melodrama of those two films to raise questions about cultural pluralism and categories of national identity, race and gender. For his efforts, the 39-year-old artist earned Singapore a “Special Mention,” the Biennale jury’s second-highest prize and a first for his country since it began participating in the festival in 2001. Wong likened the honor to a “big homecoming,” in that it represented the approval and embrace of the powerful insiders of the international art world. Yet, if gaining international visibility and recognition in Venice marks a peak in an artist’s career, where does the artist go from there? How will Venice influence Wong’s creative trajectory? What will his future look like? Standing in that transient place between self-congratulation and anxiety, between private nostalgia and public scrutiny, what pose does one strike? 

Haunted by these questions, Wong returned to Venice before the Biennale’s close to film a new work in the city that has inspired countless artists before him. While there, he focused on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice, and its 1971 film adaptation by Italian director Luchino Visconti. An outgrowth of his three-month stay in the city, Wong’s latest exercise in artistic quotation, Life and Death in Venice (2010), must also be read as a therapeutic autobiographical investigation. 

Death in Venice follows its aging protagonist Dr. von Aschenbach, a composer with a declining career, as he struggles to reconcile his life’s triumphs and failures. On a recuperative sojourn to Venice, he meets and pursues a teenage muse, Tadzio, the redemptive symbol of eternal beauty and incorruptible youth whose existence affirms the older man’s mortality. The impossible distance between them is never resolved, and Aschenbach takes his secret longing for Tadzio to the grave. Paced by nonlinear scenes, Visconti’s surreal set portrays the leisurely decadence of this holiday destination. An atmosphere of dream-like drift is tinted with feverish overtones of death, sickness and decay. There is minimal dialogue between characters, and the actors’ expressions and outfits emphasize a mood of muted rumination and emotional precariousness.

Wong’s Life and Death in Venice similarly juxtaposes dream and realism, but replaces the rich narrative imagery and elaborate set of Death in Venice with contemporary versions of tangible and intangible existences that speak to the artist’s particular current concerns. “We [as viewers and followers of the two characters] are projected into an unidentifiable space and time,” Wong told ArtAsiaPacific. “Mann intersperses action with interior monologues, whereas Visconti intersperses the film with flashbacks and additional scenes,” he explains. “I wanted to exploit these formal devices by sculpting scenes around the Biennale to create a space for reflection. I wanted the audience to develop von Aschenbach’s mindset.” In his new work Wong plays both von Aschenbach and Tadzio, and by traveling around Venice in their shoes he creates a mediating space between his previous and current work in one synonymous time—that of being caught inconclusively in-between. He sees through the eyes of innocent youth and impotent old age, and looks for an existence somewhere between them.

The opening shot features the closed doorway of the Singapore Pavilion, where small bags of trash lie discarded next to lacerated Life of Imitation posters. As Tadzio, Wong is seen tunneling through the lengths of videotape forming Zilvinas Kempinas’ TUBE (2009) in the Lithuania Pavilion, enjoying simple pleasures. In the Arsenale exhibition space, von Aschenbach revels in Paul Chan’s Sade for Sade’s Sake (2009), the evocative silhouettes of the projection subtly recalling the erotic, categorically adult shadowplay cast in Death in Venice. The older man peeps out from behind a pillar in Ragnar Kjartansson’s painting-studio-inspired installation, located just a floor below Wong’s showcase at the Singapore Pavilion. These are the artist’s peers and—literally, at the Biennale—his competitors. He walks among them, as this divided personality, to find his place. 

Venice presents itself, in Life and Death in Venice, as both a romantic dreamscape and a backdrop to the underlying currents of expectation intensified by the Biennale. Facades of authenticity and history in the tourist destination surge alongside the originality and freshness created especially for the Biennale, juxtaposing nostalgia and contemporaneity. Wong shot inside the historic interior of the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido—where Thomas Mann himself had resided—one week before its two-year closure for conversion into a series of luxury apartments. The richness of the hotel’s Palladian facade and belle-époque interior are soon to be altered irrevocably, erasing both history and the art history it has inspired. Wong’s von Aschenbach is glimpsed outside the hotel, walking against the cold wind and rain on a deserted, out-of-season beach, now a heavily boarded construction site, the beach huts despondently locked up. As modernity churns forward in search of perpetual change and regeneration, what are an artist’s efforts worth, and how long will they last? 

Life and Death in Venice debuted at Berlin’s Invaliden 1 Gallery in February 2010. Classical music greeted the viewer in an empty reception area. Two Perspex screens, as if transparent paintings, hung in mid-air, facing each other with projections of Aschenbach and Tadzio. The pursuer and the pursued, two versions of Wong, continually changed places as the screens faded in and out at arbitrary speeds, placing the viewer in an interminable cycle of desire, mortality and consumption that embodied Wong’s Venice experience.

On a third screen, partitioned off at the rear end of the gallery, Wong appeared, uncostumed, as himself, playing the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, known popularly as the theme from Death in Venice. While Wong performed on the piano, gaining confidence as he sight-reads a transcription of the piece, it becomes clear that acting out the roles of von Aschenbach and Tadzio in the city that brought him his greatest success has been a necessary rite of passage toward a sublimated return to a sense of self. Wordlessly expressing Mann’s description of von Aschenbach, who explores the “bearing and scope of one’s sentiments,” Life and Death in Venice points toward a “consciousness of a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest.” Just as the final scene of Death in Venice depicts Aschenbach’s dying vision of the elusive Tadzio wading into the glittering sea outstretched before him, it is a sea of possibilities that Wong vaults towards with his newest aesthetic aspirations.