WONG HOY CHEONG, Re:Looking, 2002, video still, video: 27 min. Courtesy Eslite Gallery, Taipei.

WONG HOY CHEONG, Doghole, 2010, video still, video: 22 min. Courtesy Eslite Gallery, Taipei.

“Days of Our Lives”

Wong Hoy Cheong

Eslite Gallery
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

What comes after postcolonialism? The Guangzhou Triennial of 2008, “A Farewell to Post-Colonialism,” declared it was time to stop thinking about the movement purely in terms of military force, which underpinned the political struggle for sovereignty in the writings of its seminal thinkers, such as Edward Said and Frantz Fanon. It seems it is time to update the paradigm. 

Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong offers a reinvigorated set of postcolonial concerns in his miniretrospective, “Days of Our Lives,” which includes a diverse body of work produced over the past dozen years encompassing photography, short film, video art and sculptural installation. 

For Wong, the struggle for sovereignty, self-determination and identity is no longer purely political. While it still retains elements of class struggle, he admits new factors into the field, namely culture and media. In two photographic series, “Maid in Malaysia” (2008) and “Chronicles of Crime” (2006), he seeks to establish a Malaysian identity within the language of global pop culture, which he aims to convey mainly using the iconography and aesthetic of Hollywood films. These are Hollywood-style tableaus in which average—i.e. not very rich—Malaysians pose as protagonists in simulated film stills. In Supergirl, Joan of Arc, Lara Croft and others from the “Maid” series, Malaysian maids in uniform pose as the titular heroines of the silver screen. On the other hand, “Chronicles of Crime” presents Malaysia-fied takes on film noir and gangster crime dramas. If we are to view Wong’s work as a struggle against Hollywood’s cultural hegemony, these make a stronger statement because they are not directly dependent on the Western icons of the other series.

Meanwhile, Wong’s video works develop this new postcolonialist thinking from the angle of historical justice. The 27-minute Re:Looking (2002) is a mockumentary-style TV-news feature that presents Austria as the former colony of a once globally powerful Malaysian empire. Twenty-first-century Austria is long-since “independent,” but economic disparities mean that Austrian migrant laborers must return to the empire’s center—Kuala Lumpur, Penang and other Malaysian metropolises—where they eke out minimum-wage livelihoods and appear as simpletons who practice humble folk traditions. The video is very funny, but once you get the joke, it is easy to disengage. 

The short film Doghole (2010) is much more compelling. Based on an interview with a survivor of a World War II Japanese concentration camp, the film presents a powerful reenactment of the man’s experiences in camps that killed off 80,000 Malaysians. Part historical and part magical realist, the video is reconstructed from the survivor’s experience and was beautifully filmed in a small town north of Kuala Lumpur. The audio, taken from recorded interviews, is in the man’s own voice.

Wong’s photos and videos are easy to read, but his conceptual and installation works require the explanations of artist statements or elaborate captions—and it is hard to call this quality in a work desirable. Tapestry (1998–2004) is a collection of 15,000 thumbprints quilted into one long roll of paper, suspended in the air and stretching the length of a gallery. It is meant as a protest against Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite arbitrary detention.

Wong is consistently clever and always on “the right side”—that of the marginalized—but aside from Doghole, it is difficult to find real pathos and anything more than ironic or bourgeois identification with his subjects. His artistic ego is always very much in play, so despite the interesting things that Wong has to say, one frequently ends up reading them as statements by Wong Hoy Cheong, rather than compelling revelations or necessary truths. According to one recent interview, his next project may be a feature-length zombie movie. That seems more in the right direction.

Massimo de Carlo David Zwirner ARNDT