An interview with artist Ming Wong, the lead artist behind Wayang Spaceship at Singapore Art Museum
On 13 Jul, a different kind of ship docked at Tanjong Pagar Distripark.
Named Wayang Spaceship, its set-up of reflective panels, metal pipes, and shiny plastic sheets seems to contemplate the constant activity of a bustling seaport in the daytime. But stay until sundown, and you will witness it transform from an innocuous silver contraption into a futuristic Chinese theatre.
A brainchild of Berlin-based multidisciplinary artist Ming Wong, Wayang Spaceship is one of the few public artworks commissioned by The Everyday Museum, which is a long-term initiative led by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) to bring art into everyday spaces. Its main mission is to cultivate public interest and curiosity in art by transforming lived, communal spaces in Singapore into cultural nodes.
Made possible with the generous support of Sun Venture, the art installation is a science fiction reimagination of Chinese opera dreamed up by Wong and brought to life by a network of builders and artisans that include master stage-builder Lee Beng Seng, architect Randy Chan, and artist Liam Morgan.
Melding elements of Chinese opera and Chinese science fiction, the installation showcases the convergence between two seemingly disparate genres. The focus of this mixed-media project is the hybrid film projected onto the screen at its centre. The film depicts the journey of a scholar-warrior figure, understood to be an avatar of Wong himself, as he moves through and within time.
Lead artist Wong, known for his video installations centred on reinterpretations of iconic films where he miscasts himself in various roles, was trained in Chinese calligraphy at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Upon graduation, he enrolled in The Slade School of Fine Art in London, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in Fine Art Media. After 10 years in London, he moved to Berlin where he currently lives and works.
In 2009, he became the first Singaporean artist to be awarded a Special Mention (Expanding Worlds) at the 53rd Venice Biennale for his solo exhibition titled Life of Imitation.
The A List spoke to Wong about his inspiration for Wayang Spaceship, the creative process behind the installation, and what audiences can take away from it.
What was the inspiration behind Wayang Spaceship?
When SAM launched its public art project, The Everyday Museum, I was drawn to the vista of the container port terminal behind the building, towards to sea, as this is how my forefathers from China travelled to Singapore.
It was also the way Chinese street opera arrived in Singapore, often presented at temples at the coast, as a way to give thanks for safe passages across the seas.
In a way, to think about the future, I wanted to reconnect with these routes of civilisation and culture dissemination. Wayang Spaceship is a way of looking forward through the past.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the process behind the installation, from conceptualisation to realisation?
As a witness to the loss of some of our particularities of cultural identity, linked to dialect groups and regional culture, I have been researching the history of Cantonese opera – including a period of innovation with technology because of the advent of cinema and the rise of urban centres of Diasporic South Chinese immigrants in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, the United States of America, etc. The wayang stage has stood by through multiple eras of change, as though a portal of time travel.
To reimagine the future of Chinese identity through the 20th century, I looked at futurist perspectives from the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc cinema and aesthetics, connecting it to the vibrant hybridisation and boldness of expression of Cantonese opera cinema catering to cosmopolitan, forward-looking immigrant societies.
To create Wayang Spaceship, our team combined traditional and contemporary knowledge, aesthetics, and materials. For example, in the collaboration with Mr Lee Beng Seng, the master wayang stage builder who inherited his knowledge and materials from his late father who used to make a living from building wayang stages in its heyday, and also with architect Randy Chan to develop a contemporary framework for a non-traditional scenography on the wayang stage.
There are also collaborators who worked on the installation’s lighting, sound, and moving image aspects. We made numerous tests both in the studio as well as on-site to react to the 24/7 environment of the container port terminal that changes throughout the day.
When it comes to your art, what are the most important elements in the interaction between the viewer and your art?
These days, I think one needs to be confused and confounded by an artwork for it to be really effective. It should not be something that can be ‘captured’ with your smartphone or consumed so carelessly.
It may not make any sense immediately; it could take its own time.
“[An artwork] should trigger intangible or contradictory feelings, memories, and desires, inspire dialogue and debate, give one pause for reflection, and have different effects on different audiences. It should change according to the time of the day, where you are standing or according to the mood you are in that day. It should speak to a child as much as to an adult.”
If you could move your Wayang Spaceship anywhere within Singapore, without worrying about permits or permissions, where would you want it to land?
It should travel to different communities and environments. The most rarefied setting would be a forest or ‘countryside’, where it could be overgrown by plants over a period of time.
What do you want audiences to walk away with from this installation?
The one-way mirror surfaces of the stage set are like larger versions of smartphone screens that wake up only after dark – like a communal portal to a space for reflection. It is still basically the function of theatre, in the street. A spectacle to take you away for a moment on a journey to a different time and space, like a reflection of life.
It doesn’t matter if you ever experienced a traditional street wayang or have never seen one. It’s a public intervention with light, sound, and moving images that is a metaphorical connection between the past and the future.
What’s in the future for Ming Wong? Any upcoming projects we can look forward to?
I am interested in the continually evolving relationship between America and China, which would define much of the events for the next decade. I wonder how and where we can locate ourselves as part of a diasporic community and how we can handle how others perceive us. Everything is more and more connected, even though relations between nations are at risk of coming apart. How should we perform the best version of ourselves?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.