Mary Boone Gallery, May 21 – June 27, 2009
The slapstick performer, after skidding into a pratfall, always gives a wink to assure the audience that everything is okay. For all the strangeness she packs into her work, the performance and video artist Patty Chang never winks, allowing a merciless collision of hilarity, discomfort, and confusion to unfold. In early filmed performances, she seemed to be channeling Unica Zurn without the masochism, while adding a dark, unsettling combination of humor and embarrassment, always centered on the female body. She never focused on the fact that she is an Asian American woman, though she also never ignored it, which left some critics at a loss as what to say.
In Melons (At a Loss) (1999), after slicing open one side of her bra to reveal a cantaloupe, Chang methodically spoons out the fruit and eats it, while simultaneously balancing a dish on her head and telling a story about her aunt. In Eels (2001), she sits facing the camera, her face undergoing a gamut of emotions as wet eels squirm beneath her tight-fitting parochial white blouse. As in all of Chang’s work, the incongruity of elements and multiple viewpoints give the performance a chilling edge, while resisting reductive summations and overarching narratives. By recognizing identity as both a construction and imposition, Chang destabilizes its repressive, inhibiting forces in surprising ways.
By 2005, she had begun using the film medium to concentrate on exploring as well as choreographing collisions between East and West. For her film, Shangri-La (2005), Chang went to Zhongdian, a Chinese city near the Tibetan border. It had decided it could attract tourists by officially changing its name to Shangri-La (Xianggelila), the fictitious utopia dreamed up by James Hilton in his immensely popular, escapist novel Lost Horizon (1933), which Hollywood quickly adapted into a movie and later into a musical remake that deserves a Golden Turkey Award for one of the worst movies ever made. In both the book and film versions, the survivors of a plane crash are rescued by Tibetan monks and brought to the lamasery of Shangri-La, where peace, harmony, love, and long-life reign supreme. In one part of Shangri-La, Chang hires local photographers—whose main source of income seems to derive from staging faux-Hollywood wedding videos for western tourists—to document her “marriage” to a Caucasian. In scene after scene, Chang finds a way to frame the odd slippages of meaning and interpretation that are central to Zhongdian’s existence.
The springboard for her most recent work, The Product of Love (2008), a two-channel video projection, is the real-life meeting in Berlin of two iconic figures, the Hollywood film actress, Anna May Wong (1905-1961) and the German writer and translator, Walter Benjamin (1895-1942), whose essay “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is required reading in practically every art school. Full of staged translations and mistranslations, Chang’s film is a wild “porno”-inflected riff on Benjamin’s interview with Wong (think Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana meets the Three Stooges), which he wrote up for Die Literarische Welt. Wong was truly exotic and “Other” when she arrived in Berlin in 1928 to appear in Peter Eichberg’s film, Song (1929). According to Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Wong’s biographer, there were only thirty Chinese women in all of Berlin at the time, so it is more than likely the sophisticated Benjamin had never conversed or been alone with a Chinese woman when he met Wong. Along with working on the film, Wong, who was preternaturally gifted in languages, studied German eight hours a day, so that by the time she met Benjamin a few months after her arrival, she was able to converse comfortably with him in German. As Hodges aptly puts it, Benjamin “searched the boundaries of his poetic imagination to describe her.” It is clear from his text that he is totally smitten, particularly after Wong stretched out on a couch and rearranged her hair so that it resembled, in Benjamin’s words, “a dragon romping on water.”
Chang’s staging of this meeting is presented in two forms, each of which “explains” the other: the first—a short’s projection of three people (one man and two women, one of whom is Asian) translating Benjamin’s text into English (it is not included in his nearly 500 page Selected Writings, Volume 2, part 1, 1927-1930, published by Harvard University Press). The speakers are often flummoxed as they try to find the appropriate words, which can’t have been all that easy, given the dauntingly poetic nature of the prose. They also offer interpretations of their own translations, referring directly to an archived copy of Die Literarische Welt that is pasted into a large portfolio. Language is slowed down, broken apart, but not necessarily put back together in some easily consumable manner. As far as I can tell, we did not get the whole text, only snippets at a time, as the film goes from one translator to another, each of whom is in a different locale. The forward motion of this section of the film is continuously interrupted, as if language and reality are never in sync.
Once the short projection ends, a longer one begins on the opposite wall. In a rundown beauty parlor in China, the beauticians make over a Chinese woman to resemble Anna May Wong (she actually doesn’t, which is also part of Chang’s point) and then do the same for a Chinese man, who emerges looking like Walter Benjamin, complete with a wig of unruly hair and a moustache. The film switches to a room in which the action between “Wong” and “Benjamin” takes place, intercut with a subtitled sequence in an office where two men, speaking in Chinese, talk about the film, which they have been working on. There is an especially awkward and funny moment when one of the men struggles to remember the right phrase for a woman’s erogenous zone or, as he finally recalls (or so the subtitle tells us) after a number of tries, “G-spot.”
The encounter between actress and actor playing Wong and Benjamin is a truly weird mélange of narratives and overlays of meaning that cannot be easily sorted out. Chang is at her best when she favors density, risking confusion. Her reversal, where an Asian male playing “white face,” is made all the more grotesquely comic by Benjamin’s unintentional hyperventilating as he clutches Wong, clumsily trying to unzip her dress and cop a feel. They are supposed to be acting, yet they seemed truly uncomfortable with what they were doing. At one moment I felt like a voyeur watching two prim adults who had never dated anyone before suddenly being thrown into an erotic encounter. When they appeared to be improvising, actress and actor just seemed lost, but the “directed” moments were equally strange. After being instructed what to do by someone largely off-camera, the man kneels on the bed, and caressing the calf and kissing the foot of the woman who is pretending to be asleep or is simply so overcome with boredom that she refuses to acknowledge anything going on around her. Other incongruities include the man wearing a ridiculous pair of striped briefs while facing the camera, but buck naked when facing away.
After a while, the film supersedes its subject, like Charlie Parker playing his version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” More than the mistranslations that have and will continue to occur between East and West, the film conveys the sense that all communication between individuals is prone to misunderstanding, and that the absence of a common language dooms us to confusion, particularly in the realm of Eros and intimacy. Rather than taking sides in the discourse about relationships and power, Chang examines it from a fresh, disquieting perspective. Her ability to be simultaneously straightforward and strange is unrivaled by others working in performance and video. She never winks, letting us off the hook.