Somewhere Under the Rainbow in Ming Wong’s Biji Diva

Ming Wong, BIJI DIVA!, 2011/2013. Video of performance at „In Transit Festival“, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Two channel video installation. Video still. Courtesy: the artist, carlier | gebauer, Berlin and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou

Who is there left to for fans of celebrities to idolise? As teen dream Justin Bieber turns into more of a parody of himself every day, who still remembers Beatlemania? And where did it all go wrong?

There’s a sense of nostalgia for these bygone days of celebrity idolisation in Singaporean contemporary artist Ming Wong’s current exhibition at Carlier Gebauer, Bülent Wongsoy: Biji Diva!. The first time that all works in this project have been collected together, the exhibition makes an installation out of Wong’s role play of Bülent Ersoy, Turkish transwoman singer. Photos (created for sleek #31, in fact), video installations and found objects all feature in the show, though the main room of the gallery is taken over by the video of the artist performing songs as Ersoy throughout the stages of her career, at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2011.

This project is entirely in keeping with the artist’s aim of taking on characters he feels a connection to (a book of newspaper clippings about the singer sits in the antechamber of Carlier Gebauer, collected by Wong). We might think of his replaying of the Fassbinder film Angst Essen, where he plays all the roles, regardless of gender, nationality, age and so on, using only his approximate German. What does it matter that he can’t sound, or even look, like the original?

His target this time is Bülent Ersoy. She is a pop diva, a household name in Turkey. She took to the stage in her youth as man, as well as while undergoing transition, and later on as a grand dame of Turkish pop music, who just happens to have kept her male forename throughout her career. Though exiled for a period to Germany due to political change in Turkey in the early Eighties, she has been successful for the duration of her life, as evidenced by the vast amounts of memorabilia – cassettes, record sleeves and posters – in the exhibition.

Alongside these material ephemera of Ersoy’s career are reproductions made by Wong, emblazoned with “Bülent Wongsoy”. Having gone to some lengths to imitate the singer, Wong’s collection of covers fit together as a whole, with no distinction other than the change in name to signal which is artist-made and which is an original. It’s as if, fooled by the strong graphical signifiers of font, photography, stylisation, we forget that Ming Wong is an Asian man who looks nothing like Bülent Ersoy. These barriers – the social categories that Wong seemingly ignores – are what make the performance so compelling. We are constantly reminded of what is “wrong” with the presentation.

We also see this in action in the “rehearsal room” space in Carlier Gebauer – here we find recordings of Wong learning to sing. He was a bad singer to begin with, apparently, and learning to sing in the classical Turkish style is, well, a challenge. Wong lays bare these barriers to “authentic” performance, questioning their usefulness.

At the entrance of the exhibition is an arch with a neon rainbow overhead. The reference is to a Turkish idiom that calls transitioning to a different gender “going under the rainbow”. Indeed, once you’ve watched things through Ming Wong’s eyes, it’s hard to go back.

Bülent Wongsoy: Biji Diva! is on display at Carlier Gebauer from March 8 to April 19 2014.

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