Berlin-based Singaporean artist Ming Wong is known for his expanded personas. Through characters drawn from popular cinema, he hybridizes cinematic space and the ways its history is written. His ‘impostors’, as he calls his characters, bear unsettled gender, race and language and carve disruptions within the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Roman Polanski, Douglas Sirk and Wong Kar-wai, among others. An avid film viewer, Wong discloses himself as someone who dreams and fantasizes through the medium. His productions sensitively script intimate spaces for his response and identification.
In 2010 he embarked on an in-depth project researching the life and work of Turkey’s controversial and glamorous transgender film and pop star, Bülent Ersoy – an unknown figure for many in Germany, where she lived and worked for a time. Wong’s diligent research and production culminated in the portmanteau personification of ‘Bülent Wongsoy’, the focus of his recent show at carlier | gebauer, Berlin.
Entering Bülent Wongsoy: Biji Diva!, the viewer had to pass under an illuminated rainbow, part of the installation Maksim (2014). On one side of this a floor-to-ceiling wallpaper print showed the crumbling ruin of Maksim Gazinosu theatre being used as a car park before its demolition in 2012. The former theatre in Istanbul’s Taksim Square was one where Ersoy used to perform and the wallpaper served as an apt metaphor for Ersoy’s fight for recognition three decades ago. Opposite, a short video compilation of films starring Bülent Ersoy acted as a timeline of Ersoy’s transition from man to woman.
Ersoy holds a special place in Turkish queer history. Now known as ‘Diva’, film star and singer Ersoy was banned from performing on stage by the military regime in the 1980s, who refused to recognize her as a woman following her gender reassignment surgery in 1981. As a result, she spent a considerable time in Germany, acting in Turkish films that were shot there. Before passing to the main exhibition space a folder of news clippings from various Turkish newspapers and magazines showed an archive of Ersoy’s fraught history.
Bülent Wongsoy first performed as part of the In Transit festival at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2011 with three songs about hope, joy and despair sung in Turkish. In this performance, Wong showed a video of himself enacting episodes from Ersoy’s life, which he shot in Istanbul, as well as one scene with his own mother shot in Kreuzberg Berlin in 2011. In the exhibition, the video documentation of the performance and the filmed enactments became a two-channel video installation, ‘Biji Diva!’ (Part 1) (2011), which also served as an intimate staging of Wong’s own transformation. Yuz Karası (2014) exemplified this: a hair piece made of unwound cassette tapes by Ersoy – the cassettes strewn on the floor below – waved in the wind of a fan, evoking a singer’s dressing room. Numerous record covers displayed on the opposite corner of the gallery showed Bülent Wongsoy – some showing him wearing the hair piece – reprising Ersoy’s own record covers. But a disruption to the convincing impersonation could be found in a dark room, where the viewer could listen to the singing lessons Wong took in classical Turkish music.
Although another floor-to-ceiling print Room Divider (2014) – cut into strips to form a curtain to the main exhibition space – of Wongsoy wearing a disco ball bra and silver wig would suggest otherwise, Biji Diva! didn’t just idolize Ersoy’s glam persona. Wongsoy’s homage lay predominately in the detailed research and collected materials on view. The artist raised awareness of the rough track that Ersoy has endured, behind the glamorous facade.