Wong Hoy Cheong, Re:Looking

In his video installation, the Malaysian artist stages the fictional history of Malaysia's 250-year-long colonial reign in Austria.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Dec 2004

At the last Venice Biennial in June 2003, the exhibition preview for the press was a torture. During the hottest days in Northern Italy since 200 years, in a crowd of experts, it was necessary to fight one’s way through displayed works whose number was greater than ever before. In the 10 main exhibitions alone, over 300 artists were represented. Not much from this overabundance survives in one’s memory. Among the works that made a deeper impression and held our interest was the video installation "Re:Looking" by Wong Hoy Cheong, in the "Z.O.U." show curated by Hou Hanru.

In "Re:Looking", Wong Hoy Cheong stages the fictional history of the colonial coming to power of Malaysia’s kingdom over Austria. The framework forms a (supposed) Malaysian, living room with middle-class furnishings in the present – that is, a "postcolonial" present. Everything on the walls and in the display cases, which at first glance seem familiar from the European perspective, becomes under closer inspection memory pieces, trophies, and "exotica" from the former alpine colony. Seen on the television is a documentary film by the broadcasting network MBC (Malaysian Broadcasting Corporation – also one of Wong’s inventions) on the aftermath of the Malaysian seize of power in postcolonial Austria. All of this seems so serious and convincing that, as an unprepared viewer, you still believe at first – watching the report on the early expeditions of Malaysian sailors – that your own knowledge of history is incomplete. Later, though, as the talk moves to how Malaysia’s royal family manages to establish itself as a colonial power in Europe, you do a double take and realize that here the colonial history is being satirized as an inverted fiction. A third element of this work by Wong Hoy Cheong is a website, likewise a documentary piece drawn from the objective standard of the MBC network’s "official" information.

In September 2004, "Re:Looking" was shown at the Alexander Ochs Gallery in Berlin, and the artist traveled to Berlin for the occasion. This gave us the opportunity to talk to Wong Hoy Cheong about his work, and we finally continued the discussion via E-mail:

Haupt & Binder: Whoever sees your fictional documentary on the Malaysian reign in Austria, might wonder what made you choose this European country in particular. At any rate, Austria never directly appeared in Asia as a colonial power, as for example Portugal, Great Britain, or the Netherlands, in which case it would seem plausible to get one’s revenge with this type of project. So why must you have, of all countries, one as small as Austria carry the weight for all the other colonial powers?

Wong Hoy Cheong: First of all, I was invited to develop a project with the Schauspielhaus and Theatre Ohne Grenzen, in Vienna. The project was about a rereading of Marco Polo. As I thought this through, I became interested in the possibility of somehow inverting the role of Marco Polo. Perhaps to a twenty-first-century version of Ibn Batutta [1] Later on, I thought, why just an explorer and traveler? All the symbiotic relationships between discoverers and colonialists are well documented. So what if I played the colonialist?

From that emerged the idea of Malaysia colonizing Austria over 200 years ago. But why Austria? For one thing, this is a small country and it hardly appears on the world map of the news. So fewer people really know the history of this country. It was better to choose a lesser-known country, as the video was dealing with rather large issues – for instance, colonialism. To have chosen iconic, colonial powers like Britain, Holland or Japan would have been a little too obvious. Nowadays not many people seem to realize that Austria, too, was an important colonial power; not so much overseas, but rather in Eastern and South-East Europe. But it was precisely through its colonial expansion that, up until World War I, the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy could be the second largest European state. [2]

Malaysia is a Muslim country. Historically speaking, Austria had a very tense relationship to Muslims. The Ottoman Empire failed twice at seizing Vienna. So what better phobia to provoke and undermine – as a "colonialist" – than to propose that Austria was colonized by Muslims over 200 years ago? Colonialism and even modern-day imperialism work in similar ways – so it doesn’t matter whether it was Britain, America, Austria, Japan, or somewhere else.

H&B: How has "Re:looking" developed since the "Marco Polo Wunderwelt" production at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna?

WHC: After being shown at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna as a screen projection, the first cut of "Re:Looking" was then shown again at the art museum Kunsthalle Wien on a television set placed on a pedestal. I didn’t feel at ease with the way it was presented. For me it was a documentary, a news broadcast that one watches at home in a living room space.

At the same time, the work was invited to the Venice Biennial by Hou Hanru (see photos 1), and we started discussing how to transform and expand the project. So a fictional living room was developed for it, with fake visual histories such as paintings, photographs, books, and other objects. Since the video "Re:Looking" was supposedly produced by the "Malaysian Broadcasting Corporation" (MBC), I thought I should also develop a fake MBC website. [www.relooking-mbc.com].

In terms of the video, the first cut was very different from what was shown in Venice (and later shown again in Austria, then in Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, and now in Kuala Lumpur). The first cut was less "news-like". It had longer takes and edits. I wanted a faster pace, a far more "newsy" feeling. So I re-shot many of the scenes in Austria and Malaysia, and probably the most crucial retake was of Arifwaran Shaharuddin (who co-directed many sequences) as the news reporter in a blue screen studio. That made the documentary more believable.

H&B: How did you work with the actors? Did you give them a script or were their answers improvised?

WHC: I developed concepts for all the characters. They played archetypes – such as migrants, sociologists, political commentators, culturally and mentally-colonized natives, angry post-colonialists, and other types. I asked Arifwaran Shaharuddin if he wanted to play the program’s interviewer and host. He was the only trained actor or performer in the work.

No one else was a professional an actor. And I wanted it that way. They had to be fresh, challenging. None of the "performers" in Austria had ever been to Malaysia. And I didn’t want to use scripts. It would be too difficult if untrained performers had to memorize lines and follow instructions from a script. It would also be rather unnatural, I thought. In my mind, improvisation was the best route and approach.

How we dealt with the entire filming process? First I briefed the interviewees on their characters. Then the team, 3 to 4 of us, would visit the interviewee. We would leave discussing the character and the interviewing process to Arifwaran. I would check on the location, on setting up, and everything else. The next day we would return, set up the space, ask the interviewee to get into the costume, and then just get to work. Arifwaran has a wonderful way of working with untrained actors. He could make a tense 13-year-old teenager feel relaxed, and also create the necessary tension with the interviewees who were actually university professors.

H&B: European viewers perceive strongest the irony or criticism directed at European colonizers. But are you also questioning aspects of Malaysian history and the current situation?

WHC: Yes, the work is meant to challenge how we perceive the real and the fake, and the perceived histories on both sides of the divide – the former "colonizer" and the "colonized". This is even more disconcerting for Malaysians. Some people found the "de-victimizing" of Malaysia's real history – of once being the colonized, the victim – politically incorrect. The experiences of fake "white" Austrian migrants who become abused and marginalized by Malaysians are amazingly similar to those of thousands of "black" migrant workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Burma, and other places. (There are about 2 million legal and illegal migrants working in Malaysia, the highest rate in Asia.) The two issues mentioned above were particularly disturbing for a few bureaucrats from an institution that I approached for support, when I was seeking sponsorship for reworking the project for Venice.

H&B: How does "Re:looking" relate to your earlier work or artistic research?

WHC: I think that "Re:looking" was in many ways the close of a chapter. It completed a body of work, a process of logical thought, and a working methodology that I had explored for about 10 years: the migrant issue, the colonial and post-colonial, and retrieving lost histories and politics – and also in terms of form and aesthetics, exploring new materials and media for making art, deconstructing visually and textually-authoritative forms, and the kind of ironic humor that lies between fact and fiction.

H&B: What are your currents plans?

WHC: I am taking a break. Then I’ll start a few new projects in China and Singapore. I also have to complete the "Mind the Gap" project, which involves making another fake map that merges Georgetown, Malaysia / London, England. Some new exhibitions abroad are also in the planning stages.

Notes:

  1. Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Battuta, also known as Shams ad Din. Famous Muslim traveler, born 1304 in Tangier, Morocco – died 1369 in Fez, Morocco. At the age of 21 began a wanderer’s existence that lasted 30 years. The stations of his travels included North and South Africa, the Near East, the Arabian peninsula, regions of the Persian Gulf and Caucasus, the South of Russia, India, the Maldive Islands, China, and Andalusia (today Spain). By request of the Moroccan sultan, Ibn Battuta dictated his travels to a scholar, published under the title of "Rihla" (the travelogue is a genre of Islamic literature).
  2. Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, the so-called "k.u.k. Monarchie" – the imperial and royal monarchy, which existed from 1867 to 1918. The Habsburg Francis Joseph I was emperor of Austria, and beginning 1867 simultaneously king of Hungary. Regarding their domestic affairs, both countries remained nevertheless autonomous.

Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

Re:Looking. 2002 - 2004
Video, installation, website

Nafas
Back to Top