Mary Wong and the Burden of Semiotics by Rebecca Duclos PDF  | Print |  E-mail


As luck would have it, Mary Sui Yee Wong’s found fabric used in her Yellow Apparel line is in strange sync with Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s pervasive and pejorative “five colour typology for humans” (white, black, yellow, red, and brown) that was developed by the Göttingen scientist in the early 1800s. Oddly, though, the expected range of stereotypical hues isn’t represented by the skin colour of the happy figures who populate the textile’s surface (despite their seeming spectrum of ethnic origins that span from loosely Inuit to vaguely Mexican) – rather, the diverse chromatic array arrives in the form of the clothing that each of these figures is seen to wear. In the anonymous textile designer’s original zeal to create a homogenized and close-knit (every pun intended) community of Disneyfied “small world” weebles as part of the fabric’s buoyant pattern, all skin tones seem to have melded into a non-differentiating, epidermal paste of a muddy, peachy-brown. And yet, as if unable to let go of Blumenbach’s racialized Pantone, the factory designer of Wong’s found fabric constructed the “celebratory clothing” and “national dress” of the cloth’s little figures around a suspiciously familiar palette of five main colours – (you guessed it) white, black, yellow, red, and brown. And so, even as the smiling, freckled characters sport a kind of all-embracing, all-unifying mono-chromatic visage, some strange aberrant undertones of their so-called “diversity” seem to permeate the highly individualized outfits by which they become stereotypically, ethnically identified.

These textiles- within- a- textile provide an interesting window into Mary Wong’s world – a world in which critical analysis and close observation are honed through humour and yet complicated by Wong’s sense that what we want to see is not always what we actually see. The Yellow Apparel line is, like its miniature counterpart fashions worn by the cheerful pan-Indians and pan-Asians on the fabric of which it is made, not so simple to decipher. We are asked to question the original intentions of this cloth – and of Wong’s re-appropriation of it within her own designs. Are the fabric’s figures and Wong’s models celebrating the “oneness” of humanity that, despite differences and distinctions, unites individuals through the symbolic embrace of a cultural and ethnic textile iconography that quite purposefully includes “everyone”? Or are Wong’s faux-fashionistas who model her clothing line with their classic pouts in glossy photographs critically reversing the colour-balance inherent in the Yellow Apparel cloth? Does Wong have them wear these outfits “cut from the same cloth” in order to purposefully set off the models’ obviously diverse “white/black/yellow/red/brown” skin-tone against their uniform dress? Are we to see unity in diversity or the collapse of uniqueness within the homogenization of “global” culture? Is Wong quoting Blumenbach or Benetton here – or both?


Indeed, this is Wong’s strength – her ability to sophisticatedly blur the lines of easy interpretation in such a way that we see anew how generally unsophisticated are the economic and cultural forces that try to blur the lines of identity in the hopes of commodifying a pan-everyone market catering to ideals of togetherness. Such ideals are the stuff of Disney’s appropriation of the Pepsi Pavilion’s theme of “It’s a Small World” from the 1964 New York World’s Fair into the euphoric boat ride that still (despite being closed for refurbishments in 2008) features audio-animatronic children of the world singing the Sherman Brothers’ saccharine paean to peace. I should know. Somewhere in my closet is my father’s jiggly Super-8 film of our family gliding through the almost life-sized scale of the Small World diorama that brought my sister and I face to face with the world’s gleeful children in 1977. At the same time these friendly automata were made all the more safely similar to my own personage through a skin colour with which I could identify (as I recall, their faces were mostly the same bland, peachy-tan of those in Wong’s found fabric), their national dress boasted hues and styles that astounded me. Thus swathed in difference at the same time smiling at me from inside a familiar mask of monotone skin, these children of the globe embraced me and I embraced them in all their hybridized, comforting diversity.

The ethno-leveling of identity within children’s culture is one of Wong’s main concerns in the second of her works pieces shown in Rearranging Desires. Her life-sized, paper doll work, Mei Rren invites the public to “dress” a cut-out, floor-mounted photograph of Wong that was taken in a public park in Hong Kong before the family emigrated to Canada in 1963. In the same way that the figures in the fabric used for Yellow Apparel and the children in Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ridebecome “ethnicized” through the application of recognizable “national” dress styles, Wong allows her figure to be adorned with various outfits that vicariously allow her to adopt personas and histories that she never, in fact, personally experienced. Her “Chinese-ness” is thus inscribed and re-inscribed through a fashion surrogate of a paper ensemble that the public applies to her represented body. Wong’s experimentation with this “identity at a remove” gestures, to some extent, toward a larger critique of the interchangeability and even loss of “self” through, in this case, the adoption of a highly stylized type of cultural dress that is able to transform Wong from an “average” girl in a public park to a Han Dynasty empress. Of Mei Rren Wong says, “in this work, I’m partially exploring the tentative nature of one’s identity when young and, contrary to conventional psycho babble about childhood, this work allows me to grieve for the past, and look at the loss of innocence through adult lenses.” The obvious ephemerality of the historically correct outfits is key in this regard as their delicacy ultimately confirms that our fantasy about Wong’s “Chinese-ness” is just that – a fantasy that is as two-dimensional as a cut-out dress and as disposable as a drawer full of paper dolls.

Having said that, I am worried that my commentary on Wong’s Yellow Apparel line and Mei Rren cut-outs is beginning to lean too heavily on art criticism’s own “psycho babble” concerning issues of memory, identity, and ethnicity. In this respect, Wong has some important and insightful personal reflections that usefully complicate not only her own conception of her “Chinese-ness,” but also my reading of the role and significance of textiles, patterns, dress, and theatricality in the artist’sthis body of work that brings these identity issues to bear within a public forum. Wong recently confided:

As a point of departure, the garment industry signifies for me strange childhood memories of my mother working in a men’s shirt factory until she had a stroke and was unable to withstand the adverse conditions. Currently, almost everyone I know in the Chinese Opera community works either in restaurants or for the garment industry. There are many occasions after a performance when we sit down to enjoy a celebratory meal and the conversations revolve around singing techniques, some unknown repertoire, this or that factory closing down, and how hard it is to maintain a living in the clothing industry and still have enough energy to practice and rehearse. These experiences colour my Chinese-ness past and present.

And so, even while Wong’s outfits are obviously humorous and playful, they do, she says have deep connections not only to the textile industry but also, interestingly, to the powerful and enduring tradition of Chinese Opera costumes (with which Wong has long been familiar). Her work, she says, “bears the burden of semiotics,” a semiotics that has been an essential aspect of the Opera’s interpretation for centuries. “Performers have historically worn stage clothing that signifies and distinguishes a character's social and economic status, age, and gender. My line of clothing,” says adds Wong, “borrows from that tradition and functions as a theatrical prop. Each ensemble is a signifier not to be donned for just any occasion, but rather worn with respect by players who speak to the big picture.” In looking at the work presented for Rearranging Desires, it is this hidden “theatricality” and the concern for the “big picture” that, for me, makes Wong’s works so complex and enigmatic. On the one hand, they operate on an almost tongue-in-cheek, humourously parodic and ironic level while, on the other hand, her piecestheyat a small enough scale that when we walk amongst the individuals sporting her Yellow Apparel line at the exhibition vernissage, or affix the cut-out clothing onto Wong’s life-sized image of herself as a child, we feel as if we have met a part of her history, a history that is at once deeply personal and yet remains ultimately foreign to us. This is Mary Wong’s world “after all”… not small, but intimate and disarming enough that we are welcomed into an arena of design that replaces familiar patterns of looking with a poignant and private semiotics of self. reference Wong’s intricate family histories as well as a larger community of individuals around the artist whose lives and professions seamlessly (though not easily) collapse together the labour of the textile industry and the traditions of Chinese Opera. Although Wong’s world is clearly not the “small” one essentialized by Disney or Benetton or the Barbie industry, what is significant about her work is the way in which she constructs exchanges


Contribution from the exhibition catalogue of “Rearranging Desires-Curating the ‘Other’ Within, FOFA Gallery publication, 2008

Rebecca Duclos is a curator and writer living in Montreal whose recent projects include Voir/Noire at the Musée d’art de Joliette, a text for Lyne Lapointe at the SBC gallery, and an upcoming exhibition for the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, She is currently Director of the MFA Program at the Maine College of Art, Portland.

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