Sui Yee Wong, She Takes His Bed, Gallery 101, Ottawa, April
10th to May 9th, 1997
first appeared in ETC Montreal #40, 1997-1998.
Most of us want
and need some kind of respect. In her recent installation She
Takes His Bed, Montreal artist Mary
Sui Yee Wong searches for the meaning of respect through an
exploration of her relationship with her father.
The third and
final instalment of Subject to Representation, a curatorial
project by Kevin Gibbs of Gallery 101, She Takes His Bed
is perhaps the most autobiographical and introspective of Wong's
works to date. Comprised of a blowup of an archival photograph,
a video projection showing a continuous loop and two fictional letters
stencilled onto adjacent walls in the far corner of the gallery
space, the multi-media installation takes its viewers deep into
the artist's imaginary to disclose the anxiety and ambiguity associated
with the father-daughter relationship. At first glance, the only
connection between the photograph, text and video seems to be the
white fabric flowers and brilliant red patches of spilt pigment
that litter the gallery's hardwood floor. Yet on second reading,
the installation's seemingly disparate elements begin to acquire
another common factor: they each represent a role the father has
played and continues to play in the social and cultural development
of the daughter.
The faded black-and-white
photograph, nestled in a curvy wooden frame vaguely resembling window
dressing, documents the performance of a risky Kung fu stunt involving
three Asian men. In the act depicted, one of them is about to bring
down a large mallet onto a giant human sandwich complete with ceramic
jugs and a thick slab of cement. Wong's father, now a well-known
Cantonese opera musician and teacher in Hong Kong and Canada, is
the figure right under the mallet who will bear the greatest brunt
of the blow. For the artist, the feat recorded by this treasured
family photo represents a kind of double standard defined by a male-dominated
society with which the father claims his role as patriarch and to
which she herself is later subjugated as her father's daughter.
While the photograph
represents the practice of patriarchal values, the video element
of She Takes His Bed refers to the teachings that inform it, and,
by extension, to the role of the father as teacher. Projected from
the ceiling onto the largest of the red pigment patches-themselves
references to the cosmetics of the father's operatic world-the video
shows the posterior view of a nude Asian woman with long black hair.
On her back has been calligraphed excerpts from the Three Character
Scripture: Confucius's Teaching on Filial Piety and Morality,
a seminal text that in its simplicity and directness of language
makes itself accessible even to the poor underclass in China. Focusing
in on the Chinese writing, the image then pulls back to depict the
woman's body convulsing uncontrollably from the lashings of a whip
as if to suggest that the inscription on the body circumscribes
more than just the surface of the skin.
Like the photograph,
the video draws on analogous relationships between mind/body and
male/female dichotomies through its focus on text and the imminent
infliction of bodily harm. The pride associated with ability of
the male bodies in the photograph to endure physical pain through
mental control contrasts with the sense of shame surrounding the
submissive female body being punished in the video because of its
inability to comply with the phallocentric precepts upheld by Confucius.
In effect, the familiar signifiers of Third World discourse such
as the subordinating circumstances of women's lives, the photograph's
rural setting and the choice Confucian scripture, all suggest a
very troubling interpretation for the positionality of the woman
portrayed in She Takes His Bed. Writing about minority discourses,
Rey Chow suggests that if the Chinese woman is perceived to have
no voice, it is because "it has always been assumed by others in
the name of the people, the oppressed classes and the nation."1
Locked in the position of "a kind of minor of the minor," the Chinese
woman thus has to constantly struggle to speak as a way of resisting
hegemonic practices in which she, otherwise considered voiceless,
would be spoken for.2
Of the three
visual components in She Takes His Bed, the pair of fictional
letters from daughter to father are the most cryptic. However, in
their clear articulation of a feminine voice, the letters suggest
that the artist has succeeded in overcoming this struggle to speak,
not only about her relationship with her father but also for herself.
Initially, the letters, read in conjunction with the ambiguous title
of the installation, seem to imply an unspoken sexual dimension
in the father-daughter relationship. They further challenge social
mores of respectability in their suggestion that a mock funeral
for the artist's father is being staged in the context of a gallery.
have you gone! Some nights I awaken from fright but no one is
there to console me.
breaks my body and he is without remorse. Moment by moment,
I am smothered by his silence.
you not come to rescue me?
On second reading
though, the letters-both interrupted by frightening episodes in
which women are being assaulted by male perpetrators-seem also to
refer to the role of the father as parent-protector, one which he
can no longer fulfil now that his daughter is all grown-up. Read
in this way, the letters can be seen as mnemonic traces of the daughter's
entry into womanhood in which female sexuality, and by extension,
female identity, was gained only at the loss of the father. While
the first letter expresses the initial shock of parental abandonment,
the second letter seems to suggest that the daughter has come out
of her post-partum depression to a realization that the symbolic
separation of girl-child from father was a necessary part of her
self-development as a woman.
been months since your departure. Forgive my weakness, but I
night, I heard a woman screaming outside my window. A man had
just robbed her. She sounded helpless and scared. I wondered
elements in She Takes His Bed suggest that respect within
the artist's relationship with her father seems to have been largely
defined within a male-dominated society where women's sense of self-worth,
or self-respect, have either been undermined or negated altogether.
Thus while the multiple roles of the father as patriarch, teacher,
and parent might have commanded unconditional respect from the daughter
in the past, this respect was not necessarily reciprocated within
the relationship. As such, She Takes His Bed can be seen
as an attempt by the artist to re-negotiate a sense of self-respect
on her own terms through self-understanding, rather than on those
defined by a patriarchal culture.3 In this way, Wong's
installation goes beyond being a mere re-consideration of the father-daughter
relationship to taking a serious look at the huge impact the concept
of respect has on definitions of self-identity. To quote turn-of-the-century
psychologist William James, "[t]he deepest principle of human nature
is a longing to be appreciated." But She Takes His Bed asks:
"On whose terms?"
Alice Ming Wai
Jim is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at McGill University. She
is currently researching media art in Hong Kong.
1. Rey Chow,
Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary
Cultural Studies (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,
S. Dillon, Dignity, Character and Self-Respect (New York:
Routledge, 1995) 303.
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