Show and Tale: Ming Hon’s “The Exhibitionist”

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, as Goya warned us, and they can be a complicated brood. In Ming Hon’s compelling performance piece, called The Exhibitionist, the Winnipeg-based dancer constructs a story in which she gives birth to a litter of paper babies, and then sets about to do them damage. The core of the performance is embodied in its title: all the acts an exhibitionist performs are combinations of self-love and self-loathing. The focus and intelligence of her narcissism, in both the narrative and the performance, is startling.

The Exhibitionist originated in a dream in which Hon and a photocopying machine engage in a complex pas de dupe. “It was a dream about moving around with a photocopier and having these images come out of my body.” The 1,500 images used during the performance were produced by placing parts of her body on the machine (occasionally she used a body double); as a result the floor of the ARTlab space at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art is a scattering of black-and-white legs, feet, hands, breasts and buttocks. Hon’s use of these fragments is especially inventive; at one point she frantically pastes three bodies on the wall from the photocopied sheets on the floor, each one progressively more deformed. In another sequence she attaches behind her a train of photocopied bums, a tail for the mating dance she performs to attract the photocopier’s attention. To get the impressions she wants, she needs to make an impression herself.

She does. From her initial entry in a black trench coat and high heels, Hon is mesmerizing. Trained as a dancer, she is able to instrumentalize her body in various ways: at one moment she is an orgasmic object of desire, at another a contortion of pain, at still another, a delicate bird engaged in arranging a paper nest. Throughout the performance you are made aware of a dreamline of other artists; in pressing her face against a sheet of Plexi she imitates Pipilotti Rist; when she wears multiple sets of paper breasts we are reminded of Louise Bourgeois; her makeshift bodies on the wall look like Hans Bellmer. And the double-seeing eye of a video camera records her every move, so we are constantly torn between watching her real body in space or her video body on the screen. It is a pleasurable conundrum.

The story may have emerged from a dream but its form came from being awake. “The narrative structure came together on my wedding night. We consummated our marriage and my partner went to bed right away, but I couldn’t sleep. I had all these different sections in my head, and I didn’t know how they would fit together. It was a really strange thing. I furiously scribbled out the script on hotel stationary–the entire structure came to me–and then I watched the sun come up. It was a lovely gift.”

Hon now sees The Exhibitionist as an allegory that starts in darkness and ends in a place of renewal. “The whole show was so black and white and hard that I wanted something soft for the ending,” she says, “so building a nest was a natural place to go.”

Volume 31, Number 4: Made and unMade

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #124, published December 2012.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.