Wong Ka Lam, Jess

Searching for identity has been Phoebe Man’s main focus of her artworks from the very beginning of her artistic career. After devoting several years to mixed media sculpture and installation art, she designed to bring her art to the virtue world – web art. Undoubtedly, Phoebe’s art gives an impression of daring and a sense of challenge. As I have mentioned, she is interested in finding “self”, both hers and female, especially concerning sexuality and conventional value of Chinese society. For such investigation, interaction between the artist and spectators becomes a crucial element in art.  For instance, her web art “A Masquerade on the Internet”, “Dissembled Bodies” in 2000, unlike her series “Present for Her Growth”, she no longer concentrated on merely expressing her view, but she used the popular ICQ chat room as her platform to do art. In this essay, I would select her “Sanitary Napkin Series” and her web art for detail discussion. Firstly I would briefly talk about her path of searching “identities”, and then analyze her adoption of virtual world to carry the investigation of identity and end with my view on Man’s art.


After a study of Phoebe Man’s art, I would categorize her art into 2 phrases by her different attitudes towards the investigation of identity: works which concerns her own identity and expresses her view over female identity and role in patriarchal Chinese society, and works directly interacting with others in order to work out general opinion over female identity in Modern age. For the first one, also the earlier one, is the works mainly expressing her personal view and private feeling whilst the other one, may be known as the latest series, focuses on searching identity with spectators.


Searching Own Identity as a Female

Under my grouping, I would regard “Sanitary Napkin Series” (1995-1997) going under this category. Inspired by a film maker Penny Wheelwright’s idea on discussing menstruation, Phoebe Man started using a “female occasional close friend” – sanitary napkin in art. For her earliest works “Happy Babies” of this series, she suggests menstruation and pregnancy is a kind of sacrifice that every female has to face. Phoebe shows her anxiety towards the “gift” female monopolized and such feeling and thinking are carried to her later works “Beautiful flowers” and “Present for Her Growth”. Starting from these two works, Phoebe Man used a controversial material – real sanitary napkins as medium. In “Beautiful Flowers”, she “transformed” these daily accessories from general impression of “dirty” and “shameful” thing to chunks of poetic blossoming flowers.  Decorated with red eggs or red bulbs, Phoebe blended Chinese traditional practice element (red egg means celebration of birth) on those, which are regarded as dirty thing. By doing this, she conveys an idea of such biological phenomenon is nothing shameful, as do the flowers. Recorded in her interview, she refuted an accusation which criticized these works were aiming at striking the morality.  Man said the intention of these works were only to realize her poetic feeling towards her anxiety of her body changes though some art critics interpreted her art as an accusation of female role as a “giving birth machine”. In her “Orange”, she brings out the social gender discrimination in an implicit and funny way. She made a comparison between the people’s view towards the waste of boys and girls and showed her “curiosity” of the worthiness of the former but the ugliness of the latter. The works of hers, in fact, do not carry any confrontation and angry accusation; the reason for their prominence was due to the ability to draw spectators’ innermost interaction and echo. In order to explore such interesting element, she takes her art entering the web world in which provides much room for public and direct interaction.


Searching Female identity in Society

Phoebe Man has started to use web art for the sake of searching for female identity in society since 2000, after her return from America. She began using a puppet character Rati which is designed to live in the virtual world in her web art. In my opinion, Rati series is the most striking and successful one among Man’s art so far. It is the one who can represent woman mostly not only by its daring vaginal-like appearance, but her explicit symbolized representation of female and the identity which others projecting on women.  Man has used this character in her works “Rati” (2000) and “Disembodied Bodies” (2000).


For “Rati”, the artist used several broken dairy-like stories to depict Rati’s life: her occupation (being consumed by male), her thinking (her anxiety and curiosity of her identity), her relationship with her “boyfriend”, etc. Such narration points out and realizes people’s underlying perception over female identity. Visitors can leave their ideas in the message box “Please tell what she (Rati) should be???” In fact, this cornier is used as an invitation of discussion on their view over women identity. In doing so, room is provided for exchanging ideas in the form of web conversation. Comparing to this works, interaction between art and spectators (visitors) of “Disembodied Body” was much direct and daring. Rati was again appeared in her virtual world, however this time; she had a direct conversation with real person in chat room. Man has recorded 6 conversations and scene done during 2 weeks, accompanied by a web camera and Rati, she succeeded in tempting others involving in this works. Many of the participants who most likely only showed part of their bodies, like their bodies under bellies, would ask Man (Rati) to show her sexual organ or breast. This works decided to investigate human sexual desire and curiosity, and the way people presenting themselves. As Man described this work on her web page “People now can see each other live by using web cams in the chat rooms. Most of then people do not want to show their faces. They fame their bodies. Some of them are naked. Some of them dress up, why do they want to do these? The artist tries to find the answer by imitating and exaggerating these body presentations and showed naked unreal bodies in the chat room. The web site documented how people reacted to this.” Man found most people presenting themselves by means of sexual organs, which might suggest a kind of natural power and gender difference when they confront the other sex. Identity and sexuality seems to be equivalent, co-existing and inter-related.  Moreover, people defined themselves mostly by other’s impression and glance.  That is the reason Man used web art, which consists of visual, and interaction elements to investigate this subject.


Reality found in the Unreality

“Rati” and “Disembodied Bodies” could be regarded as an attempt to find the truth under the mask Rati. All medium used in these two series are unreal: the fabricated puppet Rati, a designed identity, the virtual web world, etc. It is ironic that Man used them to search for something authentic. In “Disembodied Bodies”, the chat room became the venue of Masquerade. People were lying about their identity and hiding their faces in order to avoid recognition form others. The fake identity gives them a sense of security, which enables them to show their real desire freely. Abandoning all morality given, people showed their true curiosity towards sexuality. It is just like showing true visage in the masquerade.


Man’s adoption of web’s virtual world for this series is quite a brilliant idea. As I have mentioned before, web art enables a better and much direct interaction between the artist and the spectator by means of his/her art. For a topic of such, it is much meaningful to have people’s direct response rather than just showing artist’s feeling without feedback. Moreover, subjects about sex are the most popular and forever-lasting topic in the Internet.  This revealed people’s sexual hunger could be easily satisfied in the cyber world. Visitors can free their moral burden in this virtual world and follow their natural desire. For a topic of searching female identity which is consist of female own definition on their selves as well as the other gender’s, the open chat room provides a good means to seek other’s (especially men’s) opinion on women identity in which many people are interested in this topic. This enables the artist to investigate the gender relationship one on one with the others “honestly”. Besides, web art can get rid of time dimension. Art is done when communication begins and it will sustain regardless of time and place. Since the communication, awakening, inspiration provoked are the most important elements in these series, interaction becomes the content between artwork, artist, and the audience, which makes art everlasting and alive.


© Wong Ka Lam, Jess 2003.


First written as an essay for the Hong Kong Art Workshop course of the Department of Fine Arts, Hong Kong University.