For four days in Venice last year, Singaporean artist Ming Wong either ambled around dressed as an elderly gentleman in a three-piece white suit and panama hat, or masqueraded as a mincing, seductive teenaged boy in a blond wig and sailor suit. The results of his eccentric, costumed posturing can be seen in his latest video installation, Life and Death in Venice. A re-visitation of Luchino Visconti's classic 1971 film, Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann's novel, it has Wong playing both the leading parts of Professor Aschenbach, an ageing German writer-musician, as well as that of Tadzio, a young Polish aristocrat. With a camerawoman (Ivana Ivanova) and an assistant, Wong produced, directed and performed the piece on location while representing Singapore at the 53rd Venice Biennale last year - from which he returned with a special mention. The Venice piece is on show at Hermes' Orchard Road boutique in Singapore until May 2, before its screening at the 17th Biennale of Sydney from May 12 to August 1. Wong, at 39, is the same age as the original film. With a thoughtful smile, the Singapore-born, London-trained and Berlin-based artist explains the impetus: 'Coming to Venice, you see this very special place, where every shot looks like a postcard. It's a cliche. But it's a living cliche. I wanted to deal with that by inserting myself in it. But in this crazy blond wig and sailor's outfit, I was just pushing it to the limits of tastefulness.' In a way, Wong's endeavour is a race against time to preserve that which is ephemeral or no longer exists. Scenes of Aschenbach and Tadzio's introspection are played out against some recognisable artworks displayed during the Venice Biennale, by the likes of Tomas Saraceno, Paul Chan, Tobias Rehberger, Ragnar Kjartansson and Zilvinas Kempinas, now dismantled. Viewing a shot of Aschenbach tottering his way across the Campiello dei Calegheri, one is distracted by graffiti on one wall, symbolic of how urban life has intruded into a timeless fantasy. Filming also took place at the legendary Hotel Des Bains, where the original movie was shot, in the week just before the hospitality grand dame was closed down for redevelopment into luxury apartments. 'They said we could film there as long as we didn't disturb the guests,' recalls Wong in a dramatic whisper. 'But we looked around and there were no guests.' But more than just a straightforward re-enactment or paen to nostalgia, the 16-minute video is Wong's non-linear take on racial, cultural, gender and artistic identity. The idea of a Chinese foreigner - an outsider to Western art, culture and politics - inserting himself into classical occidental frameworks has been a running theme in his career. In his 2008 work Angst Essen/Eat Fear, for example, he plays all the roles in German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973), which tells of the doomed romance between a Munich cleaning lady and a young Moroccan immigrant worker. Donning wigs and frumpy outfits, blackening his face to approximate olive skin, and uttering his lines in mispronounced, memorised German, Wong's digital video explored race relations in the capital's Turkish-dominated Kreuzberg area. Similarly, his In Love for the Mood has a Caucasian actress playing both the Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk characters in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, who mangles the Cantonese dialogue. 'It's interesting that when I insert myself into a certain culture or situation, people from that circle appreciate it,' Wong says. 'There's this advantage of coming from outside and throwing a different light on things - but with humour. That's something I learnt from the theatre.' Wong was a playwright with Action Theatre in the 1990s, penning scripts such as Ka-Ra-you-OK? (1996) and the book for Chang & Eng - The Musical (1997), before setting his sights on the contemporary art world. Language, and the cracks that meaning falls through, is a big part of what he does. That's why, in his breakthrough work Four Malay Stories (2005), based on old movies by Malay comedian P. Ramlee, he mined the humour by filming multiple takes of his attempts to speak melodramatic lines in Malay, which is Singapore's national language although many young Chinese-Singaporeans don't understand it. For Life and Death in Venice, verbal communication has been erased and superceded by a halting, mistake-ridden soundtrack of Wong playing the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No 5, which has become famous as the theme from Death in Venice. In fact, a small screen outside the installation's black box area shows a video of Wong, in costume as the ageing professor, sitting at a grand piano as he sight-reads the score: 'There's no sense of active communication between the characters in the film. Instead, there's this other communication with the viewer, the visitor. So I decided to use this familiar theme that has been hijacked by the film. But again, it's imperfect, hesitant - all the usual qualities that are found when I deal with language.' The idea of being 'the Other' even acquires a meta-fictional importance, seen in the context of Wong's special mention for transforming part of a 14th-century palazzo into a time capsule and tribute to post-war Singapore cinema at the biennale. 'Singapore's pavilion was outside the main Giardini area where the older, more established, permanent national pavilions are. Being among the prize-winners, while being outside of this 'mafia' circle, that was also, in a way, about being an outsider coming into the traditional framework,' he says. For all his ubiquitousness in his video works and the international attention that his success at the Venice Biennale has afforded him, Wong - a graduate of Singapore's Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and London's Slade School of Art - remains little known in his country of birth. After all, the artist has been living abroad for the past 12 years, although he returns twice a year. 'I'm not a Dimsum Dolly,' he says, tongue-in-cheek, referring to the mainstream recognition that his friends, a trio of theatre actresses who stage a popular comedy franchise of the same name, get. But all that may just change, with the opening on Thursday of a major Singapore Art Museum exhibition of his works from the Venice Biennale. Come June, he flies the Singapore flag again at the Naples Theatre Festival, with his take on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (1968), titled Devo Partire. Domani (I must leave. Tomorrow). He also has a work slated for 2011's Singapore Biennale. Says Tang Fu Kuen, the Singapore-born, Bangkok-based dramaturg who curated Wong's work for the Singapore Pavilion in Venice last year: 'Ming is definitely one of the smartest artists Singapore can claim: hardworking, down-to-earth, highly intuitive, never hiding behind intellectual obfuscation. You can be sure his career is only ascendent from this point on.'