‘I’m not really in reality,’ the Chinese-American actor Bai Ling once stated in an interview. A social-media stalker might interpret these words as the confessions of an online narcissist: scroll down the actor’s Instagram feed to see hundreds of pouting selfies and revealing body shots. But, in the hands of Sophia Al-Maria, who has taken Bai as the protagonist of her latest show, ‘ilysm’, at Project Native Informant, the statement becomes a testament to a kind of superpower; an ability, as the artist notes, ‘to walk through fire and come out unburnt’.
A Hollywood actor whose image has become troll-bait, Bai appears impervious to the widespread misogyny and racism she has had to face. The basis of her stoicism can be gleaned from a video displayed in the corridor to the exhibition. Titled Not Really in Reality Reality TV (all works 2018), it reveals Bai’s playful approach to her media persona. ‘Fame is like this make-up, this interview – it’s not real,’ teases the actor as she perches on a stool in a mirrored studio while she has her eyeshadow applied. While the video shows up the farce of reality television, Bai countertrolls her online abusers by re-appropriating their images and subverting their jokes in her blog, officialbailing. As a close friend of Bai’s and early admirer of the blog, Al-Maria – a Qatari-American artist also grappling with cross-cultural identity – spins her own web around the actor’s virtual image. The artist’s direct experience of misogyny as a scriptwriter during the making of her uncompleted rape revenge thriller, Beretta (2011–14), galvanized her into investigating the survival techniques at play in officialbailing. In a hall of mirrors, we join Al-Maria in searching for the real Bai Ling.
In the main exhibition space, two works dramatize the actor’s conflicted Hollywood representation. Our protagonist features in Major Motions – a 16-second, looped VHS recording – holding up a Hitachi sex toy with rigid determination against a computer-generated backdrop of a rising moon. Bai reappears on the cover of Playboy magazine in the installation White Man’s Bible (Revenge Porn). Scantily clad in a mesh of thin leather straps, she fondles the base of a lightsabre that protrudes upwards from her outer thigh. ‘Star Wars Sexy Alien’, reads the cover line. Both images are styled in reference to Bai’s role in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). Following her appearance in Playboy, Bai’s scenes were eliminated from the film’s final cut. The actor’s duplicitous media image – slipping between two industries – is presented as a kind of vortex. A cascading mass of magnetic tape litters the floor beneath the VHS player, while a swarm of moving stars, illuminated by an iPhone, pierces Bai’s Playboy representation through a cut-out.
Mirror Cookie, a shrine to Bai’s blog, is the apex of the show. Our protagonist’s body surfaces on a white iPhone-shaped screen installed above a mirrored dressing table. Captured in a white turban, eyes staring beseechingly into the camera, Bai is represented as if praying to herself in a mirror. ‘Hashtag Mirror Cookie’, she chants, cupping her hands into a heart shape, ‘I love you.’ Cookie is Bai’s alter-ego, who captions blogposts with mantras of self-love. Guiding us through a series of millennial meditations, the video imbues the vocabulary of social media with spiritual significance. White heart symbols drift upwards, as if lifting the spirit, and hashtags are used like incantations, while the actor’s body glitches as though convulsing in reverie.
For a couple of seconds, Bai disappears, recalling her ancient Chinese namesake: ‘white spirit’. Chiming with Al-Maria’s own approach to representing women from the Gulf, Mirror Cookie encapsulates Bai’s ability to both occupy the Oriental stereotype and evaporate from it. #stillness.
Sophia Al-Maria: ilysm is on view at Project Native Informant, London until 21 April.
Main image: Sophia Al-Maria, Mirror Cookie, 2018, video still (detail). Courtesy: the artist, Anna Lena Films and Project Native Informant, London
First published in Issue 195