"If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana"[1]

LEE WEN

Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real

Retrospective at Singapore Art Museum

20 Apr - 10 June 2012

TODAY, Singapore, 13 Apr 2012

Chewing Gum paintings by Lee Wen was a response to the ban on the sale and import of chewing gum in Singapore enforced in 1992. This ban was one of the first pieces of news on Singapore that Lee came across prior to his return and desistance of news on Singapore in the two years that he spent studying at the City of London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University). In his typical tongue-in-cheek manner, Lee invited visitors to participate by sticking used chewing gums onto his old paintings. These chewing gum paintings, according to the artist, were originally unsold and unfinished paintings dating to 1990, the same time when Yellow Man, Where Are You Going? the very painting where his yellow man series of performances evolved, was made. As an artist then still young in his career, Lee considers his style of painting ‘marginalised’ and informal in a period where more abstract and formalist painters such as Thomas Yeo, Anthony Poon and Jimmy Quek Prabhakara were amongst the flavours du jour in Singapore. His decision to recycle and paint them over, leaving a one-inch strip all around emphasises this self-professed marginalisation and provides its viewers with a glimpse of the remains of the original painting underneath.

 

There is a Chinese saying that compares a westernised Chinese person to the banana, ‘yellow on the outside, and white on the inside’. Lee Wen adopted an art form of western origins as the main vehicle that drives his practice. This may be so if we look solely from the art historical perspective but here, attached to someone of Asian heritage, informed by its rich and long culture and histories, guided by principles of Taoism and Buddhism, I am sure the art of performance in the form of rituals is ingrained somewhere in Lee’s DNA and that his thought processes are not entirely ‘white’.

TODAY, Singapore, 13 Apr 2012, article by Mayo Martin

There is a Chinese saying that compares a westernised Chinese person to the banana, ‘yellow on the outside, and white on the inside’. Lee Wen adopted an art form of western origins as the main vehicle that drives his practice. This may be so if we look solely from the art historical perspective but here, attached to someone of Asian heritage, informed by its rich and long culture and histories, guided by principles of Taoism and Buddhism, I am sure the art of performance in the form of rituals is ingrained somewhere in Lee’s DNA and that his thought processes are not entirely ‘white’.

 

Very much of what Lee has produced needs to be peeled away and examined beneath its layers. His messages are not immediately apparent even if the imageries produced are visually confrontational and explicit. In my various interviews and conversations with the artist, he reiterated time and again that all the works he has produced are responses to what affects him personally. With this, and in trying to read his works, one would then have to consider the reasons why and how they might have affected him. Rite of Spring performances for example, were created partly in response to his contraction of Parkinson’s disease in 2006; similarly, Anthrophometry revision were made partly in response to Alphonse Bertillon’s invention of a forensic record system based on the measurement of a person’s personality against physical deformities and marks such as tattoos and scars in the 1880s; in this respect, Lee links the work to his personal battle with sclerosis and Deviant: ten days of nine not meet, enter mountain sees big worm as society’s view of artists such as himself - ‘deviants’. This self-referential approach is most famously expounded through his Journey of a Yellow Man performances whose inspiration was found after he met other Chinese artists when he was living in London and from being constantly mistaken as a Chinese from China while there.

And at around the same period of the chewing gum ban in January 1992, Lee wrote a comparative essay detailing Chinese portrait painting before 1400 AD, or the lack of it, as compared to their European counterparts of the time.[2] In this essay, Lee observed that the painting of portraits, particularly self-portraits, was reserved to the domain of rulers, the aristocracy, merchants and bankers. In this essay, Lee also mentioned that ‘craftsmen, painters and sculptors were not in equal class and could make the same claims for the social and intellectual status that such an indulgence might prove to imply’. The antithesis of such human made systems in marginalisation and differentiation through ‘class’ and the unjust adjudication of whom and the criteria that determine order and privileges in society seem to affect Lee deeply and appears to have became the driving force and pivotal idea behind most, if not all, of Lee’s major works. These ideas are expanded in Lee’s commentaries and critique of issues such as detentions without trial (Ghost Stories), self-righteous and hypocritical attitudes towards governing policies and legislature (More China Than You), death of grassroots societies due to overzealous state intervention (Art vs Art) and passivity towards perpetrators of open conflicts that involved the torture of innocent victims (Stagger Lee).  At the same time, Lee observed that the painting of portraits of living persons also did not take off due to the traditional belief that for as long as a person is alive, he/she is not yet complete. Hence a portrait of a living person will not be a complete representation of the person. In figuring out ways to ‘paint’ a current and somewhat realistic portrait of himself, Lee embarked on presenting his image ‘live’, as a moving, thinking and living being that the viewer could observe and follow over time. These compelling viewpoints and approach to art making often strike close to home and make Lee’s practice particularly relevant to local audiences.  

WORLD CLASS SOCIETY (installation detail) at Welcome to the Jungle exhibition, Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan, 2013

Image © Khai Hori

There are two persons that Lee has consistently paid tribute to and acknowledged as his teachers, Mdm Lee Mee Lan, his mother, and Tang Da Wu, a doyen of Singapore’s contemporary art. In 1980, Da Wu, who was based in the UK for about 20 years, returned to mount a solo exhibition at the National Museum Art Gallery entitled Earthworks. Lee encountered this exhibition that showcased two installations, The Product of the Sun and Me and The Product of Rain and Me, made from soiled, weathered and earth-stained linens, relics from Tang’s seminal site-specific work Gully Curtains (1979). Gully Curtains was executed and displayed in one of Singapore’s earliest the public housing development area, Ang Mo Kio and later became one of the first known artworks in the tradition of earth art from Singapore. Eight years after Earthworks, Tang established The Artists Village (TAV), an experimental artists commune in Ulu Sembawang. Originally a farm, the estate was converted into artist studios that could be turned into temporary exhibition spaces. There, Tang introduced and shared knowledge on genres such as performance and installation art, which at that time, were fairly new to the Singapore art scene. Lee, who was inspired by Earthworks, quickly became a part of this commune together with several other young artists such as Vincent Leow, Amanda Heng, Wong Shih Yaw, Juliana Yasin and Tang Mun Kit. TAV quickly grew from strength to strength and mounted various projects and exhibitions including the Second Open Studio Show, Art Mart, The Happenings 1 and 2 (1989), The Time Show, QU Art Support II, The Care Show and Letter A (1990), National Sculpture Seminar 1 and 2 (1991 and 1992) and The Space (1992) at venues such as their own premises in Ulu Sembawang and ad-hoc locations like the National University of Singapore, Cuppage Terrace, The Paragon Shopping Center and QU Art Society (Hong Kong) from 1989 to 1992.

 

TAV registered itself as a formal society under the Societies Act of Singapore in February 1992 and Lee became an increasingly involved member after his return from study in London. The registration qualifies TAV for arts housing and other state funding that was administered by the National Arts Council (NAC), a statutory board responsible for the administration and development of arts and culture that was formed only one year earlier in 1991. In 1994, in the capacity of society’s president, Lee wrote a letter to the chairman of the NAC to help mitigate the court proceedings involving the controversial performance of Josef Ng.[3] Lee’s active contribution to the society continues till this day, as an influential figure and advocate, and as co-organiser of various events and mentor to younger members on both artistic and administrative matters.

 

In recent times, outside of the TAV, Lee has organised two independent and regularly mounted and what could be considered as key events centered on performance art in Singapore. First, Future of Imagination an international performance art event “initiated as a test on the resumption of funding support (after) a 10 year proscription”[2] which was co-founded in 2003 by Lee and fellow artists Jason Lim and Kai Lam and second, R.I.T.E.S., “a non-profit event to platform new ideas and artists in sonic art, time-based and performance art-related practices” [5] also founded by Lee and Kai Lam.

 

Lee has been represented internationally through events such as Sexta Bienal de La Habana, Cuba (1997), 2nd Nippon International Performance Art Festival, Japan (1995), 4th Asian Art Show, Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan (1994), 3rd Asia Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Australia (1999), EXIT International Festival for Unusual Live Performances, Helsinki, Finland (2001) and the National Review of Live Art, Glasgow, Scotland (2005). He is also the only Asian that makes part of the renowned Blackmarket International performance art collective whose members include Boris Nieslony (Germany), Alastair McLennan (Northern Ireland), Elvira Santamaria (Mexico), Julie Andree T. (Canada) and Norbert Klassen (Switzerland). A year after the lift of the 10-year national ban on funding for performance art in 2005, Lee was accorded with the Singapore Cultural Medallion, the highest honour for local art makers deemed to have contributed to and achieved artistic excellence.

Journey of a Yellow Man 13, fragmented bodies/shifting ground, performance at the 3rd Asia Pacific Triennale (1999), Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia 

Image by Andrea Higgins, courtesy of the artist

In working closely with him, I have also had the privilege to participate and be absorbed by his unconstrained thinking and working process. When Lee asked for my opinion on how much yellow paint should be added to Yellow on Yellow: JYM No. 1 photographs at 8am one morning, I felt both stumped and honoured. In another instance, Lee asked if he should use pig trotters for his performance at the museum and if he would offend any Muslim audience by doing so.

 

The site for the exhibition was a major factor in many eventual decisions for the materials used for his re-constructed installations. Aside from matters of conservation, Lee’s choice of materials and imageries are practical and sensitive to the audience, restraining himself from making rash or inconsiderate decisions that could jeopardise opportunities of artists to come. Nudity that appeared in his performance documentations were lessened and vials of chicken parts in formaldehyde that appeared in the original version of Ghost Stories were replaced with used footwear to represent the grassroots. However, the most special of all his decisions was the inclusion of various artists at various points of the exhibition duration. At the exhibition’s opening, Lee invited long time collaborator and artist Jason Lim and performed a 20-minutes exchange of each other’s signature performances. Meanwhile, his younger musician friends jammed the night away with a heady mix of ‘live’ experimental-blues-jazz–and-rock music while museum staff all participated by wearing black ‘I Am Not A Performance Artist’ t-shirt, another remake of an old work of Lee. On Fridays subsequent to the opening, he invites various artists and musicians to perform in and rock the various galleries with music, lectures and performances where his installations are placed. Amongst this will be a collaborative, ‘live’ performance with young artist Rubin Hashim as part of Neo Baba, as if it is a means in giving platform and recognising Hashim’s recent work on the Malay identity. This spirit in openness and sharing at a time when the arena was set for Lee and Lee alone is indeed rare. It is also not as if Lee had run out of art to show from his 25 year ‘career’, however, this two-and-a-half months exhibition (now almost a bonafide festival) echoes his sentiments as depicted in Songs of Sisyphus in the Key of Narcissus; that art and society cannot live on the contemporary world’s banal spirit of individualism alone.

NEO-BABA performance, solo exhibition - VA-nishiogi Gallery, Tokyo, Japan,  May 1995

Image courtesy of the artist

With an artist as opinionated and reputable as Lee Wen, and with artworks and ideas that seemed to be in constant flux, I have been often asked, “How do you curate the exhibition?” I have to first mention here that I am very fortunate to have been acquainted with Lee since the late 1980s, in his formative days as an artist, which began after a brave decision to leave a job at the Chase Manhattan Bank. In recent times, together with Lee, I have co-organised two Future of Imagination (FOI) events, its third installment in 2006 and subsequently its fourth in 2007.[6] No ice breaking was necessary as we understood each other’s positions as long-time friends, fellow artists and now artist-curator; hence we both moved quickly forward to attend to the business at hand. It is once again necessary to indicate here that even though Lee profiles a career that spanned more than 25 years, this exhibition is his first, large-scale solo, mounted by an institution. There was a tinge of nervousness in both of us, particularly for the need to satisfy expectations from various parties. I understood that I needed to listen as much as I wished to command as curator and that I needed to let his ideas flow with as little intervention and as much support as possible. We embarked with an agreement that the exhibition shall not be driven as a retrospective but a ‘project’. I suspected early in the endeavour that Lee would be pushing boundaries of sorts and quickly realised my potentially tumultuous ‘situation’ as an ‘institutional curator’ who shoulders responsibilities for the state and public. Nevertheless, I psyched myself to realising the most ideal outcome in line with Lee’s personal vision of the project within limitations of budget, space, time and administration. His objective at this point rests on the word ‘surreal’.

 

Soon after, Lee handed me the title of the exhibition, Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real, which in short, describes the seemingly realistic dreams we often experience and are able to manouver with purposeful and rational decisions, only to wake up to a ‘more real’ reality. Along with it, Lee listed a compilation of slightly more than twenty paintings and installations combined. Most of the installations however, would have to be re-created as they have been destroyed for the lack of storage space after earlier outings. This list steadily grew and evolved into the final presentation of more than forty individual artworks (excluding documentation pieces) within days of the exhibition’s opening. Lee had initially feared that the exhibition would turn into ‘narcissus’’ galleries, filled with endless portraits of himself on paper and video. This ‘fear’ is understandable as the artists’ physicality is the basis and media that drives the art in the work of a performance artist. As a practical exercise, we laid every proposed artwork onto the floor-plans of the museum; at once claiming every available space around the officially allocated ones. Galleries were intentionally left un-segmented by themes and chronology. Selected works, even if they were performance relics or meant as part to an eventual intervention, has to be able to stand on its own, and documentations of previous performances and earlier editions would be placed at their side. This could be in the form of videos, played back through digital photo-frames and LCD screens or printed as photographs as a point of reference. The artworks should also span Lee’s far ranging practice. The idea was for visitors to encounter one artwork at a time, respond accordingly and not be overly bothered by chronology. As the basic frame and body of the exhibition was constructed, we divided the allocation of artwork fabrication between artist and contractors. Those with clear technical drawings such as the Splash! tunnel, Ping Pong Go-Round and Deviant: ten days of nine did not meet, enter mountain sees big worm that did not require the hands of the artist was contracted to professional builders; the others would be made by Lee along with the help of his assistants. Along the way, Lee alters and adapts his work to fit the ability of his collaborators and the requirements of the situation. For example, the ‘EVERYBODY’ stencil on cardboard boxes as part of Songs of Sisyphus in the Key of Narcissus were made and sprayed on by his assistant and young artist Wu Jun Han. Lee took a look at the initial few and asked for my opinion if the somewhat jagged and haphazard looking stencils fulfills its intent, or if it needed a more precise and clean finish. My opinion was that in consideration of his other installations, the rawness works fine and just like that, Jun Han continued stenciling the rest of the boxes that was to form Sisyphus’s ‘mountain’. Lee’s thinking and art-making processes continues and advanced in this consultative manner to evolve as each exhibit unfolds within the galleries.

 

Amongst the other challenges in putting the exhibition together was the collation of documentary photographs. Many of these important photographs were shot in pre-digital era using film and throughout the years coupled with haphazard storage conditions, their quality deteriorated. These hundreds of photos have to be painfully and individually scanned, retouched and archived before being chosen for re-print as artworks or used as part of the various publications accompanying the exhibition. Another challenge was to re-edit and shorten the various documentary videos in time to accompany the installations. Lee understood that visitors are unlikely to spend long periods viewing these performance videos in every gallery, hence he presents the Resource Room, a room of his personal archives which include various full-length DVDs of his performances as a collaboration with Syed Muhd Hafiz.  

Ping-Pong Go Round (1998), Melbourne, Australia, organised by Artists Museum. Featured in The Straits Times, Singapore, 2 Apr 1998

The work of artists such as Lee Wen have become all the more important, particularly in keeping the conscience and clarity of the cultural vision, especially for a result and economy driven population such as that of Singapore.

 

For a sustained period, institutions such as Queensland Art Gallery (Australia), Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan) and the Singapore Art Museum have been presenting contemporary art from the Southeast Asian region. This engagement with art from the region has gained momentum in the past few years and has ricocheted and heightened the market interest for its art and artists. Singapore for example, recently saw to the 2nd installment of Art Stage, a mega-scaled, state supported, international contemporary art fair, eclipsing ARTSingapore, the now defunct, locally organised, de-facto, contemporary art trade event in Singapore for 10 years. Last year in 2011, the Singapore Art Museum mounted Negotiating Home, History and Nation: two decades of contemporary art from Southeast Asia, 1991-2011, issues related to the social and politics reigned, demonstrating how art has become an important voice for change and reflecting the concerns of various communities from the region.

 

Furthermore, in the face of global economic, environmental and political uncertainties, arts and culture seemed to have manifested a renewed ability to connect and empower communities together. For example, just recently, in February 2012, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) in Singapore published recommendations as part of its Arts and Culture Strategic Review (ACSR)[7] initiative, laid out by a specially organised steering committee and various working committees. As a result, the mantra and strategic thrust ‘arts and culture for everyone, everyday and everywhere’ was created and promoted through the state’s various enabling organs. Lee has often raised concern of the adverse impact for such initiatives could have with me, as I was one of the members in the ACSR working committee. This is understandable as he has his interests rooted for the organic, rather than an overly administered development of the arts as well as grassroots community.

 

In Southeast Asia, Lee’s practice is peered by similarly notable artists and activists such as Chumpon Apisuk (Thailand), Tran Luong (Vietnam), Wawan Christiawan (Indonesia), Wong Hoy Cheong (Malaysia) and Ronaldo Ruiz (Philippines). These artists, whose practice are also mostly embedded within the performance art discipline, have met and conversed regularly, at times, organising formal regional meetings and events with each other’s support. It is also not surprising that performance art forms the essence of their practice. These artists place relevant and pressing local concerns above others, and not just through their individual art making, but also with activities such as the organising of art events, forums and blogs.

 

Often buried with suspicion and dismissed as attention seeking, controversial and westernised, performance art as a form has suffered various setbacks and in Singapore, especially since the much debated Brother Cane was delivered by Josef Ng in 1993.[8] In my opinion, Lee Wen has successfully crushed the fallacies that befall local performance artists through his exhibition. His works challenges our ethos and reminds us to dispose all mental baggage before we can be ready to encounter art. Art as itself cannot be biased and exists only to beseech our embrace, consideration or rejection, where even rejection is evidence of engagement. Through his installations and other demonstrations of his practice, Lee opens room for unrestricted interaction, created space for contemplation and demonstrated a lifelong embrace to humanness. Yellow in his work, can not only be the colour of his ethnicity, but also of gold, sunshine, royalty and a blaring signal for us to beware of impending danger lest we be careless. We are reminded that sharing is key, open communication is a must and reflection is necessary whenever we fall into lapse. In viewing works by an artist such as Lee, we often unconsciously abandon the need to ask ourselves the value of impassive beauty and the worth of art in dollars; instead, we contemplate its purpose amidst our being.

First published by the Singapore Art Museum in Singapore Contemporary Artists Series, Lee Wen: Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real.

ISBN: 978-981-07-1881-7

[1] Comment by then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew on repealing the ban on chewing gum in Singapore as a means to encourage more creative thinking in the state. Singapore’s Elder Statesman, Peter Day, 5 July 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/820234.stm, accessed 1 Apr 2012

[2] Chinese Thought & its Relationship to Portraiture – a comparative overview, Lee Wen, January 1992, London

[3] Lee Weng Choy, Chronology of a Controversy, http://www.biotechnics.org/Chronology%20of%20a%20controversy.htm, accessed 1 Apr 2012

[4] Lee Wen, Exchange, dialogue, sharing resources, connecting networks..., http://infinitenada.weebly.com/artists-villagefoirites.html, 1 Dec 2011

[5] Lee Wen, op. cit., 1 Dec 2011

[6] FOI is an international performance art event in Singapore that Lee co-founded with artists Kai Lam and Jason Lim in 2003.

[7] http://www.acsr.sg/, accessed 1 Apr 2012

[8] Artist who performed ‘vulgar act’ arrested, The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings, 8 Jan 1994, pg.3