My very first meeting with Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen was an eye-opening experience. Here was a man so remarkably unguarded and open about himself that I couldn’t help but feel completely at ease in his company. This openness shows in his many of his works, which also include writings and paintings, where he is unabashedly opinionated about social and political issues.
Lee Wen is probably best known for his Journey of a Yellow Man, performance series in which he douses himself in yellow poster paint as a symbol of his “yellowness.” Taking place in different countries, the work questioned what it meant to be Chinese while addressing the effects of the Chinese cultural diaspora. Apart from having a meaty CV, the artist was also a recipient of the Cultural Medallion in 2005, Singapore’s highest honour in culture and the arts.
I approached Lee Wen for an interview at the exhibition launch for Journey of a Yellow Man. Selected Materials from the Independent Archive by the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, where he was part of the opening performance.
Using a selection of materials ranging from photographs and videos to writings and sketches from the Independent Archive (IA), the show presents works by Lee Wen and other regional and international performance artists. The IA is a collaborative platform founded by Lee Wen back in 2012 to preserve the memories of art, particularly performance art, in Singapore and the region. It uses Lee Wen’s artistic journey as a narrative with the intention to emphasise the importance of keeping archival records in the arts.
Before we could start the interview proper though, Lee Wen tells me how hungry he is.
Reaching out for a McWing before him, he scarfs it down before passing me his phone, telling me to read the last text message that just came in. “I can’t see very well,” he explains. “Parkinson’s. Do you know Parkinson’s?”
As I read out his last text message for him, he leans in closer to look at the message and lets out a laugh.
And with that, I warm up to him considerably.
Settling back into his wheelchair, he appears frail and stooped. He tells me he has been battling the disease for about 10 years now. “I have been having these headaches recently –migraines,” he confides.
How does he still maintain his practice as an artist then? He shrugs, as best as he can. “I don’t know. I just do it when it comes to me.”
There is a moment of poignancy when he recounts two incidents where he fell out of his wheelchair outside his home.
“Nobody bothered to help me up. Everybody just walked by me…I just cried inside, you know. I think people here are really heartless…But I cannot blame them. I blame our situation. The pursuit of progress, of money… that’s what makes them heartless.”
His aversion to capitalistic pursuits is seen in the opening performance for the exhibition, where a red dress, cast within a block of ice, stands stationary under the sweltering heat of Singapore’s weather.
The red dress was previously seen in another work of his, The Call of the Red (2013), in which he was seen donning the red dress and a wig/black cloth. In the artistic performance, he turns into his mother and pines for her long-gone husband. The red dress made a reappearance in his writing, Return to Daydreams (2013), where it was described as being cast in a block of ice. In the opening performance, we see the manifestation of this description.
Lee Wen relates the red dress to the“ideals”and “core values”in society, the one “symbolically put on our state insignias, such as our national flags and coat of arms.” By casting the red dress in ice, the artist is showing that our ideals and values have been frozen in place and in time, remaining dormant, unused and forgotten
Pages torn from the exhibition’s catalogue are plastered onto the ice block. They are a “relic of past performances.” The red dress stands as a silent witness to the cries and appeals of the artists. The scene exposes the apathy of society as a whole. But perhaps it is not our fault. Perhaps it is our circumstances that cause us to be apathetic.
Lee Wen sits by the side, holding on to a guitar as he observes the scene.
A man with a buzz cut dressed in a white shirt and black trousers strides in. Using a packet of yellow grains—possibly millet, which is a staple food for parts of Asia and Africa—he proceeds to draw a hammer and sickle.
Is that a symbol of communism, I wonder? I ask Lee Wen afterwards, but he tells me no; it is a symbol of socialism. The man salutes the dripping ice block, and a siren cuts through the air, sounding like the “Important Message” signal used in the Public Warning System in Singapore.
What is the important message Lee Wen is telling us? The symbol of socialism, constructed using grains, lies at the foot of the frozen red dress.
Is Lee Wen telling us to follow the ideals of socialism? Leon Trotsky in his The Revolution Betrayed, defines socialism as such:
“Socialism if it is worthy of the name, means human relations without greed, friendship without envy and intrigue, love without base calculation.”
The signal comes to an end. The man with the buzz cut leaves. And Lee Wen moves in to greet the audience, calling us “fellow prisoners.” He intends for this to be a term of endearment, a term which he also uses to refer to his fellow artists. He tells us that the place where we’re standing now—Gillman Barracks—used to be a prison. “We are all prisoners in paradise,” he says, echoing the words he wrote in Return to Daydreams:
“We do not live in a country with no names but we may soon be if we do not learn to deal with our future history of mistaken anonymity, an anonymity based on our inability to be strong individuals within an oppressive state that pretends to give us our rights while keeping us in the golden cage of paradise.”
He proceeds to strum his guitar, serenading us with a few lines from Money for Nothing, a song by rock band Dire Straits.
“Why so serious,” he asks. We are silent, like the red dress cast in ice. He wheels himself closer to us, turning to a member in the audience.
“He’s a friend,” he tells the rest of us. “We used to drink beers together.”
Turning to his friend, who looks slightly embarrassed by the sudden attention, Lee Wen fondly reminisces about a drinking session they had together.
Lee Wen then turns to another audience member, a stranger this time. He asks for his name before engaging him in a conversation and passing him his guitar.
“Can you play something?” he asks.
His interaction with the audience feels strangely discomfiting. The rest of us shuffle about, wondering if this is all part of the performance?
Later, he explains why he does what he does:
“I don’t believe in art making; I believe in heart making. I want to bring people together through my work. I want to get them talking, eye to eye. We don’t have enough of that. Why are we spending so much on the military, which can breed war? We should instead be spending on international exchanges through culture, which can cultivate friendships.”
“Making friends,” he concludes. “That’s what’s most important.”
After the performance, I overheard Lee Wen telling someone that the red dress had been at Gillman Barracks since 2 pm (the show had started at 6 pm). “I thought it would have melted by now,” he tells him, the disappointment evident from his tone.
Was he also disappointed by society’s resistance or slowness to change?
Throughout our interview—or more accurately, conversation, we were frequently interrupted by people coming to talk to him. Through the easy banter, the shared jokes and the physical displays of affection, I saw a man surrounded by friends.
The exhibition, Journey of a Yellow Man. Selected Materials from the Independent Archive, manages to capture this aspect of Lee Wen well. While its main intention is to address “the importance of providing historically significant source material for researchers and the wider public,” its focus on Lee Wen’s work meant it felt more like a personal homage to the performance artist.
You see visual records of Lee Wen’s collaborations with other artists. There are letters he addressed to his friends. There are written records of tumultuous episodes he experienced with his fellow performance artists, most notably in the period of the 1990s to early 2000s when the Singapore government banned funding for performance art. The show displays pictorial evidence from performance artists who, like him, experienced disapproval from institutions. Through these archival records (as with the performance earlier), we see that Lee Wen never stands alone.
Lee Wen has always believed in collaboration. In his essay, Permutations of Individualism, he sees performance art as a way to tamper egoism: “Performance art may be a language of individualism but it need not be egocentric or manifested only as solo presentations.”
When we were once again interrupted by another acquaintance of his, I took it as my cue to leave.
We said our goodbyes. “I’ll see you around,” he smiles, as best as he can.
Despite conversing for all of ten minutes, I am struck by how he has already made me feel like a friend.
Journey of a Yellow Man. Selected Material from the Independent Archive runs till 25 November 2018 at The Lab, the NTU Centre of Contemporary Art Singapore.