“I’m a freak from this society
I wear my hair, long and dirty
I’m a high school drop out
Just another jobless cop out”
Do these lyrics sound as if they were written by an anarchist punk band? Think again; these came from a song once performed by the late Cultural Medallion recipient Lee Wen.
Yes, that Lee Wen — one of Singapore’s most seminal performance artists, whose key works include Journey of the Yellow Man. It might be pretty surprising to imagine the artist doing so, but this is only one of the numerous quirks that Chan Li Shan’s biography Searching for Lee Wen: A Life in 135 Parts reveals.
Searching for Chan
Initially, I was insistent to know who Chan was — who was she, and what right did she have to tell the story of Lee Wen’s life? What were her motivations? I hadn’t heard of Chan before and only learned through the book that she was his friend and, at one point, assistant.
They had met in 2004, though Chan had no idea who Lee Wen was back then, and the two only became friends in 2012. On her interest in Lee Wen’s life of art-making, she notes:
“Not having a background in either art history or art criticism, I was curious from the perspective of an interested observer with no particular investment in the arts.”
While I initially found Chan’s perspective peculiar, it quickly dawned on me that I wasn’t reading a biography in the traditional sense, but also Chan’s account of her relationship with Lee.
Perhaps the fact that Chan doesn’t come from an arts background (she is described as a “writer, biographer, and mental health advocate”) was a strength; for readers could easily join in on her explorations into the nature of art.
Once that was out of the way, I could accept that the book merged the historical and the personal, and dove right in.
Diving into Lee Wen’s life
Format-wise, the biography is split into 135 mini sections and recounts major events in Lee’s life. It provides an insightful overview of Lee’s journey from a Raffles Institution student to banker to artist and Cultural Medallion recipient. Lee’s mentor and famed performance artist Tang Da Wu and The Artists Village (TAV) member Koh Nguang How also make several cameos.
Chan also chose to include a list of Lee’s favourite writers and requests to retrieve official reports, alongside other artists’ and professionals’ accounts of Lee — reminding us that art-making doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Simultaneously, Chan neatly contextualises these events with a handful of timelines. These touch on Singapore’s social and art history, and moments in Lee’s personal life. Some major events mentioned include Singapore’s 1990s economic boom; Josef Ng’s work Brother Cane, which was created in response to the country’s anti-gay operations in 1992; and the government’s resultant ten-year funding ban on unscripted performance art.
Other key moments in Lee’s life include his marriage to sculpture artist Satoko Sukenari; the passing of his close friend Harnek Singh, and Lee’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.
Peppered between these are Chan’s accounts of her friendship and conversations with Lee as well as lesser documented (and quite frankly, astonishing) periods in Lee’s life, such as his time making art in Tout Quarry, England and squatting with punks in London in the 1990s.
Warts, dreams, and all
Art history has a way of mythologising artists. Sometimes, we’re taught to focus on artists’ elaborate works rather than see those practitioners as what they are: people, who will always to some degree, be flawed.
Something I appreciated was Chan’s straightforward presentation of Lee Wen as a person, plain and simple. What I mean by that is there are no grandiose descriptions of his works or attempts to paint him as an influential individual — just someone trying to figure out his values and what art-making meant to him.
Neither did Chan shy away from Lee Wen’s occasional questionable behaviour. Very early on in the biography, Chan mentions how Lee once commented on a fellow artist’s breasts — though later juxtaposes the inappropriate comment with snapshots of Lee’s kindness to her and her family.
Chan even recounts her ups-and-downs with the artist; with him failing to pay her for a month’s work as his administrative assistant. This stuck with me, as I appreciated that Lee’s misconduct wasn’t glossed over or purposefully ignored; something that art history, unfortunately, tends to shy away from.
But Chan also contrasts these moments with Lee’s inner musings and moments of revelation, which offer great insight into his emotional state and psyche as he forged his artistic career.
Chapter 39: Art is Expensive reflects some undeniably formative moments that propelled Lee into pursuing an artistic practice. It recounts Lee’s encounter with colleagues at the bank where he worked. A colleague was astounded by a painting’s price and didn’t believe it was worth the money. In contrast, Lee silently disagreed, stating that “art was something that provided infinite pleasure and, as such, contained infinite value.”
Then, there are also small, light-hearted moments between Lee and Chan. One that made me chuckle in particular was Chapter 66: Trying to record a song, where the two tried to record a song. Lee sang briefly, before saying, “it’s no good, right.” To this, Chan responded, “Cannot lah.” Inclusions of scenes like this brought a smile to my face: in them, Lee isn’t a big-shot performance artist, but someone who was just goofing around with a friend.
Retracing Lee’s steps
Woven through these biographical scenes are accounts of Chan’s friendship with Lee and her first-person take on the events. While some might view them as sudden interjections of an interloping narrator, I quite enjoy the moments where Chan enters the scene, shares her thoughts, and relates them to how Lee might have seen the world.
The vignette that shines a light on Lee’s time in Tout Quarry, England, proves to be the strongest instance of this. Chan states that this part of his life is “mentioned very little in art catalogues, yet it marked the beginning of life as an artist.”
Lee travelled there for his first overseas artist residency, during which he spent with three other Singaporean artists and “discovered the language of stone” through a carving process.
Directly following this are short reflections of Chan’s 2017 journey to Quarry, where she walked down the same path that Lee Wen took over two decades prior. After contemplating the landscape, she imagined what it might have been for Lee Wen to work there. Musing Lee’s photograph of a seaside cliff by the quarry, titled Take Off, Chan lovingly pondered:
“Take Off represented his hopes and dreams for his future as an artist, that retrospectively, we now know to have been realised in his trajectory. I then posed the question to myself: Am I somebody who wants to fly?”
Chan called this process ‘footstepping’ — “to almost literally retrace the steps of a person in a place important to that person’s life.” On top of travelling to the Isle of Portland (where the Quarry was located), she also headed to Lee Wen’s home in Japan, sitting in a room that Lee was known to spend a lot of his time in.
“Footstepping allows the writer to visualise better particularities specific to that person’s life,” Chan explained in her author’s note.
The end of an era
Finishing the biography, I heaved a sigh of relief — it felt like coming up for air after deep-diving into both Chan’s and Lee’s minds for weeks on end.
Overall, it was a satisfying read: Chan had painted a holistic picture of Lee, down to his quirks, gripes, and ambitions. If you’ve ever wondered about the littlest bit about Lee Wen or what art ‘means’, Searching is bound to open your eyes.
It’s also evident that Chan wrote about Lee with great admiration and a desire to understand him. Her laborious process reflected her dedication to the artist, as she sifted through interviews and oral history interviews at the National Archives, and travelled the world to place herself in Lee’s shoes. She even paid a visit to his family in Tokyo, where she went through his official documents, notebooks and photographs.
Ultimately, Searching also asks the bigger questions about who is qualified to tell the stories of artists. Sure, specialised arts journalists and scholars might come to mind. But it’s also important to hear from those who knew artists personally, as they may provide new, unique perspectives that academic research might never touch on.
If anything, Searching proves that a trustworthy friend — someone who is dedicated to understanding others — might be one of the best perspectives from which stories can be told.
One thing’s for sure: I can never look at another one of Lee’s works again, without thinking about the fierce passion and relationships that shaped his character and inevitably, his practice.
Searching For Lee Wen by Chan Li Shan is published by Epigram Books. Get your copy here.
Chan Lishan will be speaking at a talk at Epigram Coffee Bookshop @ Singapore Art Museum, Tanjong Pagar Distripark on 29 October 2022. Click here to find out more.