Variations on The Exquisite Body Lucy Davis Ray Langenbach Lee Weng Choy Adele Tan June Yap
Prologue LEE WENG CHOY When the five of us – Adele Tan, Lucy Davis, Ray Langenbach, June Yap and I – were invited to contribute to this publication, we each began in the usual way, planning our respective contributions as individual essays. However, as we talked amongst ourselves, the prospect of writing collaboratively was raised, and we all took to the idea. It made sense, given the subject matter. How should one tell a story about Lee Wen and his art? – well, certainly not in a conventional way. And so we devised to write, not so much a ‘group essay’, but a series of interconnecting texts as a group. Our reference point was the Surrealist game of the ‘Exquisite Corpse’, in which the first participant in a group of artists would create a drawing or text, fold it over, and then pass it to another artist, who, blind to the previous contribution, adds another section and in turn passes it on. We decided against the blind approach, but kept with the notion of intervening into each other’s texts. This more collaborative, dialogical, experimental and playful form of writing we felt was an appropriate way to embody the collaborative, dialogical, experimental and playful ethos of Lee Wen’s art. We each chose to discuss specific aspects and themes in Lee Wen’s body of work, but, as a way of organising our project, we also chose a specific body part as well. As the reader will see in our various texts, anatomy figures centrally in Lee Wen’s practice, and taking on these separate organs was – for us, at any rate – a useful way of approaching and making sense of the artist’s oeuvre. Our choices were far from comprehensive or obvious; for instance, we’ve left out the heart and the head. This is what we’ve got: Adele has chosen to speak about the ear; for Lucy it’s a kind of limb, wings; Ray speaks of the spine, and June, the feet, while I am concerned with the liver. Other parts get a mention here and there, such as the skin, mouth and eyes. The first five texts the reader encounters are our opening remarks. We then respond to these texts in either of two ways: (i) as an intervention within the space of these five opening texts, or (ii) as a second text on its own, a commentary that reflects on all our opening remarks as a whole (this is the case with both June and Lucy). These various texts have been laid out in a particular sequence so that the reader may approach them in a linear fashion. But the reader is also encouraged to engage the texts in multiple directions, given that the commentaries criss-cross each other and our different voices layer one another.
Preceding & facing page: Anthropometry Revision #4, 2006, video stills, video shot by Chua Chye Teck, digital manipulation by Muhammad Izdiharuddin. Presented at Lee Wen's MA Fine Arts graduation exhibition, at the LASALLE College of Fine Arts.
22 / 23
24 / 25
The Profane Ear (in a habit of earnestness) ADELE TAN
Anthropometry Revision #4, 2006, video stills, video shot by Chua Chye Teck. Presented at Lee Wen's MA Fine Arts graduation exhibition, at the LASALLE College of Fine Arts.
adjective. Also, a·cous·ti·cal. 1. pertaining to the sense or organs of hearing, to sound, or to the science of sound. 2. of a building material designed for controlling sound. 3. Music a) of, pertaining to, or being a musical instrument whose sound is not electrically enhanced or modified; b) arranged for or made up of such instruments: an acoustic solo; an acoustic group. We forget that the country’s name begins with S-I-N-G. We were therefore born to song, verse, rhythm and beat. It was an acoustic birthright squandered when the orchestrated anthems at the national day parade became the major form of music we could have every year on August ninth. Armed with his guitar and poetry, Lee Wen’s arsenal is made of notes, words and the ether in the air; he is the self-anointed last hippie of Singapore and a defender of the revolution of music where there is close to none left. In the province of performance art practice which he has embodied for more than twenty years, few recognise that music stands at the core of his art, his politics, his ethics and his pleasure. Music as a different focal point transposes gazing towards hearing and speaking, shifting our sights from his visual codification as Yellow Man to listening to him as a troubadour of ‘Anyhow Blues’. This is the addendum that we do not get in photographic documents of performances: photographs act in different ways but nonetheless remain mute. We get the most lucid statement on this acoustic dream on his own page at the music website REVERBNATION.com:
taking a walk with a note … or a line made from the kitchen of consciousness from silence we get music stillness leads to action good is good bad is not bad to find my own voice, i must first listen to it 1 That we neglect this aspect of his art does not mark this interposing of music as exceptional; Lee Wen stands in an illustrious line of performance artists who have taken music, poetry, sound, silence and the function of the ear as pivotal as those carried out by other parts of the body. We immediately call to mind the names John Cage, George Brecht, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Morman, Bruce Nauman and especially Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono, whose respective practices ventured also to the heart of commercial or popular music-making just as Lee Wen’s has. But other genre tags in the art world like sound artist, experimental composer, or avant-garde musician have eluded him or are less easily applicable. He could just be your everyday aspiring rocker and rock concert fan. He is also a product of the traditional dance, music and indigenous rituals that he has witnessed in his many travels and from which he has gleaned many ideas. As Lee Wen describes it, he is merely “a strung out folk singer re-learning how to play his guitar again, at times unable to keep rhythm or forgetting his lyrics” but nevertheless a potent “expression of a desperate struggle for the individual’s voice to assert a place in a commercially driven and essentialist engineered culture of contemporary society”.2
Anyhow Blues Project, 2010 ‘Survey from Singapore, FADO’ at Toronto Free Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1 October 2010)
Less preoccupied by rules and labels in the colloquial sense of ‘anyhow also can’ but of a spontaneity undiminished by discipline, Lee Wen’s use and making of music is eclectic, organic, capricious and most importantly, associative – the socius is taken apart in the song. Friedrich Nietzsche once declared that: “[M]an ought to suffer from the destiny of music as from an open wound. From what do I suffer when I suffer from the destiny of music? From the fact that music has lost its world-transforming, affirmative character – that it is decadent music and no longer the flute of Dionysus”.3
See http://www.reverbnation.com/leewen, accessed 30 January 2012. His online tags are: ‘Other / Performance Art, Indie, Alternative, Folk, Punk, R / Conscious Rock’.
Quoted from Lee Wen, ‘Anyhow Blues Project’, http://infinitenada.republicofdaydreams.com/anyhow-blues-project.html.
Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Wagner Case’, in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1908), http://www.lexido.com/ EBOOK_TEXTS/ECCE_HOMO_.aspx?S=14.
26 / 27
For Lee Wen, music in his performance world approximates this Dionysiac attack against the decadence of torpid art, one that is of a negation of a life lived whole and the making of a style that is about separation, division, calculation and artifice. And although his ‘Anyhow Blues Project’ takes aim at Theodor Adorno’s slighting of jazz, pop music and protest rock as deleterious affectations against art, this does not invalidate Adorno’s main argument about the fetishism of exchange value or social valuation in the meretricious music industry of late capitalism.4 One only needs to look at Lady Gaga’s recent reclamation of her own place within performance art history by citing Marina Abramovic, Leigh Bowery and Yoko Ono as instigators for her own entertainment output.5 A number of Lee Wen’s works are not of or about music per se, but deploy apposite reference to music to drive through a train of concepts and emotions. In Give Peace a Chance: Redux (11–15 September, Singapore 2006, Singapore Management University, Underpass Concourse), Lee Wen teamed up with fellow artist Kai Lam for a revised iteration of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s 1969 Bed-in for Peace which was a protest against the futility of the Vietnam War. Lee Wen and Kai Lam set up a bed in an empty shop space, decorated it with hippie tie-dyed cloths, rainbow-hued rugs, an anti-war poster and screened a video of the original ‘bed-in’, in a bid to attract visitors to come in to discuss the politics of war and peace, sing some Beatles songs and somehow get them to also realise that at the time, anti-capitalist activists were banned from entering the country during the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting in Singapore. The artists saw that they had a duty to redress the problem of ignorance in our youth, not only in the field of politics but also in the history of music and of performance art, where Ono’s place has been held in lesser regard. The music itself is therefore not the focal point but it is that which essentially animates the relationships that Lee Wen would like to draw out in a given situation or performance.
Give Peace a Chance: Redux, 2006 In collaboration with Kai Lam Underpass Concourse, Singapore Management University, Singapore (11 – 15 September 2006) Photograph by Chua Chye Teck and courtesy of the artist
Similarly, in his Anthropometry Revision: Yellow Period (after Yves Klein) #1, first presented at Red & Grey Art Contemporary in Chengdu, China, on 13 April 2008, Lee Wen’s infiltration and sinicisation of this classic piece of
See Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’ (1938), in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947), M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, ed. G. S. Noerr, tr. E. Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
See Alex Petridis, ‘From Yoko Ono to Lady Gaga: How Pop Embraced Performance Art, in The Guardian, 7 July 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jul/07/performance-art-pop-lady-gaga-yoko-ono.
28 / 29
Western performance art would not be complete without him also replacing the music of Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony with his own invention of a comparable Pentatone Symphony. Setting himself apart from the hygienic ways of Klein, Lee Wen slathered himself with yellow paint and proceeded to conduct his all-female classical Chinese orchestra, which had each of the five traditional Chinese instruments play one of the five notes of the pentatonic scale. The second iteration in Singapore, performed with artists Arai Shinichi and Lynn Lu (10 September 2008 at Soobin Art International) had a different musical purchase, with Lee Wen swapping out the Chinese orchestra for live music provided by his fellow The Artists Village members Kai Lam and Jeremy Hiah, who had electronically mixed and amplified the hypnotic strumming of the monotonic Jew’s harp. With this change of music, the second revision moved away from the original remit of placing Klein’s performance within a Chinese frame, but closer to contemporising and globalising it. The music no longer becomes superfluous accompaniment in the background but is the structural provocation that maintains the performance’s authenticity of redefining symbolic universes.6 For Slavoj Žižek, there are extreme ethical stakes in any authentic act, where that generative moment of subjectivity entails sacrificing the most precious part of oneself. Whilst Lee Wen does not immediately advocate that as the politics of his music, one of Lee Wen’s most memorable personifications is that of his assumption of the archetypal malevolent ‘bad-ass’ character of Stagger Lee (which is performed to the titular song by Nick Cave and echoes the unsteady walk that Lee Wen has due to his Parkinson’s disease). Stagger Lee was a legendary murderer (a man named Lee Shelton) that became immortalised in song, and is the “embodiment of a tough black man – one who is sly, streetwise, cool, lawless, amoral, potentially violent, and who defies white authority”.7 In all the wild epithets given to Stagger Lee, we seemed to have lost sight of his original crime, one which had been motivated by an argument about politics; Shelton had coolly walked off after shooting dead his friend William Lyons because Lyons had snatched away his hat during the argument. One is tempted to read Stagger Lee’s gesture not as evil but uncompromising to the extent that he could give up
I take this idea of authenticity from what Slavoj Žižek defines as the authentic act: “What an authentic act is precisely what allows you to break out of this deadlock of the symptom, superego and so on. In an authentic act I do not simply express, or actualize my inner nature. I rather redefine myself, the very core of my identity.” See: ‘The Superego and the Act: A Lecture by Slavoj Žižek, August 1999’, European Graduate School, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/thesuperego-and-the-act. I do not assume that Lee Wen’s art is emblematic of that radical authentic act but rather provides the opportunity for such acts to be assumed by the beholder.
Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Stagger Lee Shelton’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stagger_Lee_Shelton.
his own freedom to uphold his stand. It is therefore poignant that Lee Wen recuperates this sinister haunting from the song by making Stagger Lee (a cigar-chomping, hammer-wielding and cross-dressing liminal figure in his performances) our enduring folk hero, our moral compass and voice of social discontent in a world of despots, dictators and autocrats. It may only begin with the listening of a song to effect a changed vision of the world, as Lee Wen puts it to us, and in the so-called post-humanist 21st century, it is no longer far-fetched to imagine that parts of our body can also carry out the functions of other corporeal parts. The Greco-Australian performance and new media artist Stelarc’s ‘third ear on arm’ feat suitably
Almost Untitled: Stagger Lee, 2008 “Blow!5 - Performance Art Meeting between Singapore & Germany”, at Hildesheim & Ilsede, Germany Photograph by Kai Lam and courtesy of the artist
reminds us of future possibilities in store that will transform this simple act of listening into a gathering of a multitude of actions.8 And like the Duchampian R. Mutt master that he is, Lee ‘signs’ off his Chengdu anthropometric prints with a stone seal carved with the shape of his ear, a signature stamp that is literally an index of his own self, verifying Lee Wen’s authorship of his bodily prints by ratifying them with earfuls of pigment. Therefore, écoutez-bien, this (Lee Wen’s) daydream is not a pipe dream. A nation needs a song. Lend us your ear.
Unsatisfied with a mere cell-cultivated ear implanted beneath his forearm’s skin, Stelarc hopes to implant a Bluetooth microphone and transmitter inside this ear so that what this ear hears can be broadcast over the internet, in an act of telematic empathetic listening.
30 / 31
The Ear, the Mouth, the Song, the Liver
Lee Weng Choy
By definition, an analysis is an examination that breaks down the entity in question into its constituent parts. The reader can thus imagine the five of us writers, hovering over the body of the artist, as if dissecting the poor thing, at times closely reading certain works from his oeuvre, at other times fixing upon an organ and pursuing metaphorical associations. But, of course, looking at one part of the body always leads to the consideration of another. To wit: to hear a song is to encourage singing; an active ear prompts an active mouth. In my own opening remarks, I make a passing reference to utopian statements in Lee Wen’s songs. I wasn’t quite sure how to make sense of Lee Wen’s singing in relation to his performance art work, and I am grateful to Adele for exploring the connections here. The performing body is also a singing body, and vice versa. Adele argues that Lee Wen’s singing “stands at the core of his art, his politics”. Some might want to associate the ‘core’ with the heart, although in this case, the organ I’d like to highlight as the seat of deep emotions and convictions is the liver. In this game we’re playing – identifying body parts with themes in Lee Wen’s art – there is a presumption of playful irony. The liver may not readily come to mind when we think of the most ironic organ of the body, but hey, why not nominate it as such? Adele contends that Lee Wen sings with utmost earnestness, but couldn’t we say instead that he is being impossibly sincere?
One morning in 2002 Lee Wen awoke to find himself transformed into an ‘Artist of the People’. Anthropometry Revision #4, 2006, video stills, video shot by Chua Chye Teck. Presented at Lee Wen's MA Fine Arts graduation exhibition, at the LASALLE College of Fine Arts.
When he lifted his head he could see his arms, clad in crisp, civil-servant style white shirt sleeves and firmly velcro-taped down by two stiff, blankwhite, wing-like canvases. Then, two inscriptions miraculously appeared, one on each wing: “Is Art Necessary?” and “What is Art Good for?”1. Two sequential videos, Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for?, written and performed by Lee Wen and filmed by Heman Chong, were part of Lee Wen’s solo exhibition ‘Everybody Should Be Happy’ (14–24 November 2002, Utterly Art, Singapore). The first follows Lee Wen as a born-again ‘Artist of the People’ or ‘Missionary Cultural Worker’ from his traumatic awakening, through a tour around Singapore. Wings aloft, he fluctuates between desperate endeavours to escape his condition and attempts to experiment with his new, chimeric transformation. He painstakingly scrambles up a pile of rubble and tries to take off and fly from the top of it. He strides down a suburban street like the best of doomsday prophets. Then he traverses a subterranean shopping mall, moving, as if driven, towards The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, which at the time of the video was Singapore’s most-recent, over-600-million-monstrous-Singapore-dollarsworth of mainstream arts infrastructural-investment. Once at the Esplanade, Lee Wen collapses on his knees, canvases still straining skywards. In a second video he flaps ineffectively around the Esplanade grounds earnestly trying to get passersby to respond to the writing on his ‘wings’. On the one hand (and in this performance we are talking about the hand that is velcro-taped to Lee Wen’s left wing and inscribed with the words
Paraphrase of the introductory paragraph of Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915; Tribeca Books, 2011).
32 / 33
Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for?, 1997 Performance at ‘2nd Asian Performance Art Series’, Tokyo, Japan
There have, however, been specific, historical anxieties amongst Singapore bureaucrats about what these strange, artistic creatures might conceivably be ‘playing at’ – particularly if they are playing at things in an unscripted fashion and in a public space.3 Peter Schoppert has written about how this anxiety also comes to expression in the excesses of signage on public artworks.4 To simplify Schoppert’s argument, this anxiety is perhaps as much about corralling art practice into formats that make government servants feel less stupid (or suspicious) as it is about opening an experience of art to a population at large.
In 1993, The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) Artistic Director Alvin Tan and Resident Playwright Haresh Sharma attended a workshop run by Brazilian theatre practitioner/theorist Augusto Boal in New York. They were among the pioneers in adapting strategies of forum theatre to a local context as a means of empowering community or audience agency. Later that year, TNS staged two very lively forum-theatre initiatives: one project problematised gender issues; the other, marriages across racial boundaries. Audiences were encouraged through participation and role-play to formulate outcomes to these open-ended problems.
“Is Art Necessary?”), Lee Wen in conversation, confesses a recurring anxiety about a larger social relevance of the work that he does. He genuinely wishes his performances would reach broader audiences. The many performance art festivals that he has been involved in curating of late, have, as Nora Taylor has argued, facilitated important links between artists, which perhaps retrace earlier, informal networks of regional cultural exchange through trade.2 However, Lee Wen has expressed concerns that these intensive nodes of performance art activity, with their rigorouslyscheduled, structured ‘enter-exit’ programmes, have ditched some of the genre’s previous spontaneity and capacity for public intervention/transformation, instead becoming (like so many other contemporary art events) as much initiatives that cater to a recurring, international crowd of performance artists and their entourages of videographers and art writers as they do a larger public. On the other hand, Lee Wen’s own practice at once embodies and confuses the dictates of accessibility and pedagogy that define much socially-oriented or public-engaged art of the region, refusing to answer the question canvassed by his right wing, right hand: “What is Art Good for?”, and preferring to take off, and crash, as the case may be, on more mercurial winds of absurdity, multivalence and caprice. The edict that artists explain themselves, ostensibly to ‘the people’ but in actual fact to power – be it in the language of state authorities or in the latest fashionable jargon of their art world contemporaries – is of course not exclusive to Singapore. The practice of artists strategically formulating their work in the ideological frameworks of the day and pinning their canvases to targeted, message- or theme-driven communication has a legacy as ancient as art patronage itself.
In the visual arts, a different but related trajectory of public and socially-engaged experimentation had been taken up by a number of artist’s groups, key being The Artists Village, founded in 1988 and initially based in a rural studio space in Sembawang. The Artists Village included artists such as Tang Da Wu, Amanda Heng, Koh Nguang How, Zai Kuning, Lee Wen and Vincent Leow. These artists became involved in a series of performance art events and happenings in various art and public spaces around the Singapore. Another key group was 5th Passage Artists Ltd., which was founded in 1991 and run by Suzann Victor, Henry Tang, Susie Lingham and Iris Tan; as Susie Lingham puts it, the group was concerned with arts initiatives “in/with/for society”. She states, “Aiming to bring art right into the heart of society, its founders… approached Parkway Holdings, a corporate company that ran the very crowded Parkway Parade Shopping Centre in the east, with a proposal to turn the fifth floor passageway of the Office Tower Block – an incidental access to the car park – into a contemporary art space”. Here, 5th Passage organised interdisciplinary events, bringing together music, writers, visual artists and performance artists. (For a further discussion of the different artists institutions and individuals active in the early 1990s see Susie Lingham, ‘A Quota on Expression: Visions, Vexations & Vanishings – Contemporary Art in Singapore from the Late 1980’s to the Present’ in Negotiating Home History and Nation, ed. Iola Lenzi (Singapore Art Museum, 2011),. The controversy over performance art in Singapore centres on events that took place at the Artists General Assembly (AGA), an arts festival co-organised by 5th Passage and The Artists Village held at 5th Passage in Parkway Parade, from 26 December 1993 to 1 January 1994. After midnight on New Year’s Eve, Josef Ng performed Brother Cane, which, among other things, protested the caning of 12 gay men convicted of soliciting sex. In its reporting, The New Paper tabloid sensationalised Brother Cane, and the performance became the focal point of controversy. Quickly reacting to the tabloid coverage, the National Arts Council (NAC) condemned the performance and Ng, who was later charged in court with obscenity, pleaded guilty and was fined. Ng and another artist who performed at the AGA, Shannon Tham, were banned from performing in Singapore. Following the controversy on performance art, on 5 February 1994, Felix Soh from The Straits Times wrote an article linking Augusto Boal to Marxist cultural practices. In the article, entitled ‘Two pioneers of forum theatre trained at Marxist workshops’, he asked whether The Necessary Stage was using theatre for political ends. The government proscribed performance art and forum theatre, claiming that because these art forms have no script and encourage spontaneous audience participation, they pose dangers to public order. The NAC stopped funding the art forms, performances would not be granted public licenses without a script, and at one point there was a requirement for at $10,000 deposit, although no artist actually submitted such a deposit. In 2003, a decade later, the NAC resumed funding and support of performance art. For a further discussion of the controversy see Sanjay Krishnan, et al., eds., Looking at Culture (Singapore: independently published, 1996); and Ray Langenbach, Performing the Singapore State: 1988–1995 (PhD dissertation, University of Western Sydney, 2004), http://handle.uws.edu.au:8081/1959.7/576. Peter Schoppert, ‘Kitsch and Public Art’, FOCAS Forum on Contemporary Art & Society, Vol. 3, 2002, pp. 90–118. Peter Schoppert, ‘More Trouble than it is Worth: What Can we Expect from Public Art in Singapore?’, in Eye of the Beholder: Reception, Audience and Practice of Modern Asian Art, University of Sydney East Asian Series, No.15 (Wild Peony Press, 2007), pp. 130–150.
Nora Taylor, ‘Networks of Performance Art in Southeast Asia’, in Negotiating Home History and Nation, ed. Iola Lenzi (Singapore Art Museum, 2011), pp. 47–55.
34 / 35
In Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for?, Lee Wen has, as noted above, his arms tied to two painter’s canvases – a material acceptable to 19thcentury conceptions of art making, which still hold sway in some sections of official Singapore culture. Instead of allowing him to take off and fly, these two canvas wings weigh Lee Wen down, pinning back his arms in the gesture of the crucified Messiah (an unasked-for position he shares with his literary twin, Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa-turned-blatella).5 In this posture, Lee Wen is literally ‘framed’ by his prosthetic appendages. They take control of his body movements, choreographing the awkward way that he throws himself at the mercy of passersby, asking them for answers, begging that they tell him what they believe the function of art to be. I wrote an unpublished response to Lee Wen’s Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for?, entitled ‘Insects as Others’ in 2003, just after the outbreak of the second Iraq war, which coincided, in turn, with a different outbreak – that of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). At the time, popular concerns about war and pestilence, purity and danger inflected my reading of Lee Wen’s metamorphosis into an ‘Artist of the People’ as he moved around, above and in the city underground. I argued how just as the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq and terrorist threats on Singapore had a sustained legitimacy for the Internal Security Act (ISA) – which sanctions detention without trial for two-year, renewable terms – that similarly with SARS, the government had found new impetus for an ongoing obsession with hygiene: in housing estates, malls and coffee shops islandwide, armies of zealous cleaners mounted an all-out war against bacteria, stray cats and dogs, rats, mosquitoes and cockroaches. While it had by 2003 already become standard, critical fare to state how Singapore government technologies of cleanliness and classification had historically been transferred to multiple arenas of everyday life – from official racial identifications to, population, education and housing policies – I argued in ‘Insects as Others’ how desires for clean boundaries and categori-
Loo Zihan Cane, 2012 Performance at The Substation Theatre, 19 February 2012 part of the ‘M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: Art & Faith’ Photograph by Samantha Tio and courtesy of Loo Zihan
cal orders were also interpellative and pointed out how boundaries between various, unofficial ethnic and sexual groups, subcultures, civil society and informal, volunteer assemblies were being constituted and self-constituted with equal fervour. More recently, supporters and detractors of rival, critical online sites have been marking out their precincts in the scorched ether from flaming frenzies on each other’s comments and forum spaces. And boundaries between different groups of artists have also been asserted via analogous attempts to police, for example, who is and who is not a ‘real’ punk rocker, or what a ‘proper’ performance art piece consists of, or what a ‘proper’ way to remember performance art histories might be.6 A strategy to invoke a conventional art making practice (painting on canvas) as a metaphor of containment – both of individual expression and also the body politic – is one that Lee Wen had chosen before. In the 11th of his Series of 'Yellow Man' performances, at The Substation in 1997 and during a conference on ‘Multi-culturalism in Singapore’, Lee Wen famously covered his body in yellow pigment and presented a paper, which both dispar-
At the end of 2011 there were, for example, online attempts by outraged members of the arts community to query what was and what was not performance art and how art histories ought to be remembered in the context of a series of re-enactments by Loo Zihan of performances by Josef Ng. Ng has been banned from performing in Singapore since his performance of Brother Cane on New Year’s Eve 1993/94 (See note 3, page 33). This has given Ng a counter-culture, somewhat heroic notoriety in Singapore that he himself finds difficult to handle. In early 2012, the discussion of Loo Zihan’s final reenactment (titled Cane, and staged as a one-time, ticketed event during The Necessary Stage’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival) was particularly heated, as different members of the online arts community sought to defend the memory of Josef Ng’s performance against what they saw as a Loo’s cannibalising or cashing-in on the original. I cannot claim academic detachment from these positionings and counter-positionings as I was one of those who felt drawn to defend the re-enactment as an opportunity to open-up dialogue on art and censorship in Singapore. Loo’s re-enactment was based upon Ray Langenbach’s documentation of the original event. Lee Wen (present during Josef Ng’s original performance) was another defender of Loo’s initiative. (See also June Yap’s note 2, page 68 and Ray Langenbach’s Epilogue, page 76.)
36 / 37
Left & Facing page: Journey of a Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism, 1997 Performance with chains, rice, basin, water, text ‘Multi-culturalism: In practice and on paper’, SeptFest Art Conference at The Substation, Singapore (September 1997) Photographs by Jeremy Hiah and courtesy of the artist
aged conservatism in Singapore art (and a preference for calligraphy and watercolour painting) and also critiqued Singapore’s essentialist multiracial categories. After giving the paper, he stripped to a pair of yellow briefs, like a holy man or sadhu and immersed his body in a rather-too-small zinc tub of water. While in this amphibious posture, the yellow pigment seeped from his skin and into the water around him. A much reproduced photograph of Lee Wen taken from above, shows his spindly frame curled in a tin bath of yellow liquid, face submerged under the surface. But during this rebirthing process, Lee Wen as sadhu/tadpole is unable to breathe underwater, much less swim about, just as Lee Wen with his messianic, angelic, birdman canvases (to offer allegiance, for the moment, to the more overt, metaphorical registers of Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for?) is unable to fly. Although vital juices are spent, the divine process of transforming the inside of the body to the outside is only part successful and a promise of change is abandoned half way. (My students call the Yellow Man tin bath photo Lee Wen’s ‘uncooked chicken curry’ shot.) After lying in the tub, Lee Wen washed the rest of the pigment off, filled plastic bottles with the liquid and offered this yellow essence – a parody of racial essentialist labelling – to the audience with the words “Now I’m a watercolour artist too”. Lee Wen’s performances are typically ambivalent. His attempts to transform himself according to popular ideological postures, whether as Yellow Man or as missionary cultural worker/artist of the people are at once playful and also for real. What is more, in certain controlled contexts, this intentionally unresolved alchemy of earnestness, parody and absurdity, produces obscene emissions: subtextual-substances; byproducts; secondary mutations of the immaculate states that Lee Wen never quite succeeds in becoming. I’ll end by proposing three encounters of this obscene-suggestive kind:
38 / 39
• Lee Wen’s attempt to transform into ‘That Most Yellow of All’ in a context of Singapore’s essentialist, multiracial policies emitted byproduct secretions which he bottled and gave away as sacred/profane offerings – holy water and/or sulphuric, used bath water – depending upon one’s persuasion. • Lee Wen’s performance Journey of a Yellow Man No.13: Fragmented Bodies / Shifting Ground at the Queensland Art Gallery, Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) 1999, heart of politically-correct Australia, took place in a context of a series of debates: about the placement of Aboriginal art in contemporary exhibitions; about Australian involvement in the newly-independent East Timor and about Australian desires to be part of Asia. His Yellow Man performance mutated, from one day to the next, from an initial exploration of a fetish for Chinese art7 into something much darker, via a second incomplete metamorphosis from yellow to black. In a second, unofficial and non-programmed performance, Lee Wen reappeared in blackface as Black Man – an obscene incarnation of world art market desires for, and artists’ desire to position themselves as, ‘That Most Marginal of All’. Covered in the racist, boot-polish makeup of the 1920s minstrel shows, Lee Wen turned up at the APT conference series doling out heart-shaped chocolates with his black-daubed hands (I imagine to uncomfortable laughter and an aftertaste of sin and shit). • And then in the forementioned Singapore 2003 context of obsession with purity, danger and control in which I first watched Is Art Necessary?/What is Art Good For?, I thought I caught a twitch – under the spotless white collar of the anxiously canvassing Arts Angel, of long nervous feelers and ‘That Most Repulsive of All’.
Slavoj Žižek in his much-cited essay on ‘Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capital’ recounts ways in which that the censored, forbidden desires (racial, violent, sexual) that underpin ideological consensus are revealed or flirted-with in brief moments or ‘slips’ by the authorities that be. For Žižek, ideology gains potency when there is a compelling but self-censored obscene component – an obscene subtext. He argues that it is not enough to critique how, for example identitarian, ideological positions are constructed. One must also reveal the censored enjoyment that makes such positions so compulsive. One must reveal the mechanisms by which power maintains a restricted, underground economy of obscene pleasure. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capital’, New Left Review, No. 225, Sept–Oct 1997.
Prosthetics and Publics Lee Weng Choy
In a text about the relationship between art and its audiences, it’s telling that Lucy should choose as her body part, a prosthetic. Yes, there are artists like Stelarc who work with body attachments, but I am less interested here in the gee-whiz coolness of artificial robotic arms, than in exploring the notion that something so intimately attached to the body can still be considered artificial and foreign (and usually not by the person with the prosthesis, but by others). Moreover, the body I’m thinking of is not just the individual human organism; in my reading, the ‘everybody’ in the exhibition title, ‘Everybody Should Be Happy’, also evokes the each and every body of the ‘body politic’: that conglomeration where individuals have an identity as distinct individuals and yet also belong to a people and a state – and ‘state’ not so much as a government mechanism, but the res publica, the public thing. This leads me to ask, does Singapore society treat the Singapore artist like a prosthesis? Something society sees as an extra attachment, which it wants, make no mistake – in order to be more cultured, more economically competitive, more happy – but is still ambivalent about, and still has trouble accepting as an intrinsic part of the whole. Lee Wen asks, “what is art for?”, which is also another way of asking, ‘who is art for?’, and ‘who’ speaks for this ‘who’? So how does this thing called the ‘public’ express itself? The ‘public’ should not be, as it is all too often conjured in Singapore (and elsewhere), the manufactured consent of the masses. Rather, we should listen to the ‘public’ speak, as it does, in terms of individual voices speaking in public spaces – like when artists speak/ perform/exhibit in art spaces. There is so much anxiety in Singapore about art’s audiences, and it’s not just emanating from the government. Not surprisingly, arts groups suffer this affliction as they struggle to expand their reach so they can present to their funders improved KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). The terms ‘audiences’ and ‘publics’ are often used interchangeably. Art audiences are more than just attendance figures, consumers of tickets, or various demographics; they have some intention to see art and that may separate them from the general crowd. But what sets a public apart from an audience is that the former, more so than the latter, seems to carry with it a moral dimension. Audiences may be out there to be reached, but publics are always constituted by some sense of purpose or identity. Art is not just an occasion for the production and consumption of contemporary culture, but, if artists do their job well, they offer moments where people gather together and feel some sense of belonging.
Invitation card for solo exhibition, ‘Everybody Should Be Happy’ at Utterly Art, Singapore, 2002
40 / 41
First Loves: Lee Wen Among the Dreamers LEE WENG CHOY
I want to talk about Lee Wen and the theme of ‘utopia’, and I have, as it were, a few pebbles in my pocket, which I’d like to take out and put on the table for a little show and tell. Anthropometry Revision #4, 2006, video stills, video shot by Chua Chye Teck. Presented at Lee Wen's MA Fine Arts graduation exhibition, at the LASALLE College of Fine Arts.
1) The first part of my title alludes to a short story by Samuel Beckett, ‘First Love’.1 Not that I am seriously proposing an interpretation of Lee Wen – or rather, any of his performance personas – as akin to a character from Beckett, but, then again, why not entertain the idea, and see where it takes us? The Irish writer is best known for his two-act tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot, a play where nothing happens – twice. Its protagonists, the tramps Vladimir and Estragon, pass the hours on the side of a barren country road, chatting, arguing, even pondering the meaning of it all, as they wait in vain for someone named Godot. Why Beckett? Lately, I’ve been thinking about art criticism and literature, and how the latter influences my own practice of the former. While it’s been a long time since I’ve been a student of literature, I’ve had this lingering doubt: novels may start off as promising – premises are laid out, characters and situations carefully developed; it’s all gripping and moving stuff – but then the endings disappoint. It’s not that I want the final portions of these books to sustain my interest by being more engaging, surprising or revelatory. Rather, my disappointment is philosophical. As if the writers did not fully think through the logics of their imagined worlds. Of course, there are some great exceptions to this generalisation. Beckett among them.
Works cited include: Samuel Beckett: ‘First Love’ in First Love and Other Shorts (New York: Grove Press, 1994); Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954); Murphy (New York: Grove Press, 1957); Molloy, Unnamable, in Three Novels by Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1965). Robert Pinsky, ‘The City’, in The New Yorker, 18 April 2011.
Beckett, if anything, is all about endings. His worlds are a relentless exploration of what is left to be said, when there is nothing left to be said. Amidst the apparent nihilism in his work, readers of Beckett admire the dark wit, the clarity and precision of his writing. From the opening of the novel Murphy – “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” – to Estragon, “Nothing to be done”, and Vladimir, “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion”, Beckett is the storyteller who exhausts the very urge to speak, and yet, as the voice in the Unnamable says, “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Ironically, for all the talk of ends and dying, Beckett is not about bringing literature to a dead end. It may be too much to say that ultimately he offers us hope – if his characters can go on, surely his readers can too. My wager is less about ‘hope’ than it is about ‘utopia’. I’d like to suggest that what Beckett offers – and Lee Wen too, in his own way – is a pebble to stick in the mouth and suck on. Hardly a vision of utopia, I know. There’s a famous passage from the novel Molloy where the title character describes in painstaking detail his various experiments in rotating his 16 ‘sucking stones’ from his two trouser and two overcoat pockets, so that he never sucks the same pebble twice in a row. I’d like to think that our ability to imagine utopia is somehow tied to knowing how to write the endings of novels – in learning how to take the imagination all the way. 2) If one were to choose a body part for these ruminations, it might be the mouth – I’ve been talking sucking stones, after all. But I’d like to go beyond the mouth to the internal organs, the liver, in particular. The liver is a vital organ with multiple functions, among them, digestion; while not directly involved in it, the liver is nonetheless essential to the process. The liver can regenerate itself, and there have been literary and cultural references about that capacity (the myth of Prometheus, for instance). Plato thought the liver to be the seat of the dark emotions. When I mentioned that for this publication, I might write about ‘utopia’, Ray suggested the liver would be an appropriate body part. Intuitively that made sense to me. More so when I imagine the Beckettian act of putting a pebble in the mouth to suck (as a way of merely passing the time, if not quite waiting for a better place than the present). To be sure, sucking stones can never truly be about nourishment and digestion; they are about ‘salivation’ – which if you misspell, can give you ‘salvation’. As for the liver and Lee Wen? Well, I’m hardly suggesting that 'Yellow Man', one of Lee Wen’s most well-known performance personas, is a jaundiced or cynical figure; on the contrary, for all his criticality, the artist seems genuinely to believe in the project of ‘imagining utopia’.
42 / 43
World Class Society, 1999–2000 Mixed media installation: soft sculptures, video, badges Dimensions variable Singapore Art Museum collection
The Republic of Daydreams, 2007 In conjunction with ‘Freedom of Daydreams, Mothers of Imagination’, solo exhibition by Lee Wen at Your Mother Gallery, Singapore, (11 September – 11 November 2007)
3) The second part of my title refers to a number of Lee Wen’s writings and statements, including a short work of fiction, ‘The Republic of Daydreams’, which was published as a booklet; he also has a blog with that name.2 Moreover, ‘dreaming’ and ‘daydreaming’ are recurrent themes in his songs. When one thinks of Lee Wen, it is his performance art pieces, installations and other art works that come to mind, and arguably less his writing, blogging and singing. In her opening remarks on ‘The Profane Ear’, Adele offers her interpretation of the relationship between the performance work and the singing. Lee Wen himself describes his ‘Anyhow Blues Project’ as responding, in part, to “Adorno’s critique that popular music and the protest songs of the ‘60s are in fact pretentious commercialism. Anyhow Blues Project readdresses the ‘high art/low art’ debate in [its] nonchalant presentations as a strung out folk singer re-learning how to play his guitar again, at times unable to keep rhythm or forgetting his lyrics.”3
‘Anyhow Blues Project’ was recently performed at The Substation in 2011. See http://leewen.republicofdaydreams. com/anyhow-blues-project.html.
4) ‘Absurd’ is a word for Beckett’s worlds, but ‘silly’ can serve well too. There is something (sometimes wonderfully) silly about utopias, even though one tends to think the scale and tone of utopia as grand and serious in its ambitiousness. First exhibited as part of Nokia Singapore Art 1999, Lee Wen’s installation World Class Society comprised the following: a stuffed white globe with wings, a stuffed star in a glass case; a bunch of survey forms posted onto a wall, asking people what they thought constituted ‘world class’; and a TV covered with a long cloth funnel, through which one would peer in. On screen was Lee Wen himself, preaching like a possessed propagandist. By virtue of the force of his insistence, he called forth Singapore as a “World Class Society … with a world class airport … a world class government … world class artists … and a world class museum”. The video is almost hypnotic in its concentrated repetition, yet its language is almost interchangeable with the state’s. The white cloth funnel only intensifies the experience, making it less like watching a screen than being inside the dream world of ideology. Becoming ‘world class’ is a bureaucrat’s vision of utopia, and it begs to be parodied. The problem with parody is that sometimes the ‘thing’ itself is inadvertently far more self-parodying than any commentary. Yet for all its inadvertent self-parody, Singapore sometimes seems like a nation without irony. It is as if the irony here is only latent and needs awakening and re-membering. 5) The smallness of utopia… There’s a poem by Robert Pinsky, ‘The City’, where he ruminates about his own cultural heritage, the city and civilisation – trying to get some perspective on the larger questions of life. What I like most about the poem is how it begins: “I live in the little village of the present”. Beckett’s ‘First Love’ is a short story told by an unnamed narrator about his youthful first and only love. It concludes, “there it is … Either you love or you don’t”.
So here they are, my pebbles, my propositions, prompts or provocations…
44 / 45
“through force of insistence” draw the viewer in, down the white tube, like a snake charmer, this snake-charmer-preacher is at the end of the day, far, far away on a tiny TV screen. There is no way to go any deeper, anywhere dangerous where we might get bitten. I sway back and forth for a bit, enjoy the dance, lick my fingers and move on.
Lee’s Crown Ray Langenbach
In this confluence of Lees, Lee Weng Choy associates Lee Wen with Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting For Godot, but the image of the performance artist emerges most completely in the persona of the ‘think’ slave Lucky in the same play. While we are allowed to gaze intently into the minds of the two protagonists, Beckett (and Pozzo, who holds Lucky’s leash) allow us only a momentary glance into Lucky’s, where we find a collapse of thought and sight into speech. The cognitive landscape, in which the characters find themselves, is condensed into the 700-plus words of Lucky’s speech. But, for most of the play, Lucky spends his time standing mute, drooling and sleeping. He lurches into performance mode only when he is allowed by Pozzo to don a modern-era bowler: the hobo’s auratic crown. There is a great irony in Lee’s (Weng Choy that is) words, “As if the writers did not fully think through the logics of their imagined worlds,” in light of Lucky’s involuntary performance of ‘thinking’ – arguably the only non-instrumentalised, ‘free thinking’ scripted into this play chock-full of words. It is a modernist kind of thinking that is bricolaged from the trashheap of language, composed of bits of tropes left here and there. If the entire drama plays out a linguistic deferment or ‘waiting’, it is Lucky, straddling the margin between the enslaved animal and the human, who is able to ‘perform’ that deferment as art. In June Yap’s opening remarks, she talks about a performance by Lee Wen where he places his shoes on top of his prostrated body; in my comments on June’s text (see page 54), I talk about the ‘plinthification’ of Lee Wen’s shoes in this performance. I wonder, does Lee’s (Wen, that is) ‘plintification’ of his shoes ‘stand in’ for Lucky’s bowler hat: his auratic crown? Is it only when he dons the shoes and is in performance that we see him? When we see him crawling with stones ... I mean shoes ... on his back, we in the audience say to ourselves, ‘Oh, I see him thinking now ... he is performing, and doing the sort of canny acts that we expect from performance artists’. But when he stands next to us, conversing, and the ‘bowler’ has been removed, he dissolves back into the mist of everyday life.
World Class No Spittle Lucy Davis
I find it curious that when Weng Choy starts off along an investigation of salivation/salvation and sucking stones, he chooses to highlight Lee Wen’s World Class Society. World Class Society for me, while very clever and affecting is more of a surface-indulgence, a ‘finger-pointing’ or perhaps ‘finger-licking’ parody. Although the video of Lee Wen does indeed
Lee Wen does not seem to be really in there in World Class Society. Not much happens – not even in a Beckettian sense. We do not need to wait for more. No salivation. And no poisoned spittle either in our eyes from this spout of propaganda. The messianic posturing in World Class Society seems at the end of it all, just for laughs. Lee Wen does not have that ambivalent, troubled investment; that internalisation/externalisation of positions which make a performance like Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for? (also a video work) so much more persistent.
Beckett’s characters & Lee Wen’s performances Lee Weng Choy
When I conjured the Beckett character in abstract, I was thinking of something generic. Ray rightly makes distinctions: the Estragons and Vladimirs are very different from the Luckys of Beckett’s worlds. To really appreciate this image of Lucky as a performance artist, one should read the part of Ray’s opening remarks where he tells the anecdote of Lee Wen in Yangon in 2005. Lee Wen and Ray were both participants at a performance art workshop, and during a break from the action, Lee Wen, in a move that surprised everyone, went up to a Burmese professor and, well, I won’t spoil it here.... As for Lucy’s comments on a certain lack of spittle: but I do get sucked into World Class Society. Lucy and I may disagree about the merits of World Class Society, but our reasons for liking it or liking it less come from shared criteria. Just as Lucy values Journey of a Yellow Man and Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for? for their ambivalence, playfulness, for the artist’s never quite achieving or becoming what he posits, I too find World Class Society likewise. In trying to call forth a world class society, Lee Wen is full of pathos: you can catch it in the cadence of the artist’s breathing and voice – his voice doesn’t quite break, but when I’m imagining the peformance, I can almost hear it faltering. It’s a fine line between onedimensional parody and something more; I think there is that more. However, my main point in mentioning World Class Society was to talk about the scale of utopia, its smallness in Lee Wen’s evocations, rather than about salivation/salvation. With regards to the question of utopian desire in Lee Wen’s art, Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good for? is, I would agree with Lucy, a better example to consider.
46 / 47
I Feel the Earth Move... I dwell in Possibility
From performance to theatre to plays to literature ... perhaps I could offer another form to this concatenation, that of poetic verse, a point of affinity that brings us back to Lee Wen and his music and lyrics. Emily Dickinson’s paradisaical but private mental chamber is a counterpart to Beckett’s absurd utopias and she is the gendered female complement to Lee Wen’s hopeful masculine minstrel. “The kelp of our tissues remembers the ancient ones ... The hardening of our bodies deadens us to our home. We are no longer wet.”2
I dwell in Possibility 4 I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose – More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors –
Anthropometry Revision #4, 2006, video stills, video shot by Chua Chye Teck. Presented at Lee Wen's MA Fine Arts graduation exhibition, at the LASALLE College of Fine Arts.
Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye – And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky – Of Visitors – the fairest – For Occupation – This – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –
I find writing about performance art the hardest. Perhaps it is because I find performance art affects me in the deepest of ways, invoking sensations and thoughts that I often find complicated to articulate compared with other art forms. It is this notion of profundity, the attempt to mark the sense of affect of performance, that points to something fundamental or basal, that will underlie my thoughts on Lee Wen’s work in our collective etiology of his practice. This collaborative theoretical diagnosis, as ‘etiology’, is thus imagined as a symbolic autopsy of the artist’s body of work by multiple hands, as well as pointing to the artist’s practice as wrought (and writ) upon his body. The term also suggests the investigation and diagnosis of malady, that I would like to suggest is present in Lee Wen’s performances, with himself as physician of the conditions of art and the world (or the island), and where the world and the body in return shapes the work of the artist. The fetishisation of the body dismembers, yet in its emphasis conflates the object of the fetish with the rest of its being. In this collective dissection of Lee Wen’s practice, it is the lowest point of the body that my thoughts centre, where the body meets the earth, and where the highly complex anatomic form of the foot becomes conflated with the artist’s practice. One of his performances that remains vivid in my mind involves Lee Wen and his shoes. This image is of the artist crouched down, naked, a pair of shoes neatly positioned on his back. His shoes ‘wearing’ him so to speak, in more ways than one. This picture of emptied footwear taking centre stage is contrasted in this analysis with Lee Wen’s footwearless performances, in particular the Journey of the Yellow Man series.
Carole King, ‘I Feel the Earth Move’, 1971, Ode Records. The first line of the song goes, “I feel the earth move under my feet”.
Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in Possibility” in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1961), no. 657.
Emilie Conrad Da’Oud, ‘Life on Land’, in Bone, Breath and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, ed. Don Hanlon Johnson (California: North Atlantic Books & California Institute of Integral Studies, 1995), pp. 308, 311.
48 / 49
The debut of the ordinary apparel was in 2003, when Lee Wen was in Mexico, performing in the events, ‘Aciones en Ruta’ (Mexico City) and ‘Encuentro Intl de Performance Yucatan’ (Merrida, Mexico), organised by Elvira Santamaria and Victor Muñoz, where the performance group travelled for two days on board a bus, stopping to intervene in public spaces.3 Whereas his fellow performers had brought with them materials related to the city for their performance, as the venues were selected for their historical significance, Lee Wen had not. What he had felt then however, in the venue where they were performing – a community centre within a public housing estate – was a sense of physical and psychological oppression. In this untitled performance Lee Wen removed his clothes, and then bare, save the footwear on his back, crawled back to where his discarded clothes lay. Since then the shoes have become for him a symbol of authority and oppression, variously employed upon the body to silence and weigh upon it, standing in for a figure and form, that while cannot be seen, is nevertheless felt. The digressive note to shoes in Lee Wen’s performances is of course the use of ubiquitous objects, symbolic actions and embellishments in performance art, in particular ‘live art’ performance: where there is a sense of the existence of a set or vocabulary of meanings employed that do not require much mediation, simultaneously referencing meanings that the artist him or herself does not presume to dictate, yet assuming that the explosion of multiple meanings may possibly be held in check. Feet and shoes appear here as potent objects, employed with intent; and shoeless or shod, this oscillating state is far from trivial in Lee Wen’s performances.
Untitled, 2003 ‘Aciones en Ruta’, Mexico City, Mexico
Moving from shoes, we sally onward barefoot to Lee Wen’s performances in his Journey of a Yellow Man series, where the notion of ‘journey’ is for him less of actual perambulation during the performance – although the performance does involve some form of traversal – than it is a reference to cultural diaspora and its effects, a condition that may be seen as echoed in the movement of the body of the performance artist and its representation, travelling from event to event around the world. Emerging from his painting, Yellow Man, Where Are You Going? (1990), the idea to clothe his figure in yellow poster paint was developed in 1992 to address the issue of creating a visual representation in performance, of a ‘making of a picture’. As Woon Tien Wei in an interview suggests, “covered entirely in striking yellow (Lee Wen’s figure) negates this landscape – juxtaposing a familiar place like a green field and an unfamiliar figure”.4 The Journey
Lee Wen participated in this event as a member of the performance group Black Market International.
Woon Tien Wei, ‘Between Journeys: An Interview with Lee Wen’, Performance Research, vol. 6, no. 1 (2001), p. 37.
50 / 51
of a Yellow Man series was intended to problematise Chinese identity, in particular Lee Wen’s own, and that of many Singaporeans, third, fourth or fifth generation immigrants, who still claim a Chinese identity that is tied to the mainland; an identity that he observes other similar immigrants in the Southeast Asian region and even East Asia have, to varying degrees, sloughed.5 The superficialness of applied colour upon his body contrasts with the weight of a distant yet centuries-old Sinocentric identity, and the performance itself quickly became problematic, with the artist beginning to question its form, wondering out loud in his performances in the latter part of 1993, “You’re already yellow, why do you still paint yourself yellow?!”6 Over time, the tenuousness of the performance became more evident to Lee Wen, with its signification changing as it was performed in different parts of Asia – “mistaken as a sadhu or shaman” in India, linked to “religion, monarchy and modern dangers and illicit sex” in Thailand, and in a complete antithesis of his original purpose, read as advocating ‘Chinese pride’ in performances in Taiwan and China,7 such that the artist finds it difficult to perform Yellow Man today. The symbol of ‘yellowness’ as Sinological burden, at once intrinsic and yet ambiguous, is indeed problematic within Southeast Asia, and in particular in Singapore, as is exemplified in ‘mother tongue’ educational policies and debates on ineffective bilingualism,8 and before it appears we have peregrinated too far, binding the concern of performative signification of Yellow Man to the subject of feet, is the sense that identity is as much ‘felt’ and ‘lived’, as it is performed. Performed then here is the minor excursion of the word ‘feet’ to ‘feel’ with the substitution of a single letter. My particular interest in ‘live art’ performance is with the banal and sometimes unobstrusive act, that in its pared down execution prompts observations
Ibid. The Journey of a Yellow Man performance began after Lee Wen’s two-year sojourn to London where he began to question his identity “as an Asian artist, Chinese by decent yet not quite Chinese in terms of personal history, speaking English as a first language, coming from an economically progressive, postcolonial society ... The journey refers to the increasing incidence of travel, migration, and Diaspora of people. Yellow arises out of my questioning of the place of ethnicity and race in the make up of one’s identity. Not only that but I must admit that, as a visual artist, in some ways I was conscious of the impact on a visual level of painting my whole body yellow. But as I continued making the performances in different spaces, situations, and countries, I found it an interesting mode of provocation. It made me want to do it, especially when I found myself in a strange new environment with different kinds of audiences.”
Lee Wen, ‘Journey of a Yellow Man No.4: LIBIDO’, (artist statement for ‘Sense Yellow’ exhibition, installation and performance Concrete House, Nontburi and Thamasat University, Bangkok Thailand, 9–15 October 1993).
Lee Wen, ‘Journey of a Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism’, Multi-culturalism: In Practice and on Paper (SeptFest Art Conference, The Substation, September, 1997); and interview with the artist, 9 January 2012.
Journey of a Yellow Man No.1, 1992 Performance with red chain and solid fuel City of London Polytechnic, London (April 1992)
of not just the act itself, but the awareness of the act. It is such an awareness of the performance that reverses the relationship of the performance, of acting and looking ‘out’ (by the performer towards his or her audience) and looking towards the performer’s body – from what I consider the ‘surfacing’ of the act, to that of looking in – the inward observation by the performer, and the drawing of the audience’s attention to this inner space. This mode of introspection, inescapable in the lived experience, is characterised by a certain sense of ineffability, that is usually also quite incoherent in any (or perhaps my) attempt to articulate. This idea of the felt observation is expressed in the field of somatics, a significant proponent of which is Elsa Gindler, who created a way of working with experience that she called “Human work” (Arbeit am Menschen), or “unfolding at a later stage of life”, that is described as “not the learning of certain movements, but the achievement of concentration.”9 Somatics is in this sense arguably the obverse of what is usually cited in performative theories of the everyday, such as that of Erving Goffman, John L. Austin and Judith Butler, where
The problem of bilingualism in Singapore, usually referring to the bilingualism of Chinese Singaporeans, is an extensive subject that cannot be comprehensively captured within this note. However a recent publication by Lee Kuan Yew, My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2011), attempts to represent from a policy perspective the government’s approach to language. While the Constitution states that Malay is Singapore’s national language (with four official languages recognised), government policies have focused on English as the language for education, administration, law and commercial transaction. In his speech at the launch of the book, Lee describes the pragmatism of Singapore’s language policies: “I believe bilingualism to be a cornerstone of Singapore’s success story ... When I first became Prime Minister of Singapore, the majority of people here could not speak English. In Singapore, English is the important language without which you cannot get to the top of any profession or job. They spoke many Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil, other languages. They were like tanks of fish in an aquarium, together and yet apart, each community in its own world. I made it my mission to bring them together in real, meaningful ways ... English links us up to the world.” See ‘Baby Steps to Bilingualism’, The Straits Times, 30 November 2011. Conceivably the focus on English as the operational language in Singapore has affected bilingual development, and with it cultural identity as well. See Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Part XIII, 153(A) – Official Languages and National Language.
Elsa Gindler, ‘Gymnastik for People Whose Lives are Full of Activity’, Somatics (August/Winter 1986–87), pp. 35–39; and in Johnson, ed., Bone, Breath & Gesture, pp. 3–5.
52 / 53
Journey of a Yellow Man No.3: DESIRE, 1993 Solo exhibition at The Substation, Singapore (21–25 July 1993) Photograph by Koh Nguang How and courtesy of the artist
the act performs identity.10 In placing emphasis on the felt observation, somatics encourages the tuning of the mind into the sense of the body in the present, a sense that arguably characterises Lee Wen’s performances, in particular with the ‘Yellow Man’ series. He observes in the third iteration of the series, Journey of a Yellow Man No. 3: DESIRE, while treading upon grains of rice, that the sound and the feel of rice under his feet “brought him to a meditative state”. It was however a state that was one of unease, a disquiet that was a combination of the physical sensation of the rough grainy surface, and a mental discomfiture as rice represented the indispensable staple of Asian culture.11 Here, arbitrary cultural symbols of skin and grain literally chafed under his feet. In somatics and various forms of bodywork, (felt) identity is marked by its relative instability and profoundly inescapable expression, where the body inadvertently performs its history and where everyday movements of walking, sitting, turning, are seen as “your entire history on display”, and where “every physical and emotional experience you’ve had has been preserved in the way you use your body.”12 With the onset of Parkinson’s disease,
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Anchor Books, 1959). Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Routledge, 1990). See also John L. Austin’s works on ‘speech-act theory’ and ‘performative utterance’.
Interview with the artist, 9 January 2012.
Journey of a Yellow Man No.3: DESIRE, 1993 Solo exhibition at The Substation, Singapore (21–25 July 1993) Photograph by Koh Nguang How and courtesy of the artist
Lee Wen’s own performances have changed, the condition affecting his gait, and not only effecting a different internal sensation of movement, but a different viewer experience as well.13 The notion of proprioception that is central to somatics14 returns us then to Lee Wen’s performances of the Journey of the Yellow Man series, where the body attempts to test the limits of the sense of identity, beyond its symbolic form, through an exaggerated attention upon its source – a physical and generally unalterable attribute. The examination of the limits of identity through performance, made even more pronounced by its (semi) naked display, is however not extreme, and what is tested is of its softer and more subtle bounds. The progressive collapse of this outward identity (or at least its assumptions) in the process of its interrogation, as its manifestation is repeated, enacted and revised, thus not only reveals the inadequacy of the racial distinction, but also opens up the possibilities of expanding the meaning of this identity that is wrought upon unassuming flesh, and where a state of pliability is sought.15 The subject of physical mobility that is hampered by the body’s history of experience and even genetics, seen in parallel with cultural history and tradition embodied in paint and by footwear, restricting and at times in opposition to the felt experience, brings this then to another subject intrinsic to Lee Wen’s practice: the subject of freedom and its corollary, censorship, and other impediments.
Johnson, ed., Bone, Breath & Gesture, pp. x-xi. Johnson notes that amongst somatic practitioners, many have had physical dysfunctions or illnesses, Elsa Gindler had tubercolosis, Moshe Feldenkrais had crippling fractures due to severe accidents.
On somatics as the study of proprioception, “when... (a) human being is observed from the first-person viewpoint of his own proprioceptive senses, a categorically different phenomenon is perceived: the human soma.” Thomas Hanna, ‘What is Somatics?’, Somatics (Spring/Summer 1986), pp, 4–8; and in Johnson, ed., Bone, Breath & Gesture, p. 341.
With reference to Feldenkrais (also known as Functional Integration, a system of neuromuscular healing techniques developed by Russian-born physicist Moshe Feldenkrais) or Ortho-Bionomy. Linda Knittel, ‘Inside-Out Bodywork’, Yoga Journal (April 2003), p. 102. It is perhaps worth mentioning this serendipity: that when scoliosis, the disease that has afflicted Lee, began to twist Ray Langenbach’s spine many years ago, he was taken to a Feldenkrais practitioner for treatment.
“When one becomes more awake, when one loses one’s restrictions, the organism becomes a very movable and elastic entity... The tendency to withhold gives up by itself.” Charlotte Selver [a student of Elsa Gindler], ‘Interview with Charlotte’, The Sensory Awareness Foundation Newsletter (Winter 1987), 2, as quoted in Johnson, ed., Bone, Breath & Gesture, p. 20.
54 / 55
Lee Wen’s Plinthification
What interests me here is Wen’s construction of the body-plinth, in which the shoes become a sculpture on the pedestal (or should we say, the altar?) of the artist’s body. Isolated and levitated, or ungrounded, through the intervention of Lee’s body, they, in turn, ‘stamp’ or inculcate (from Latin inculcare, literally, ‘to tread on’) the body as something that is theirs, something both humanised and diminished, as clothing distinguishes and diminishes the manikin. No longer to be read as mimesis, the performing body provides a plinth for the commodity, and allows for the commodity’s visual/financial fetishisation. In this case, the commodity is the plinth itself: the body reflexing back on itself. By positioning the shoes precisely on the curvature of his scoliotic spine, Lee inflames and is stained by his difference – his otherness – via this trope of auto-subjugation.
Can Cannot Also Can, 2011 In collaboration with Zai Kuning, Hafiz Bastard and Reef. at The Substation, Singapore (15 & 16 April, 2011) Event button design Illustration by Lena Eriksso
Oh the feet, the feet ... I am reminded however of Lee Wen’s pose in an event poster for Can Cannot Also Can in April 2011. The artist is instead on his knees, a supplicant to his music, humbled by his scores. His feet balance his wobbly knees, putting his body on an even keel. But this equilibrium can only seem fragile and tentative, given our fraught relationships with our own bodies. I am reminded of Georges Bataille’s essay ‘The Big Toe’ where he speaks of the denigration of the feet (our rootedness in mud, filth and shit) when evolution claimed our treegrabbing toes and turned them into symbols of our elevation into Homo erectus and then redeemed them later into fetish objects: “Human life entails, in fact, the rage of seeing oneself as a back and forth movement from refuse to the ideal, and from the ideal to refuse, a rage that is easily directed against an organ as base as the foot”.16 Little wonder then that Lee Wen upsets this hierarchy (or should I say continues this back and forth movement) by placing polished dress shoes on his naked scoliotic back, becoming that potent (if conventional) symbol of oppression but also that of a desirous being who could lift the most abject onto a plane of beauty. The relativised positions of our different body parts brings me to the necessity of proprioception and exteroception, the somatic sensory rectors that helps the relay of bodily information (our body’s image) to the brain and coordinate our movements in relation to external situations, without which we would never have been able to put food to our mouths, move our extremities in urgent situations, and indeed walk the talk, when drunk. Even the diminutive ear is deeply involved as such; the inner ear (our vestibular system), with its gel-like liquids in the ear’s canal and tiny
It is not just the yellowness-construct that distinguishes Lee’s body, but the structural spinal-(dis)construct of scoliosis beneath the skin – a disease that a small number of us share. By virtue of my own scoliosis, I find my sympathetic neurons responding to Lee’ spine, as if from inside his skin. In June’s text, on the other hand, the disease and its symptoms are positioned in language itself, and the always incomplete, turning of the trope. I am reminded of those other earth-blackened skins – perhaps the most famously reiterated images of shoes of modernity – Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of peasant shoes, and the uses they were put to. Like Plato’s prisoners chained in the philosophical Cave, they were first appropriated by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger to his earthy desire for solidarity with the German peasant-class and the National Socialist ideology of blood and earth (blut und boden) and homeland (heimat). And then they were rescued from Heidegger by the urban Jewish Trotskyite immigrant art historian, Meyer Schapiro. For him they emblematised the holocaust and its abjected victims whom Heidegger denied. Finally, years later we have the ambivalent reiteration of the whole controversy in The Truth in Painting by the wandering Pied-Noir (‘Blackfooted’) Algerian Sephardic Jew, Jacques Derrida. Does this pentagon of Vincent’s own self-abnegation, so vicerally portrayed in the structural distortions of those old shoes, Heidegger’s imperial appropriation, Schapiro’s ethnic-inflected, ethical recuperation, and Derrida’s aporic displacement, find an echo in Lee Wen’s yellow surfaces, and his act of plinthification?
Georges Bataille, ‘The Big Toe’, Visions of Excess, tr. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1985), p. 20–21.
56 / 57
hair cells, plays the most important part in regulating human balance. But this inner ear is at times counteracted by its neighbouring cochlea, dedicated as it is to human hearing, its auditory function therefore enlisted by Lee Wen’s music to just about throw everyone off balance.
Painted and Shod June Yap
Lee Wen with Myriam la Plante “This is Performance Art” Black Market International, Glasgow, 2011
The representation of performance, or art for that matter, as suggested by Ray, undoubtedly goes beyond the object or work, or object in work, itself. The artwork and its representation as Heideggerian poetics or Derridean haunting, an operation performed by viewer and writer, reflects their relations to the work. The amplified opacity of performance art, its Heideggerian ‘thingliness’, deters neither the viewer’s nor writer’s tenacious endeavour for meaning or visceral engagement with the performance. However when a call is made, such as by the artist on the interpretation of shoes – articulated in terms of subjugation – and as Ray points out in reverse orientation, that of elevation – the performance transforms; it twists (scoliotic-like), and the sense of it is irredeemably transfigured. Or is it? Where is the truth in painting, or for that matter, in performance? The contest over Van Gogh’s shoes (notably always in a pair, never at a loss of their other), points to a failure of words, or the failure of locution more specifically, that appears marked in performance art. For Derrida, it is a failure of the remains – the “untranslatable”,17 where Cezanne’s promise, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you”, renegades: “in the
performance of this performative promising another performative saying nothing that will be there”,18 a condition that discursivity is perhaps unable to avoid.19 Approaching then almost in a sidle, an anti-logocentrism of performance is arguably found in Lee Wen’s participation in the performance network Black Market International. The network that began in 1986 with the idea of the art of begegnung, or as lost in translation, as the art of ‘meeting’,20 does not attempt to articulate the performative encounter between individuals from around the globe. Performance art within the network’s deliberate framing is approached at the moment of begegnung, that is once there and then gone in an instant, and where in the space of that moment a series of unplanned connections occur – “we steal each other’s material. We become one image in creating moments together by walking into different directions. We lose tracks. We find new ways. We accept no rules. We destroy moments in creating situations”.21 Little is said after the fact, the act of the performance, by those involved. But rather during the performance, as Lee Wen writes, the present is activated, it is “electrified”,22 and then it passes. All else is arguably moot, image and act, that wordless moment, is simply presented... and then fools rush in,23 like “cobblers with short awls”.24
Referencing Cezanne’s statement about “the truth in painting”, and his promise to Emile Bernard. Ibid., p. 9.
“Teleology and hierarchy are prescribed in the envelope of the question (of what is art, what is the meaning of art) the philosophical encloses art in its circle but its discourse on art is at once, by the same token, caught in a circle.” Ibid., pp. 22–23.
Boris Nieslony, Art of Begegnung, http://www.sitec.fr/users/akenatondocks/DOCKS-datas_f/collect_f/auteurs_f/B_f/ BLACKMARKET_f/TEXTES_F/BORISTXT.htm. The translation of begegnung according to Helge Meyer as “meeting” is oversimplified. “BMI is permanently experimenting with questions that deal with the term “meeting” or better begegnung which is the German term for a meeting that has got a deeper quality in a philosophical sense.” Helge Meyer, ‘Black Market International – Structure and Anti-Structure’, Performance Art Research, http://www.performance-art-research. de/texts/black-market-international_helge-meyer.pdf.
Helge Meyer, ibid.
“There was electricity whenever we meet, live wire, sparks, never boring. Bit too much sometimes. And there have been various different versions of what it was, is about. And still going on with different claims and perhaps also different clones of it. Still going on the electricity live wire sparks have no power failure despite earthquakes or hard rain.” Lee Wen, ‘Black Market International’, http://leewen.republicofdaydreams.com/black-market-international.html.
“Untranslatable: this locution is not absolutely so. In another language, given enough space, time, and endurance, it might be possible for long discourses to propose laborious approaches to it. But untranslatable it remains in its economic performance, in the ellipsis of its trait, the word by word, the word for word, or the trait for trait in which it contracts: as many words, signs, letters, the same quantity or the same expense for the same semantic content, with the same revenue of surplus value.” Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, tr. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 4–5.
Johnny Mercer, music by Rube Bloom, ‘Fools Rush In’ (1940), as recorded by The Morning Benders on Bedroom Covers, 2008, Rough Trade Records.
Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p. 300.
58 / 59
Wen Awry ray langenbach
…between two edges … it is the flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.”2 Performance art obtains its force (and its necessity as a cultural form) from its contiguity with the real of social life, its phenomenological unsustainability and the intermittence of its subversive libidinal erotics. In an inversion of Barthes’ equation, performance art stages its disappearance as appearance.
Anthropometry Revision #4, 2006, video stills, video shot by Chua Chye Teck. Presented at Lee Wen's MA Fine Arts graduation exhibition, at the LASALLE College of Fine Arts.
Trying to visually grasp the star cluster of the Pleiades in the Taurus constellation lands you in an interesting dilemma. The cluster dissolves into mist if you look directly at it with your high-res fovea or macula (Latin: literally stain), due to the “reflection nebulosity” created by an interstellar dust cloud between the cluster and Earth … producing more of a smudge than a group of stars. But slide attention over to your peripheral vision and use your low-res, low-light, rods, then voila, there they are: little pinpricks in the dark fabric of space. However, if you are like me, the desire to possess them with the macula again takes over, and the little pin-pricks dissolve back into mist. I have found that performance art – in its momentary emergence between daily life, social and bureaucratic institutions, religious and aesthetic rituals – when fixedly and acquisitively gazed at – is also prone to the effect of reflection nebulosity, but of the cognitive variety. Rather than opening to the frontal gaze, performance art seems to open to the non-acquisitive driveby awry glance.1 The groundhog of modern art, performance art emerges and disappears in a flash … an event constituted by intermittence. In 1973 Roland Barthes described the phenomenon of writing as the sharing of an “intermittence” with the erotic in ‘The Pleasure of the Text’: “Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no ‘erogenous zones’ … it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing
Awry: (i) In a position that is turned or twisted toward one side; askew. (ii) Away from the correct course; amiss. The Free Dictionary, s.v. ‘awry’, accesseed 2012, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/awry. The word became fixed to Lacanian psychology by Slavoj Žižek’s ground-breaking study. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (The MIT Press, 1992). My use of the word here takes an awry glance at Zizek’s, but does not build on it.
Lee Wen’s work is based on an ironic erotic iconics, strategically disseminating a rich iconology of the body as libidinal citizen. His favoured tropes have included animal hearts, live birds, dead chickens, eggs, tools, pingpong, chains, guitar, boxes, buckets, boxing gloves, and, with great regularity, yellow paint, etc. These are linked with iconic gestures: leaping onto cardboard boxes, playing ping-pong on a round table, boxing, walking, crawling, lying, moving the objects from place to place in various combinations. The issues addressed are generally at the seam of the political and the corporeal: in and on the body. Lee’s body at times becomes a synecdoche, standing in not only for the administrative state/government, but the whole polity; people + government + apparatus. The deployment of visual tropes as a performance strategy has been readily accepted by international audiences, while more articulated verbal performances are often lost in translation.3 On the one hand, kinaesthetic tropes produce the illusion of a common language in a linguistically diverse region, while on the other, they share a concrete relationship to the body as instrument and concrete object. Performance art, like photography and film that preceded it (and which historically made non-theatrical performance possible through their capacity to isolate the incident) holds a complex and paradoxical relationship to the ‘real’. Image + gesture iconography in performance art is ubiquitous in Asia, and is not unique to Lee Wen, although he is one of the genre’s most accomplished practitioners. The methodology shares encodings from both Western and Asian performance traditions: the human body is deployed
Roland Barthes, ‘The Pleasure of the Text’ in Mythologies, tr. Annette Lavers (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972), pp. 109–17.
While engaging in a complex array of haptic icons and gestures, Lee Wen often repeats short iconic sentences and slogans. As described in detail by Adele Tan, he recently has been composing ‘songs’, often with lyrics referring to political events, preceded by short spoken monologues.
60 / 61
and visualised the phrase: “kill the chicken to frighten the monkey” (杀鸡 吓猴 sha ji xia hou)5. Lee used the phrase as a signifier of repression in Singapore and other countries, such as Korea. In his words, it connotes: … a typical way of social control. I used this as a visual metaphor for the extreme punishment of political detention without trial…. social ostracism and … extreme repression of freedom. Anthropometry Revision: Yellow Period (after Yves Klein) #1, 2008 In collaboration with Jiang Jing and He Liping Performance at Red & Grey Art Contemporary, Chengdu, China (13 April 2008)
[...] I sometimes repeated the words in english (in mexico i used the spanish translation) during the performance like an incantation of an unhappy ghost. or sometimes it is suggested in objects i use eg. in the installation in Gwangju there were 16 bald chickens floating in formaldehyde in fruit preservation jars surrounding a long table with military blankets as table cloth and sounds of monkeys screams from under the table. or i chop up a chicken during the performance (in poland and mexico) while repeating the saying. [sic]6
as economic fetish, and political agent. The Western tradition of gestural performances reaches back through 20th century modernist avant-garde traditions to theatrical motifs of 18th and 19th-century Realism, Symbolism and Romanticism. In Southeast Asia, performance art also recalls and restores elements from local folk, shamanism, and popular performance conventions, such as Main Puteri, Kebyar, Bangsawan, etc. In Singapore (perhaps a tad more obviously than in most other nations) social iconics are infused with tropes of bureaucracy, post-coloniality, state power, and social engineering. And it is through the anchoring of his aesthetic tropes in the politics and history of the Singapore state that produces Lee’s rich iconology: one foot in the sign and the other in a nostalgia for the real. Lee Wen’s Anthropometry Revision: Yellow Period (after Yves Klein)4 produced an ironic hyper-ethnic re-staging of Yves Klein’s reference to a virulently racist system for the ethnographic imprinting of the bodies of colonial subjects. When Klein did his work in 1960, France was losing its last colonies. They were defeated by the Vietcong at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the Algerian War of Independence was beginning its final phase, leading to independence in 1962. Klein’s reference to colonial biometrics belies French colonialism, but also resonates with Singapore’s own colonial experience as part of British Malaya, where anthropometric photography was pioneered by J.H. Lamprey and Thomas Huxley. Singapore’s and the history and politics of genotype, race and colour is played out in this performance as corporeal iconics on the surface of Lee’s body. Lee’s iconics are also evident in the series of performances/installations entitled Ghost Stories from 1995–1997, in which he repeatedly deployed
Anthropometry Revision: Yellow Period (after Yves Klein #1) with Jiang Jing and He Liping, was presented at Red & Grey Art Contemporary, Cheng Du, China, 13 April 2008.
Ghost Stories, 1995 Mixed media installation Presented at the 1st Gwangju Biennale Gwangju, South Korea
Ghost Stories has been presented at the 2nd Nippon International Performance Art Festival, Tokyo and Nagano February 1995; 4th Asian Art Show, Tokyo, April 1995; 3rd Castle of Imagination, Bytow, Poland, June 1995; 1st Gwangju Biennale Gwangju, South Korea, 1995 (installation); Hand-Made Tales, The Black Box, Theatre Works, Singapore, 1996 (installation & performance); Simposio International De Escultura Mexico-Japon, Tuxtla Guttierez, Chiapas, Mexico 1997 (installation and performance); Sexta Bienal de La Habana, Havana, Cuba 1997 (installation); Lee Wen, email correspondence, 3 March 2003. 5
Lee Wen, email communication with author, 3 March 2003.
62 / 63
“Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey” works on the ambiguity between a symbolic execution and real political threat. The monkey (the citizenry) is warned that it too will come under the knife unless the government’s warning is taken to heart and subsequent behaviours are altered. Causality is ‘read’ backwards as the forewarned and frightened public avoids the chicken’s fate by altering their behaviour before any prosecutions are ‘necessary’. The result of the cautionary spectacle is self-censorship, a situation in which the antidote to what the government perceives to be social poison, itself becomes the people’s poison. In Lee Wen’s performances this complex political ritual is lifted out of historical context and deftly distilled into a series of verbal-gestural tropes. For example, while not a repeat of state action against Singapore dissidents, there was an exquisite and ambiguous violence in one of Lee Wen’s gestures in Yangon in 2005. A group of Burmese artists, writers and educators were attending a workshop focusing on performance art and visual art with a group of artists from the region, as part of ‘Performance Site: Myanmar 05’, an international performance art festival, organised by Jay Koh and Chu Chu Yuan at NICA (Networking & Initiatives for Culture & the Arts). We were all sitting in a circle on a platform outside the NICA residency house. A general discussion, followed a series of one-minute performances by everyone in the group. In my recollection, which coincides with Lee Wen’s, a Burmese professor and artist7 seemed to be verbally harassing one of the Burmese women. In the recollection of Sharaad Kuttan and a few others present, however, he was not harassing anyone, but was simply jabbering on in a drunken manner. While many of us were aware of the situation, we were observing it and not intervening. As I recall, without warning, Lee Wen got up from his chair, walked across the circle, and slapped the professor hard across the cheek.
Time froze as we all stopped breathing. There was silence. Everyone gauged the event and how to interpret these acts. The groundhog of intermittency emerged for a moment, was confronted by its Jungian shadow, and ducked back into its hole. Context and hermeneutics, that had momentarily been displaced through the shock of the real, rushed back in. I found myself ticking off boxes in my mind: a Singaporean man just slapped a Burmese man; a beautiful but shocking act; foreign “guest” slaps native “host”; two men fighting over a woman?, etc. Did Lee Wen at that moment signify the intrusion of globalisation into this subaltern community, disrupting local traditions and upsetting traditional gender roles? Was the act metonymic with the Singapore government’s consistent neo-colonial support of the military junta in Burma? Was Lee Wen’s slap called for? Was he the right person to be doing it? Was it cultural imperialism? Was it erotic? For his part, Lee Wen recalls that the man’s behaviour was objectionable, but he doesn’t recall the exact words that triggered the slap. He recently responded to my questions about it in an email: “oh no i forgot how brave and stupid i was i would not do it again maybe i shud apologise?”8
And then a couple of weeks later, responding to an earlier draft of this article sent under the signature, ‘Heraclitus’, Lee wrote an exquisite rant that reminds me of Lucky’s speech in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. At a glance, via the awry side-car syntax of social media, it captures the mind behind the slap better than any of my descriptions: i have had vexations that my call of ‘if you see a performance artist on the road, kill him’ is being taken so seriously and now meeting its poetic justice with your ‘awry lee slapping imperialist’ anecdote, exhaustion after 36 hours of my no sleep buckminster fuller’s throw away bed experiment, last night i reluctantly dropped into bed for some hours of strung out sleep, as i dug into my memory bank and now having had some recollections your take aroused like jig saw pieces as i read your descriptions in earnest trust, i was getting ready to disappear into oblivion and start again with a fake id from the black markets off khao san road. but with my shaky parkin’ fingers i type out my hippie message of peace and love and sincerely if you know how i can get in touch with the guy i slapped in yangon, i like to beg for his forgiveness even if i believed when i did it i was acting in an individu-
But in the recollection of Myanmar artist, Moe Satt, Lee walked to the middle of the circle, paused, and said he wanted to perform again. He then bowed slightly forward from the waist with his arms hanging at his sides (a position he has used before in other performances), and lunged forward to deliver the slap. He then apologised to the shocked professor, and returned to his chair. In this recollection, the act was matrixed in the performances that had preceded it; but it was a performance with a difference – one that (yet again, as other memorable performances have done before) first constructed and then obliterated the ‘fourth wall’.
According to Jay Koh, NICA organiser, the artist in question was the only one whose paintings were censored in an exhibition around that time – clearly an important cultural activist in his own right.
Lee Wen, email communication with author, 12 January 2012.
64 / 65
al’s outrage that no man have the right or need to treat another person in what i saw was intolerably sexist and oppressive and rudely in my opinion then was so uncool in front of guests in a welcome party. so i am sorry i was presumptuous in behaving in an equally unjustified capacity to hit a newly introduced friend in a foreign land. i say sorry from the bottom of my heart but must admit that in hindsight, if i were able to go back to that moment i might still do the same foolish act as i remember going into burma was one of the most difficult decisions to make in comparisons to all the invitations i have got. it may seem that i do these things like just any old vacation trip but nay i actually got initiated into traveling quite reluctantly as i rather lay snugly in bed with a good travel book than going on the actual road with its inherent discomfort and unexpected inconveniences but now i can’t help being who i am, just an old fool who fell into the silly conviction of our only meaningful pursuit is that of living an adventure and joyfully, in as responsibly as i can partake in widening the eternal network, albeit risking bitten by the bug into nomadic habit. but burma to me was one hell i rather not step into and i failed to be convinced by pacifist’s means whether by way of art, performance or civil disobedience, and in the past thought it futile to even think about art. in this trip i only went because my friends jay koh and chu yuan invited me and i did helped to get them started in some ways, however my doubts did not wavered much as i found myself in a society in severe crises of more urgencies to dispel its evil dictatorially governed system than to waste our efforts but going there and meeting many people struggling to believe in human dignity of working through the obscure activity of cultural work rather than that of power and violence humbled my arrogance. yes heraclitus the same river can never be stepped into twice and i m now more than willing to push the boulder of my sinful ignorance up the mountain zeus assigned to me. please advise how i may mend my errant ways. don’t leave me awry if you please... sissyphus9
the Myanmar artists that might lead to other interpretations of the event. Moe Satt, for example, recently described Lee’s act as an offensive iteration of the status and power differentials already in play between economically imperialist Singapore and Myanmar. Rightly or wrongly, I read the performance as a libidinal outcropping in the frame of Lee’s long-term practice in performance art. As mentioned above, performance art – more assiduously and less theoretically than photography and film that just preceded and developed alongside it – has maintained an erotic dalliance with the missing referent: the Real (that dark territory outside the fourth wall). I wonder if Lee would have had the sheer chutzpah to deliver this real slap without his years of boxing with his mirror Other.10 And to do it with an attitude of detachment or indifference, raised it to the level of art. Carpe diem! He took agency. He displayed his spine. He finally, slapped a real Other. I don’t recall Lee’s formal piece of performance art that he presented at NICA, but I have retained an awry memory of this intervention. And it has seemed to me ever since that it was one of the most remarkable moments of performance art that I have witnessed anywhere. Despite its appearance of spontaneity, the slap dragged in its wake the complete modernist apparatus of performance art: the corrective orthopaedics that, since the 19th century, the modernist avant-garde has repeatedly imposed on other artists and intellectuals, on the working class, and especially back on the bourgeois culture which gave it birth. It is an orthopaedics also recalled by the textual slap delivered to Lee Wen’s cheek by the revelations in this article, and by all the other discomfiting interpretations of Lee Wen’s performances by this group of catalogue writers.
This text, it seems to me, like the shoes placed on his back, has again inculcated Lee. He is a man haunted by these acts, and perhaps by acts in general. At the time, Lee Wen did not seem angry. His posture before and after was not threatening. Again taking Moe Satt’s recollection, he had simply gotten up, walked across the circle, paused, and in what seemed to be an experiment in human conditioning, slapped another person. He then punctuated the act with his apology. Then it was over. Obviously we have all forgotten the many micro-gestures present then in the intervening seven years, and there were certainly complex social dynamics amongst
Lee Wen, email communication with author, 7 February 2012.
Using two pairs of boxing gloves sewn together in opposing positions, Lee began using a segment of boxing with an imaginary opponent, in longer performances, first at the Recontre International d’art Performance Et Multi-media 1996, Quebec as part of Neo Baba and Ghost Stories, and then at other sites.
66 / 67
Stars and Spine
Lee Weng Choy
It seems opportune to me to point out that through what Ray calls Lee Wen’s “ironic erotic iconics” we have somewhat neglected to mention the “body-without-organs” concept of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, which indirectly or unconsciously animates the structuring of this collaborative writing project although we are patently secured with specific body parts as departure points. This BwO is “permeated by unformed, unstable matters, by flows in all directions, by free intensities or nomadic singularities, by mad or transitory particles”.11 To become this über libidinal citizen appears to be the holy grail not just for the artist but also for the writers, but this act is more difficult in the deed than in the desire, as the BwO is at its core radically antiproduction and resists organ-isation. To be sure, Deleuze and Guattari have also thought about how to get to a non-petrified creative platform: “Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continua of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times”.12 The stratum that we are lodging on here is that of the museum, and the striated book we are writing is that small plot of new land in which we try to deterritorialise museal effects. What “conjugated flows” and “continuous intensities” there are to be found in this re-newed relationship between performance, writing, the public and the museum have yet to be answered. Or perhaps it does not require one. The odds here have not been good; when public institutions reply and weigh in on cultural matters, they deliver mostly their “corrective orthopaedics”. I prefer still to be cautiously sanguine that even if others might think this adventure a joke, they would in time think it a seriously good joke. To quote Groucho Marx: “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”
It’s a long way from the stars to the spine: great distances in space and time. And when we do gaze at the firmament above as if it were a great screen for our own projections, it’s the outlines, not the skeletons of mythical figures that we conjure – it’s Orion’s belt, not his back, that we spot in the night sky. The contrast of the juxtaposition of stars and spine really strikes me, and I want to dwell on it for a while. But only for a while, only for a passing glance, because I find myself moving on too quickly to say something else. Although what I really have to say here is more like an echo, an echo of something Ray said elsewhere, and which I too have discussed elsewhere.13 As part of the Singapore Art Museum’s Appreciating Art Lecture Series of 2011, Ray gave a talk on ‘Performance Art as a Way of Thinking’. Ray argued that “performance art often operates between”: between the state and civil society, between public and private spaces, between “appropriated speech, parody, mimicry, or re-constituted social rituals, such as national day parades”. As a way of distinguishing performance art’s way of thinking from other artistic approaches (modernist painting, for instance), Ray proposed that we consider the difference between the ‘gaze’ and the ‘glance’. The gaze confronts its object; it constructs a binary relationship with this object, whether the thing is desired or detested. Moreover, the gaze risks being trapped by the logic of this object, which is particularly problematic when the gaze is intended as critical. For example, Clement Greenberg’s theory of modernism presented a critique of traditional art, but just as Greenberg rejected naturalism and representation in painting, he inadvertently set up abstraction and the flatness of the pictorial plane, his own preferences, as the next dogma to be disputed. In contrast to the gaze, the glance is the look about, rather than the look at. The glance does not apprehend directly, but addresses things indirectly. Whereas the gaze fixes its object as something singular, the glance is mobile and its objects always plural. In his lecture, Ray contended that performance art, with its mode of operating between, glances about rather than gazes at its objects, and that performance, more than any other field of practice, has developed this way of thinking in contemporary art.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, tr. Brian Massumi (New York and London: Continuum, 2004 ), p. 45.
Ibid., p. 178.
Ray Langenbach, ‘Performance Art as a Way of Thinking’ (lecture, Singapore Art Museum, 15 February 2011). My comments here derive from the following essay: Lee Weng Choy, ‘Let’s See: Amanda Heng and the Performance of Looking in Art’, in Singapore Contemporary Artists Series: Amanda Heng: Speak To Me, Walk With Me (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2011).
68 / 69
Extend, Flex, Rotate
The subject of censorship in relation to performance art in Singapore inevitably references the performances at the ‘Artists General Assembly’ of 1993/1994.2 Josef Ng may have borne the brunt of the state’s heavy hand, but the larger result was the muting of the entire practice of performance art for a decade, and arguably traces of the state’s own authoritarian performance continue to dog performance art today in the requirement that all performances officially receive permission to be performed publicly, making performance art in Singapore a bit of a misnomer, especially for ‘live art’ practices. Loo Zihan’s reenactment of the past performances of Josef Ng’s,3 suggest a need to revisit the past; less as a homage, and more as an attempt to engage with the historical conditions of performance art in Singapore. Censorship, bans and other preemptive impositions fail to consider what art can do, and how art does what it does, when it does. Lee Wen’s performance that Lucy opens with, Is Art Necessary? / What is Art Good For?, is marked by awkwardness and the impossibility of flight,
‘Extend, Flex and Rotate’ is the title of an essay by Vanessa Manko on the practice of dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown, with reference to Brown’s work, Accumulation (1971), that was presented at Documenta 12. Brown was part of a group of dancers and choreographers in the 1960s of note who were “using everyday, quotidian movement and transporting performance to unusual settings ... To create Accumulation, Brown allowed herself to work with only three basic movements – extend, flex, and rotate. Her solo is set to the Grateful Dead’s ‘Uncle John’s Band’. The reference here as section title is a surreptitious homage, as well as referencing Brown’s performance of the layering and repetition of movements that constitute her performance, and metaphorically the performance of artistic expression and censure-ship. Vanessa Manko, ‘Extend, Flex and Rotate’, New York Foundation of the Arts, http://www.nyfa.org/level3. asp?id=440&fid=4&sid=8.
For details on the Brother Cane incident refer to Lucy's note 3, page 33. This performance by Josef Ng which “[focused] on the arrest of 12 men for allegedly committing homosexual solicitations and the press exposure of the incident” resulted in formal prosecution by the state. In an interview, then artistic director of The Substation, Kuo Pao Kun, described the whole affair as having “bypassed all the institutional structures set up over the last three years: the NAC (National Arts Council), the arts advisors, the review committee and the resource panel... In one stroke, all these were arbitrarily brushed aside at a time when the ‘consultative spirit’ and ‘due process’ were being underlined as fundamental traits of this nation”. Description and quote from Lee Weng Choy, ‘Chronology of a Controversy’, Looking at Culture, eds. Sanjay Krishnan, Sharaad, Lee Weng Choy, Leon Perera and Jimmy Yap (Singapore: Artres Design & Communications, 1996), pp. 63, 70. Kuo Pao Kun, interview, Straits Times, 11 May 1994.
Loo Zihan’s performances Performing Josef – It’s Not Safe (15 November 2011) and Cane (19 February 2012), re-enact Josef Ng’s performances at The Artists Village Sculpture Show 1993, and the Artists’ General Assembly of 1993/1994.
Josef Ng, Brother Cane, 1993/4 Performance at 5th Passage, performance space at Parkway Parade Video stills. Courtesy of Ray Langenbach
which she suggests is “obscene”, perhaps in the sense that it is unembellished and unregulated in its response to lived and experienced conditions. A reflection that is not merely extant in the artist’s performance, but that also extends into his writings and commentaries about performance and art at large in Singapore. It is the slap, the collision of flesh with flesh, the physical retort, that Ray’s wry dub of performance as “drive-by awry glance”, and his account of Lee Wen’s palpable response in a fluid social situation, that the state cannot contain, and that artists themselves may not even be able to contain either. Performance art is not a singular activity, it demands a community who not merely observes, but who can respond, in the same way the performance artist is ready to respond as well to the audience on hand. It is a dialogue set in motion, an artwork that completes with another. In an interview between John Low and Tang Da Wu, Da Wu speaks of the vulnerability of the performance, the pressures of the audience in proximity, and yet its value is in its interaction – “something happens between audience, space and yourself, or if not, yourself, your company and a few people. And you do things. All the time, you are aware of the audience there, all the time you are aware of your chosen space there ... Then it is a happening. All the people, audience, yourself.”4 Relating then to Weng Choy’s proposition of the intimacy that performance art compels, the “sucking” by a “possessed propagandist”, intercourse is key, the resuscitation of conversation and interaction, that is pronounced in Lee Wen’s practice. In his series of Chewing Gum Paintings, Lee Wen attempts to persuade visitors to leave their mark on coloured canvases with the masticated ‘Performance Art Project: Interview with Tang Da Wu’ by John Low on 24 March 2011, openends: A documentation exhibition of performance art in Singapore (Singapore: The Substation, 2001).
70 / 71
Far Left: Chewing Gum Painting No.4 (Singapore), 2000 Mixed media; Acrylic on canvas, chewing gum and various materials 91 x 61 cm Artist collection Left: Chewing Gum Painting No.6 (Sydney), 2005 Mixed media; Acrylic on canvas, chewing gum and various materials 91 x 61 cm Artist collection
remains of chewing gum liberally provided. The proscription on chewing gum in Singapore began with the MRT’s (Mass Rapid Transit) ban of the item on their trains in November 1989, along with its food and drink prohibition.5 Subsequent public observation in the media of chewing gum’s threatening ‘staining’ effect in public spaces and upon pavements6 intensified the witch-hunt, even as perpetrators proved difficult to catch, and led to the ban of its import, sale and manufacture in the country in December 1991, with the severe penalties of fines of between $2,000 to $10,000 for its sale and import.7 Like skin and the body in performance, chewing gum may appear to authorities excessive, their pliable forms and appearances unpredictable and uncontrolled. Since then, rules on possession of chewing gum have become a little more lax, chewing less policed than the import and sale of this forbidden pleasure of rumination. Lee Wen’s interactive work has been presented both within and outside Singapore, and in conversation with the artist, it was its presentation in Singapore that was the most disappointing as visitors failed to embellish the canvases in whatever creative manner they chose with their ruminated residue, as compared with the expressive participatory demonstrations of those elsewhere, even as the chewing gum provided continued to disappear from
‘Chewing Gum in MRT Stations and Trains Now an Offence’, The Straits Times, 30 November 1989.
‘Chewing Gum Menace’, The Straits Times, 12 November 1991.
‘Chewing Gum to be Banned’, The Straits Times, 31 December 1991.
the gallery. Perhaps local audiences had taken these precious offerings to chew on in private, unwilling to participate in the playful public exchange. The limitation of participatory discourse that performance art can extend is something that needs further examination, and needs to be considered in relation to the approval process demanded of performance art. Lee Wen’s vision, as Weng Choy suggests, may be utopic, and his optimism is thankfully unflagging. The audience that performance art deserves arguably has suffered from state imposition. In that Lee Wen’s practice opens itself up to dialogue, it demands a response. But would it find it? Perhaps we would take the journey with him ... If only we could find our feet.
Foot Reflexology Lee Weng Choy
I forgot about Lee Wen’s Chewing Gum Paintings. So my mention of Beckett and Molloy’s sucking stones and salivation isn’t too far a stretch. For all her talk of chewing gum and public participation, June does not stray from her organ of choice, ending on a note about finding one’s feet. The feet are indeed very central. They not only have contact with the ground, they have a gravity of their own: the whole body is mapped in them; I am trying to conjure a mental picture of a foot reflexology map, speculating on the shape and location of my designated body part, the liver (without resorting to Google this time, but just letting play the imagination). The opening line of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which I quoted earlier, “nothing to be done”, is said by Estragon, as he struggles to take off his boot. That’s how the play opens, with a protagonist trying to set his feet free.
72 / 73
Inside-Out/Outside-In lucy davis
It’s interesting how opposite directions of inquiry lead in and out of the body in June and my initial offerings to this experiment: Part of my readings of Lee Wen’s metamorphoses in my first offering bear with them a folklore of inside-to-outside, transformative change, with threads perhaps leading from a historic European (or is it also Fertile Crescent?) obsession with cathartic exorcism and expulsion. These involve a bringing-to-the surface and expelling of poisons and demons – something which has in turn of course inflected political-psychoanalytic thought and ideology critique. The transformations of Lee Wen I focused upon are necessarily incomplete and the obscene I suggest is (perhaps with the exception of Black Man), only alluded to. However, should I continue my initial thread, I would argue that such twitches of suggestion, handled wisely within the container of an art event, can reveal the economy/mechanics with which power draws upon a violent underground of domesticated ideologies – enough for the obscenity to be revealed for what it is, but without our indulging the shock-horror spectacle of a full-blown awakening of the beast.1 In contrast, what I am getting from June’s journey of inquiry is that hers is one that turns within, as she traces an inner awareness in the performer and a parallel, kinesthetic consciousness that can develop in an audience during the intimacy of a live event. This awareness is perhaps something that resonates in and through (borrowing from Adele) songlines of body and out again.
Songlines An image that lodged itself in my head when we started this experiment was of us all standing around Lee Wen’s prone body, like a class of clueless medical students left alone in the operating room while Dr Samuel Gross, (the surgeon in charge in The Gross Clinic, the 19th-century painting by Thomas Eakins) has left the building. On other days we were the students in Rembrandt’s 17th century Anatomy Lesson – without a Dr Nicolaes Tulp.2 But after absorbing what I interpreted from June and Adele’s propositions, my sense of what we might be up to has shifted... something has happened and the image I now have is less one of Lee Wen inert on the operating table with us around him, scalpels at the ready while we discuss which medical specialisation we might each of us embark upon. Rather, the image is of us sitting casually or standing around him as he sings his crooked songs. (The place in which I imagine this happening is The Substation gallery, but that’s perhaps just me being sentimental). In this vision of Lee Wen, rather than us standing around him with knives poised at uncertain entry-points, he has all his organs delineated; his body traversed by the diagrammatic but integrative lines of qi or prana that one sees in Chinese or ayurvedic medical illustrations. Sometimes the lines are black. Sometimes, if you, as Ray advises, look to one side, they glow in the dark. While bracketing for the moment June’s earlier discussion of censorial impediments, some of our corporeal in-routes – the spine, the liver, the mouth, the foot – feel after a couple of weeks of writing more like transformative conduits; nodes in a larger web of ‘staggerlee’ songlines,3 which resound through Lee Wen’s body and out through his pores or the ground beneath his feet and back through an ear or a toe or an ear on a toe as the case may be. These songlines give form and content to ‘something happening’ that is echoed in the quote by Tang Da Wu that June draws into her second contribution; “something happens between audience, space and yourself ... ” Of course there can be many kinds of processes sensed and observed within the body at once, just as there may be many bodies: a medicalised The Anatomy Lesson With Dr Nicolaes Tulp was an image that circulated recently in Singapore as publicity for a 2010 art initiative by Adele Tan, Guo-Liang Tan and Martin Constable and Charles Lim entitled Grieve Perspective. See http:// www.guo-liangtan.com/collaboration/grieve-perspective/.
The danger of course with such a strategy is that artist also ends up indulging/playing with the very same economy of obscene desire for their own power ends. I had a conversation about this with performance artists from the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990’s who remarked: “For us there is little point in revealing the obscene in political ideology. The obscene (racism/cultural-nationalism) is not a subtext. It is everywhere. It doesn’t shock anybody, it just adds to the consensus”.
I use the word ‘songlines’ loosely. Lee Wen’s nomadic singing practice may indeed evoke faint thematic/metaphorical resonances with Australian Aborigine ‘Songlines’; secret songs, dance and mark-making passed down through generations, which when put together chart the topography of the Australian continent and the pathways of primordial creators. (These songlines are also called ‘The Dreaming Tracks’). However more serious or direct comparisons would require an expertise that lies beyond the ambit of what is written here.
74 / 75
body, a subtle body of meditative awareness, a body of political-ideological signifier/signifieds, a body of irony and parody, a body underground … For me, Lee Wen’s best performances consciously or unconsciously tread all of these multivalent, communal, corporeal experiences to powerful effect. Performance metamorphosis and the city It’s become another much-cited critical truism, first formulated if I’m not wrong by Ray in his PhD thesis from Sydney4 to say that the Singapore State has been for the last two decades one of the main performance artists in town. When I revisit the things I wrote nearly a decade ago about the obscene subtexts of domesticated ideologies poking out of Lee Wen’s collar or seeping from his pores, there is part of me that in 2012 finds his performances from that time, and the concerns of the day, as he traversed the city, so very gentle, almost naïve in relation to way the ground beneath our feet has metamorphosised since then. No subtext here! No subtle awareness either! The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, which was considered such an arriviste imposition and which so-troubled the Singapore art scene when it opened in October 2002, now seems really quite dear, dwarfed as it is by the three-pronged protrusion from the depths that is the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino. And another transformation has taken place just off the coastline beyond the churning ‘Singapore Eye’ ferris wheel and past one of the world’s top three busiest shipping ports, on what was formerly Pulau Blakang Mati (literally, ‘Island of Death’). That island was renamed Sentosa (peace and tranquility) by the Singapore Tourism Board in the 1970s in an early attempt to downplay darker memories and to construct a faintly Disney-fied holiday isle in a sea of container ships. This Disney-fied dream has come to obscene fruition in the last decade with Singapore coughing up more and still more sand, vomiting it back into the sea, and transforming Sentosa, peace and tranquility isle, into the monstrous home of Resorts World Casino and the Universal Studios theme park.
See Ray Langenbach, Performing the Singapore State: 1988–1995 (PhD dissertation, University of Western Sydney, 2004), http://handle.uws.edu.au:8081/1959.7/576.
Different Views Lee Weng Choy
In that last paragraph, Lucy conjures all sorts of intersecting views and eyes, signs and signatures of capitalist spectacle. The Esplanade, with its durian-like domed theatres that also look like large insect eyes; the Singapore Flyer ferris wheel, which may have surpassed the London Eye in size – it’s currently the world’s tallest – but trails behind in generating tourist revenue, arguably the more coveted statistic; the view from the infinity pool atop the Marina Bay Sands, whose casino has been especially profitable; the Sentosa Merlion statue with its scary laser-light-show eyes. In general, the skyline is a panoramic view, almost invariably seen from some privileged vantage point. Behold the city, the skyline seems to say – no, not so much ‘say’ as ‘boast’. This is not your city of the Robert Pinsky poem that I quoted earlier (page 43), where one lives in the “little village of the present”, where one may ponder the grandest themes of history, and yet one remains acutely aware of the fragile smallness of the moment. In the flyer for his ‘Anyhow Blues Project’, a bespectacled Lee Wen is on his knees, strumming his guitar (Adele). Whether he is naked, belly on the floor, with shoes on his back (June), or with canvases strapped to his arms for wings, riding the train, searching for a fellow traveller, a sympathetic soul (Lucy), or performing political rituals (Ray), this ‘Artist of the People’ may be a dreamer, and may look up at the sky every now and then, but he also has his eyes on the ground.
Epilogue ray langenbach An interesting thing happened during the weeks we were all writing these texts and comments. On 19 February 2012, Singaporean artist Loo Zihan presented Cane, a re-staging or reinterpretation of Josef Ng’s Brother Cane, which was performed on New Year’s eve 1993/4. The latter piece was a turning point for the arts in Singapore in 1994,1 and its restaging in 2012 has again brought to the surface the unresolved anxieties and social dynamics surrounding the original work and performance art as a form – rehashing the debates about modernist presumptions of authenticity, quality, the place of language, and the role of gesture in performance art. Throughout, Lee Wen’s attitude has been supportive – if not positively avuncular – of Loo’s right to smudge the border between theatre and performance art by re-performing performance art works of the past.2 Kai Lam invited Loo to perform a re-interpetation of another of Ng’s performances, Don’t Go Swimming, it’s Not Safe, in the 2011 R.I.T.E.S performance art event.3 This event set off a controversy surrounding Loo’s work following his return to Singapore from graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the objections of some other performance artists, Lee Wen invited Loo to Macau in 2011 for another performance event. This reveals another significant aspect of Lee Wen’s work: having learned from the controversies of 1994, he never erased political content from his works. Following the lifting of the decade-long government ‘ban’ on funding for performance art, Lee Wen again began organising and orchestrating performance art events in Singapore, and nurturing the succeeding generation of performance artists. While producing some of the most memorable performance art works in Southeast Asia, Lee has been indefatigable, even in the face of his personal struggle with Parkinsons, to disseminate performance art. Ironically, this has exacerbated the mainstreaming of an art form that, as part of its modernist branding, has sought the margins, and maintained an avant-garde ethos of market-resistance. The mainstreaming of performance art has led to Lee Wen (and Amanda Heng, another performance artist of his generation) receiving the Cultural Medallion from the very government and ruling party that a decade earlier had utilised the police and judiciary to suppress performance art. Lee Wen is acutely aware of these contradictions.
For more on Josef Ng and Brother Cane, see note 3, page 33.
Loo performed an earlier version of Cane (2011) while a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
R.I.T.E.S, or ‘Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak’, is a spin-off from the ‘Future of Imagination’ performance art festival, which Lee Wen initiated. Along with Chumpon Apisuk’s ‘Asiatopia’ in Bangkok, ‘Future of Imagination’ is one of the longest running performance art festivals in Southeast Asia.
Facing page: Anthropometry Revision #4, 2006, video stills, video shot by Chua Chye Teck. Presented at Lee Wen's MA Fine Arts graduation exhibition, at the LASALLE College of Fine Arts.
76 / 77
Published on Apr 1, 2013
"Lee Wen: Variations On The Exquisite Body" written by Lucy Davis, Ray Langenbach, Lee Weng Choy, Adele Tan and June Yap. Lead essay of Sing...