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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.
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...