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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.
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...