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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), 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.


Lee Wen: Variations On The Exquisite Body.  

"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...

Lee Wen: Variations On The Exquisite Body.  

"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...