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Artist Lee Wen’s performances were the social critiques we desperately needed

Lee Wen, one of Singapore’s leading performance art pioneers, passed away on 3 March 2019, at 61 after suffering a lung infection. In his absence, he left behind a legacy of works that will continue to inform the art community now and in the future.

Lee had been pursuing art ever since he left his job as a bank office in 1987. As a pioneering member of contemporary art group The Artists Village, Lee had produced profound performance pieces and worked with other important artists of the time such as Tang Da Wu and Amanda Heng. While he has dabbled with other forms of art, Lee’s artistic passion found a lasting affinity with performance art and it was through this medium that he found success in the local and international art worlds.

Lee Wen (Image – iPreciation Gallery)

But Lee’s success in the art world has not always been smooth sailing.

The local performance art scene has been plagued with obstacles, most notably after local artist Josef Ng’s performance of Brother Cane in 1994. The controversial piece, which saw Ng caning blocks of tofu and snipping his pubic hair, led to a decade-long ban on government funding for performance artwork.

Despite censorship and lack of finances, Lee was determined to continue performing and created impactful moments in Singapore’s art history during this period.

In 2005, Lee was awarded the Cultural Medallion, and later in 2016 was awarded the Joseph Balestier award from the Freedom of Art by the Embassy of the United States in Singapore. Still, Lee remained a humble man whose goals were to create honest artwork, no holds barred. In honour of Lee Wen, we present his most influential pieces in his career. 

Journey of a Yellow Man

Journey of A Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism (Image – National Gallery Singapore)

Of his performance works, the Journey of a Yellow Man (1992) is arguably the most important and controversial Lee has performed. The decade-long series revolved around a common image of him doused head to toe in yellow paint, in the process dehumanising himself as an exaggerated portrayal of the Yellow Peril, a racist metaphor raised by the Western world in modern history.

Works often encircled discussions of race, culminating in a 1997 performance at The Substation where he washed off his painted body in a small tub and wearing a sarong later. Lee would also broaden his performance to touch on other topics such as censorship, feminism and propaganda.

Untitled (Raffles)

Untitled (Raffles) (Image – Lee Wen)

Before Singapore Biennale’s ‘disappearing Raffles’, there was Lee’s installation Untitled (Raffles) (2000). The artist commissioned a heightened platform facing the statue of Stamford Raffles, inviting passers-by to climb up and approach the figure that has been placed on a literal pedestal since 1972 at Boat Quay. Lee explained that it was intended to ‘evoke the idea of confronting the empire on an even level, not as inferior’ and review the dynamics between the coloniser and the colonised. The installation was revisited in National Gallery’s 2016 exhibition Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies.

Neo-Baba

(Image - Art Archive Asia)
(Image - Art Archive Asia)
(Image - Art Archive Asia)
(Image - Art Archive Asia)

With Neo-Baba (1995), Lee continued to explore the Singapore identity, this time in a global context. The multi-media piece was meant as a comical presentation of a Singaporean attempting to adapt and hybridise with other cultures. Locking himself in a chicken coop, Lee adopts this persona by donning formal office wear, boxing with an imaginary opponent and performing in various language and Singlish.

Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit (2003) (Image – iPreciation Gallery)

Attempting to circumvent the funding problem for performance art, Lee decided against staging an actual performance of Strange Fruit (2003) and recorded it instead. Taking advantage of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Lee used Chinese lanterns in his work to avoid the need to apply for a public entertainment license. Covered in yellow paint, he took up his construction of lanterns and did a one-man parade from downtown Singapore to the beach. What was recorded were photographs and videos, the latter of which was to be presented as an exhibition to successfully qualify for funding from the National Arts Council.

Ping-Pong Go Round

Ping-Pong Go Round (Image – Lee Wen)

Lee’s 1998 work makes a playful jab at the verbal game of ping pong around the conference table. Instead of the usual rectangular tables, Lee goes for a doughnut-shaped version which allows multiple people to play both inside and outside the table, simulating dialogue without borders through sports. The piece was initially staged in Melbourne, Australia but was re-created again in 2012 at the Singapore Art Museum. It continued making rounds in art galleries in Thailand, France and most notably at Art Basel Hong Kong and London’s Saatchi Gallery.

Jasmine Tay
Senior Writer
Jasmine Tay is the dining, culture and jewellery writer. She makes fine silver jewellery and causes mini-explosions in the kitchen when she can't afford fancy dinners. Sometimes she tells people what she thinks about art, and binges on the music of Danzig when they don’t agree.