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LEE WENStrange Fruit, 2003, c-print, 42 × 59.4 cm. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum. 

We Dare to Dream: On Lee Wen

Also available in:  Chinese

“Anida, nice bugs don’t bite but dream.” Lee Wen scribbled these words inside my copy of his monograph Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real when I first met him in 2015. By that time, he already knew me as the “bug lady” because of my “The Buddhist Bug” series. I was simultaneously humbled and star-struck. Lee Wen showed an uncompromising commitment to performance as a language that unlocks possibilities for hybrid forms bridging life and art, and his works resonate for their poetic extensions of the body that unapologetically pushed against marginalization.

By the late 1990s, Lee Wen was already a pioneering figure, a member of the Artists Village collective and Black Market International. At a time when performance art was being pushed underground in Singapore, he addressed social control in Ghost Stories (1992–2003), and his 24-hour durational work Nychthemer (1996/97) challenged the natural order of living. In the same period, he staged works focusing on social realities, such as Neo-Baba (1995), and, later, the ironic I Am Not a Performance Artist, This Is Not a Work of Art (1998). 

Prior to 2009, I am ashamed I did not know of Lee Wen. My idea of Asian bodies performing fierce identity-based works had never moved beyond Asians in America. This was due to the problematic fixed distinctions between “Asian Asians” and “Asian Americans,” though my views evolved as I began to perform in Asia and connected with an emerging art scene in Southeast Asia. Lee Wen, who was never raised in my America, taught me more about what it means to be an Asian-American artist than any other performance artist.

I first encountered his works in a class taught by Nora Taylor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and they solidified my understanding of a more fluid, trans-diasporic Asian identity. His “Journey of a Yellow Man” series, in which he covered himself entirely in yellow paint, was the first time I had seen an Asian body outside of America confront issues around cultural stereotyping that I could relate to. His works unlocked a key piece of my identity formation—in that I simply could not exist without my relationship to Asia—and that embracing fluctuations and the in-between states of being was critical to my healing and, ultimately, art-making, freeing me from the burden of representation.  

Taylor also showed us Strange Fruit (2003), an extension of the “Yellow Man” series, in which Wen is physically obscured by red lanterns as he walks through the streets, parks and beaches of Singapore. The title references a song on lynching, famously sung by African-American blues singer Billie Holiday, offering me a perspective on the transnational frameworks that articulate a complex exchange of historical interconnectivity. My activist self saw a powerful reminder of art’s ability to draw solidarity between violent histories of representation and the brutality in essentializing difference. His entire “Yellow Man” series offered me a path to think about hypervisibility in performance and the courage to seek freedom through art. 

It is because of this that I spent my yearlong Fulbright fellowship researching contemporary performance in Cambodia. My own practice flourished in the five years I resided there. I was moved by a freedom to create because of a collective sense of belonging to something my contemporaries and I couldn’t quite put our fingers on. Lee Wen and others, like Arahmaiani and Tran Luong, who were creating edgy and experimental performance works despite often harsh authoritarian regimes, and without institutional and cultural support, set the path for so many of us. They are the reason why there has been a shifting of centers toward Southeast Asia and a resistance against commodification in the hopes of building communities and a collective responsibility to embrace critical thinking and being.

Lee Wen lived, breathed and dreamed art. He was a playful and passionate agitator who impacted me tremendously in ways that I cannot even begin to fully realize. I met Lee Wen way too late in my career, yet he had come into my world exactly when I needed him most. On January 24, 2019, I received the following message from an artist friend who had visited Lee Wen in the hospital: “Dear Anida, I met Lee Wen yesterday and he asked how you are doing. He first mistook me as you and asked me if I have a Japanese husband. Seems like he misses you.”

In the spirit of his laughter, joy and ironic ways of art-making, it is fitting that the last message I received about him was one of mistaken identities. I never had the chance to tell him how his work impacted my trajectory. Lee Wen left us everything we need as artists to globally connect people who continue to resist authority, defy conventions, push against boundaries of social control and, always, at the heart of his work—who dare to dream.

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