LEE WENJourney of a Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism, 1997, inkjet print on archival paper, 89 × 63 cm. Courtesy the artist and Singapore Art Museum.

Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real

Lee Wen

Singapore Art Museum
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic
Public commentary and provocation can be risky for arts practice in Singapore, where self-censorship is a familiar shadow. Since the late 1980s, multidisciplinary Singaporean artist Lee Wen has determinedly tested the waters of creative expression, exploring narratives of the self in society, and provoking contemplation of the role of contemporary art in his city-state and elsewhere. The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) paid homage to this local pioneer of performance art with the exhibition “Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real”—an expansive and diverse collection of over 40 installations, photographs and videos, drawn from Lee’s entire portfolio.

Lee began his practice just a handful of years before Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) withheld support and funding for performance art in 1994. The years before, during and after the cuts (which eased beginning in 2003), saw Lee continuously develop his challenging repertoire. In 2005, the NAC awarded Lee with a Cultural Medallion, which, along with the staging of the SAM show, is telling of the shifting politics and economic ground within the local art community. Yet the regulations that continue to govern performance art in Singapore speak of the challenges still faced by its practitioners.

Perhaps this ironic situation partly explains the humor evident in some of Lee’s works. In World Class Society (1999–2000), Lee satirizes what he views as the overuse of this titular phrase in local news headlines, public speeches and advertising, when describing their own society. The mixed-media installation incorporates a video screen that can be viewed only through a long cloth funnel, as well as a winged globe and star filled with wadding, and audience survey forms that probe the meaning of “world class.” In the video, Lee relentlessly and ridiculously repeats this phrase in reference to Singaporean life, including the line, “We have world-class food in world-class restaurants and world-class hotels. Because we are world-class.” One might take this as a message that a single-minded obsession with status can lead to conditions that lack real substance or meaning.

Another mixed-media installation, titled Neo-Baba (1995), questions identity, social realities and the impact of mainstream culture on society. The title is a nod to the Neo-Dada movement, as well as “baba,” a term used to describe men of Southeast Asia’s Straits Chinese community. A chicken coop lined with various objects—a mixture of the strange and familiar—is displayed alongside a video montage of Lee’s performances. In one of these clips, the artist punches the air wearing boxing gloves that have a second pair attached at the knuckles, resulting in a sequence in which an invisible opponent seems to be punching him back. Lee repetitively chants, “We got democracy. We got elections every four or five years. We got a seat at the United Nations. We got democracy.” The possibilities and complexities inherent in hybridism, Lee seems to suggest, offer values beyond that of homogeneity and singularity.

Prevalent throughout the exhibition was Lee’s Yellow Man character, which he creates by covering his body with yellow paint. The Yellow Man has appeared in various performances—such as the “Journey of a Yellow Man” series (1992–2012),
Strange Fruit (2003) and Splash! (2003–12)—and explores ethnic, collective and individual identities, as well as themes of restriction and security. One memorable photograph, entitled Journey of a Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism (1997), captures a performance that critiques Singaporean curatorial direction in relation to its multicultural policy, suggesting that a wider perspective and interest beyond racial identity could be more beneficial.

Lee also capitalized on the SAM show to make a case for the multidimensional nature of performance art. The installation Resource Room (2012) contained an exhaustive mind map of terms related to performance art, and a perusable collection of Lee’s posters, books, magazines, videos and DVDs. These alluded to his plans to develop an independent resource center for ephemeral art practices in Singapore.

Like a tome of essays mixed with a belated celebration party, the show was varied and challenging, and compelled viewers to reflect on their place within “the Singapore condition”—the constant search for self-identity within a multicultural society.