We promised an interview with Lee Wen and we finally got around to posting it up. Our thoughts on his ongoing show at SAM, Lucid Dreams In The Reverie Of The Real, and a bit about the man has already been out for a while here, and much of his “life story” has also been up elsewhere. But we just could not not do a RAT interview with the dude, who talks about the Yellow Man, his oh-so-brief acting career, among other things.
Yellow Man is pretty much over for you isn’t it?
I don’t think of it as really over but I do find it difficult to be motivated to do again. Basically because I hate washing up after. (laughs) It takes longer to wash than putting on the colour! And sometimes it gets into places… There was one time I did it in Denmark and you know these people tell you it’s not cold and it’s already summer. But we’re from a tropical country. So when I showered, I took nearly two hours to wash up, and the water comes hot then cold then hot… It was torture. It’s the worst part of the performance, which nobody sees.
People think of performance art as something serious and yet you have these rather amusing behind-the-scenes moments. Any other similar experiences you’ve had while performing?
I would say one of the funniest incidents was with (performance art collective) Black Market (International).
Jacques Van Poppel always seems to have alcohol as material in performance. He was playing his drum pad and had this bottle of beer next to him. Elvira (Santamaria) stood behind him and put her long hair over him. I thought I could do an interesting action where I would pour the beer over Elvira’s head and wash her hair with the beer.
But just when I started to pour, Elvira stood up and threw her hair back and the beer just went on (Van Poppel’s) head and on his tuxedo. And I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to wet it because it shrinks. It was the last time he wore a tuxedo. (laughs)
In terms of your creative output, how much of it are people actually seeing in ongoing exhibition?
Like I said, it’s not a retrospective. I wanted to make it like a dream, where people walk in, it’s not (arranged) chronologically and you see one thing and then another… I didn’t want all these text explanations so that you face them and find it to be a surreal experience. That if people just walk in and not depend on explanations, it would be a more interesting experience for them. At least for my exhibition, all the works are very visual, except maybe for the resource centre.
What do you want your audiences to take out of it?
We have seen so many exhibitions in our life, we get tired. Of course being artists that we are, we want the total experience. I want to be surprised and moved by things I see. And it seldom happens nowadays. I’m not sure if I succeeded in doing it but I did try la. Maybe it is another failure—after Kuo Pao Kun’s saying. I’m not saying it falls short of my vision, but in some ways my ambition is to make something that is unachievable.
I think I’ve achieved an honest and credible exhibition that opens up possibilities for other people to be more daring. Because 20 years ago, I wouldn’t dare do things like putting up boxes in the gallery and expect people to accept it. It’s only now that we know that there are audiences out there, there are curators, that accept what I’m proposing.
Many times I thought this show is a bit late in coming. Ten years ago I could’ve been more agile and do more performances, but at the same time, I think the audiences are more ready (now). In fact, I probably think that young artists are looking at it and thinking they can do better than me.
Can you share a bit about the connection your artistic track as a performance artist and what preceded it—drawing and painting?
I was drawing ever since I was a kid. It’s something that I really enjoy doing, actually. But one thing I don’t njoy so much is oil painting. It’s so messy. And I waste a lot of the paint that I squeeze out of the tube. Ecologically speaking, drawing is safer for me to do and I think it’s something that I can handle with my Parkinson’s… It’s (also) more noble in some ways, in the sense that it’s closer to writing also. Painting is an embellishment…
The performance came after coming across Tang Da Wu in The Artists Village. Going to London, I started to research about Western paintings and Chinese portraiture. I found that the performance scene in Singapore, which started in late `89, early `90s, actually started around the same time it started in China. I kinda said to myself, there must be some relationship.
So I looked at portraiture. When you think about how artists use self portraiture, it’s a kind of performance. Looking at Rembrandt’s paintings, Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings…
I used to show my class in Japan the portraits of Vincent Van Gogh in a slide show, where you see it’s as if he’s doing a performance. Different weather, different hats he wore, his beard is different, his ear is cut off, things like that. It’s all portraiture. In a way, performance in painting.
And later, when you think about artists like (Yasumasa) Morimura, they use cosplay to change their persona—performance on photography, which self-portraiture actually predates.
So performance for you is not a distinct break from painting or drawing.
I guess I saw (the connection) as necessary because we (sometimes) feel that it’s a bit too egoistic to use ourselves that way. So we need to overcome this psychological barrier first.
But sometimes, I also think that it went to the other extreme for us. Artists become very egoistic when they do performance art.
So when (SAM senior curator Khairuddin Hori) talked about me despising individualism (in the TODAY article), I guess I wouldn’t say I despise it, but I can see the danger of extreme individualism to the point of narcissism.
That’s why I was apprehensive about showing a lot of performance photographs and videos in my exhibition. I want to see artworks when I go to an exhibition. Of course, for performance artists, it inevitably is about the body. But when you put 20 images in one room, it’s a bit enough. Let’s say if I fill all those rooms with 20 images of performances of myself, it’s like Lee Wen, Lee Wen, Lee Wen. It’s to the extreme.
Erm, but your show does have a lot of your photos.
But I try to minimise it so it won’t look so obvious. That’s why I make environments, the installations. I don’t know. It works for me, but I overheard somebody make some comment that it’s not as complex as when it’s seen as a performance. I think the complexity is also there in the installation, but maybe the viewer needs to work harder. Performance is so direct and in your face. So even if it’s subtle, the directness of the experience makes the viewer more focused into responding.
You once acted in Lao Jiu for TheatreWorks in the `90s. How come you never followed it up?
I was actually invited for the Kuo Pao Kun Festival this year, but I don’t think I can do it in time. I wanted to work with younger artists based on one of his last works, but do it in a performance workshop way.
When I came back from London, (TheatreWorks) asked Da Wu but he wasn’t interested. And then (Ong) Keng Sen asked him if he knew other artists and Da Wu called me. I said I’d give it a shot. Keng Sen was talking about performance theatre so I wanted to see what he was talking about. He comes from the tradition of Richard Schechner.
I went for audition and then, when I was still inside the studio, he ran out and screamed to Tay Tong: “He’s a natural actor! Wonderful! We’ve got him!” I thought, “Wow, is he putting me on?” (laughs)
We got on quite well. We argued a bit, as usual. For me, if you invite me as a performance artist, I have some leeway in some ways. There were differences of opinion but some of the actors were shocked to hear me talk to him like that. They were telling me, “Eh, he’s the director no? How can you talk to him like that?” Then I said, “Yah, but you know, I have different ideas about this. I think, in terms of performance theatre, we all have a right to say something about what we’re doing right?” But it came across as being rebellious lah.
They called me back to perform with them in Perth. It was good that they got me because they needed somebody to draw the tattoo on (Lim) Kay Siu. If not, they would’ve had to bring a tattooist with them! So I went to learn from Johnny Two Thumb all the dragons and phoenixes.
Everyday I had to touch him up. And it was good fun because I bonded with him quite well. He had a lot of misconceptions about performance art. In fact, in AGA (Artists General Assembly in 1993), he came to our performance and participated with us. We found Kay Siu extremely dramatic! But it was quite fun.
Those were the times when there were a lot of crossovers between the different fields.
Yah, we had more meetings than nowadays. In the past we kind of orchestrated it ourselves because we felt Singapore was so small yet we don’t know what the other disciplines are doing. That’s why the AGA was so comprehensive. Alfian Sa’at was there to recite his poems, there was Saba (TK Sabapathy) giving a talk about alternative and mainstream. Kay Siu and his friends doing some theatre experimental work. We thought it would set the precedent for future events. Unfortunately, the discussion always comes back to Josef and pubic hair. A lot of people don’t’ realize the significance of the event beyond that.
What was your role back then?
I was actually helping in coordinating the performance programme. I did this poetry and action thing. Then there were these group performances that we did on the day before it happened. Four of us used one of the cupboard sized generic boxes that were used in the AGA installation exhibition and started from Takashimaya. We just put the box there and each of us had a (specific) colour on our heads and feet. I was painted purple, I think. Zai (Kuning) was green. Josef (Ng) was red. Nick Pang wanted to be yellow—but he used this yellow that was turmeric and it was really hot on his head. He kept saying, “Hey when are we gonna finish? I need to wash my head!” (laughs)
We just improvised with the box and carried it around all the way to Dhoby Ghaut. We just wanted to publicise our event. Suzy (Lingham) and Suzanne (Victor) were giving out flyers with their friends. Security guard came out and scolded us. “You know people usually pay thousands of dollars to use this space—you come here and just perform like that! If you’re not gonna go, we’re gonna call the police!”
It’s very hard to see these spontaneous events happening anymore. Nowadays you have these pre-planned “flash mobs”. Let’s talk about the process of creating a performance piece. Where does it come from for you?
In the past, I was more into mythology. I’m into the kind of comparative studies of Joseph Campbell and all these people. It’s about making mythology for the contemporary times. The Masks of God, that four volume book that ends with Creative Mythology. I kind of took off from there.
I was just writing this piece which I wanted to make as an (accompanying) video for the Erasing Self-Portrait (work). Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to finish it. Cos the video that we’re showing, Approaching Self-Protrait, a performance in Dresden, was just an initial response to the idea of using performance to do a self-portrait. I wanted to go back to all the works I’ve done which involve self portraiture or aspects of it and discuss the idea.
One of my earliest works played on this image of Picasso. There’s one series of paintings in The Journey Of A Yellow Man No. 3 where I have small canvasses below each of the larger paintings.
The first one had images of self-portraiture in the style of Picasso. The explanation below had something talking about Warhol wanting to be Matisse when he went to Europe and why he went into visual art.
In a way I wanted to make fun of how people always see Singapore art in a modernist (framework), the trend of aping the West and trying to be like one of the Masters. But the story of Warhol actually shows that this is not (exclusively) Asian. In the Western context, people also aspire to be like the masters.
But at the same time, I played with the fact that we may try to be like the masters but in the end, we want to do something that goes beyond what they do. Because our times are different from theirs. If I painted like Picasso or Warhol painted like Matisse, nobody gives a damn right? It’s only when you do something that’s representative of our time that it then becomes more relevant.
So this thing about self-portraiture to me is important for that side of the story of, in the Asian context, looking at ourselves.
In this context, Erasing Self-Portrait actually seems more pivotal than the Yellow Man series, which seems to stem from that bigger thesis of self-portraiture but now sort of stands on its own as a political or cultural statement on its own.
Yah, for me it’s actually a central work. That’s why this is my Yellow Man Blues—in the sense that no matter how hard I try, it comes back to me. (laughs)
So these days, what’s your relationship to this character you’ve created?
Now I just don’t do it very often. In fact I’m thinking of not doing it again. Unless someone pays me a million bucks. (laughs) If I find that there’s a context for it – like in Denmark, I found it was quite important for me to show (Yellow Man). Knowing Scandinavia for what it is, there is a high level of racism going on—not only towards Asian but the Middle East countries. I found that while I was walking down the streets of Copenhagan, there were a lot of Iranians and Middle Eastern immigrants or residents who were very touched by my performance more than the Chinese and the Asians. Because I think they feel a strong sense of being different there.
Do you feel that the Yellow Man took a life of its own and you had to adapt to that? Did it become bigger than what you’d imagined it to be?
It’s like Pop Art, for example. You find that the audience is much bigger than (for) any other contemporary art show. Do you think that everybody understands what the artists are trying to say or not? It will get thousands and thousands (of viewers), but it’s still the same thing when it comes to understanding. The number (of people) who really dig it in terms of the ideas behind it are very few. All of them think that it’s just showing Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. It’s the same thing with the Yellow Man image. I get people doing Yellow Man performances in Korea, Thailand sometimes…
But I don’t stop them because this happens sometimes. There’s even a Filipino artist who made dolls out of the Yellow Man image.
Let’s pull out a random question. Where do your ideas come from?
In the past, I used to think no idea means no idea. Nowadays, I think that if you ask yourself constantly, something will come out, even at the last minute.
One of the most interesting things about working with performance is I can sometimes have the idea at six am in the morning, go and get the material, and perform in the afternoon. I did that with Black Market, because the first time I worked with them, we were at the Hannover Expo and there was very tight security. I went there one day earlier thinking I could go and see the space but they said we could only come in at midnight the day before the performance. And I didn’t bring any materials and didn’t know what I was gonna do.
But because I came one day earlier, I was walking around the house we were staying in and at the back there were a lot of wild yellow flowers. I woke up in the morning (of the performance), emptied my trolley bag, and picked these wildflowers.
I think it was a lifesaver for me, because the flowers not only were interesting as flowers but because, as I was moving around with this bag, the flowers were pushed together like a cube. I later took out this cube of yellow flowers and played with it (for the performance).
It was a last minute thing but it was a really good material that I had never used before. And I interacted with other people using it. It’s interesting in the sense that in performance you can even find an idea at the last minute—but you must keep on asking yourself to look for it.
So the improvisational nature, the idea of chance is a strong element.
Yah, but it must be a conscious motivation of asking what can I do, what can I do, what can I do. If I’m lazy, I’ll fall back on old ideas. That’s why I find a lot of performance artists doing the same performance again and again. I think it’s out of plain laziness.
How would you know it’s bull or not?
It’s all bull—but it’s good bull. (laughs) It’s magic in the sense that you are discovering something new on the spot that works. It’s bull in the sense that it may not have a formula but i out of the questioning comes an answer. There’s a kind of unexpectedness that is quite magical in performance art. Because we want to do something that is out of the ordinary yet says something which is human.
And if it doesn’t work?
If it doesn’t work it doesn’t’ work, then you find something else, you know? We did this thing in Glasgow once—performing five days in a row with 12 people. There was not a dull moment. Every day we found and did something new. All we had were three tables of material.
But in a world where everything is slowly held hostage by the idea of accountability – a festival or an exhibition – the spontaneity of performance art can undoubtedly send alarm bells ringing.
I can’t justify it. That’s why I can’t get our work into Esplanade. Because I think they want some kind of guarantee that you will get audiences. But you know, in terms of audience, I don’t know whether we are ready yet.
(The National Review of Live Art artistic director) Nicki Millican doesn’t believe in free performances. She passed by Singapore once and I was introduced to her at the Substation.
This was a few years before the lifting of the performance art funding ban.
When I started to organise FOI, she found out that we were offering free entry and she straightaway told me, “Lee Wen, you’re just teaching the audiences to expect this for free!”
I told her if we charge even one dollar, we’ll turn away even more people than audiences coming in.
By not paying, aren’t we falling into a kind of trap of not valuing the form, since it literally is a valuation of performance art.
It’s a chicken and egg question. I had a problem when I was doing the Anyhow Blues Project (gigs). My manager wanted to charge ten dollars but I said it will only turn away people. That’s why I put in the sign—“Ten dollars—but you can sneak in if you like. And then she say I sabo myself! (laughs) Audiences here are very erratic, the pool is very few and there are more events going on now.
So how would you assess audiences for performance art events like FOI and RITES?
So far there has always been quite a good turnout. But you don’t see many returning. One of the students who was captivated by the third FOI said she missed 4, 5, 6 and came on the 7th. I asked what happened to her and she said she lost touch with the art scene. And I think this happens in Singapore. A lot of people come for the curiosity and they stop coming. It’s such a busy world these days, there’s a lot of entertainment, a lot of overtime work going on. So people don’t really go for these things unless they’re hardcore followers…
Maybe it’s time to stop worrying about growing audiences?
A lot of times people talk about how we should do it in public spaces to get audiences, because you’re only preaching to the converted when you’re doing it in museums and galleries. But I don’t really worry about things like that anymore.
It’s always like that in the beginning of things – you’re playing to the people that you know. If it spreads, it spreads. The more you push it, it’s like wasting energy.
But there are times when we do get unexpected audiences. When we were doing FOI in Sculpture Square once, these two Americans dropped by because they saw the information at the airport. They only had a few hours stopover and they had a free bus ride to town. There were a lot of things happening but they only came to our event. And they really enjoyed it. And they said, “We’d rather come to this than go shopping in Mustafa.” I guess it’s good lah, when it comes to publicity—to catch one or two people is already very good.
One thing that I can see that is good about the social engineering here is the educationists are really putting it in schools. We have young people who’ve heard about performance art through the art education programmes. So there are more informed students these days. Generally there’s a growth of acceptance.
I mean, performance art is always something that’s seen in a negative way and is misunderstood even by people who should not be doing that. One architect that we knew from a long time ago, made this comment about the Art Stage scandal (involving Maria Elena Rudolf tearing out the contacts list from an Indonesian gallery’s guestbook)— “She’s doing performance art”.
And I just had to say something to that. Just because it’s a negative act doesn’t mean it’s performance art. It is a very rude thing that she did and out of very bad social manners, not because it’s performance art.
I mean a lot of times we see somebody doing something weird in the streets—and people think it’s performance art.
Can you dumb down performance art?
It’s been dumbed down already. (laughs)
I do see the advantage of making things accessible by making simple actions that do say something quite clearly. (Tang) Da Wu is great at doing that. One of the special performances I saw that Da Wu did was on a theatre stage at Shell Towers (in the late `80s).
I was staying with him in Sembawang. And he asked for my help because he needed a piece of meat for the lunchtime performance.
I bought a leg of lamb, which had a very strong smell, carried it in a plastic bag and when I reached (the venue) he was onstage talking about maid abuse, based on an article in the newspaper.
I had never seen Da Wu doing such dramatic changes. It’s like Shakespeare, man! I never saw him do it again.
It’s amazing how performance art back then seemed to naturally slot into the public landscape, and the idea of these seamless overlaps when it comes to theatre, performance art… I’m reminded of the not-so-recent debate regarding Loo Zihan’s Cane performance and how you openly defended it.
The main question in performance art seems to be about authenticity. We want to know whether it’s real or not. There are a lot of things we don’t believe because of (suspicions regarding) ulterior motives, self-glorification… But when you look at Zihan, how can anyone accuse him of that? He’s doing it very systematically, which comes across as inauthentic. But he’s trying to do it in a way which is based on academic thinking. I don’t really like that kind of approach but I see the value of it, of how it can be a different approach.
Are you still a purist when it comes to performance art?
I’m not. I’ve never been. But I see that the main question we always grapple with actually goes around this main issue of authenticity. How many times have I seen, even in Europe, people discussing things like the difference between theatre and performance. If this is like that, it’s theatre, if it’s like this, it’s performance art.
I think it’s all bullshit. There’s always a theatricality in the most extreme performance art work. Once somebody puts himself (out there) as doing art, I think there’s already a state of theatricality.
It’s just (a question) of range. There’s a spectrum. On the one end there’s the very conceptual thing, on the other, more closer to the Shakespearean traditional theatre. In between there’s all these hybrids. But at the end of the day, once you are doing art, you are putting yourself on the stage already. Even if you’re doing it in real-life terms, there’s theatre involved. Putting out a cigarette on your shoulder is theatre.
So I don’t think there’s something like non-theatre performance where performance art is special. It’s just a claim by people who want to see performance art as really, really unique and more authentic than theatre—which I think is bullshit. Because traditional theatre, when done properly, questioning some perennial human questions, is just as authentic as a performance art piece.
This question of authenticity is more about the skill of the artist.
What do you mean?
There is skill involved in doing performance art. Skill in the sense that you are able to show something really authentic based on the way you do it. I can’t say in what way because in terms of performance art, there’s no clear one way. There’re so many possibilities.
It’s not skill like a carpenter being able to cut wood into two exact pieces. Because you can’t do performance twice sometimes. A great performance sometimes can only be done once and if you do it again, it doesn’t’ work.
Some performances I’ve heard about are so strong that just the idea of it is stuck in my mind.
There’s one, explained to me by Alastair MacLennan, that I can really feel. It’s by Zbigniew Warpechowski, a Polish artist who used to be with Black Market until he stopped.
He stood up, next to a pedestal the same height as him. There was a spike on it. He put his left hand just on top of it, and rolled a cigarette with his other hand.
He looked at the audience, smoked the cigarette. All the time his other hand was just over the spike. He finished the cigarette, put it out, and, very calmly, pressed his left hand into the spike. It went through. Then he slowly pulled it out, looking at the audience all the time. Then he went to the hospital.
A very short performance but such a strong image. I mean, you can’t repeat that kind of performance but people keep talking about it until today. He knows where the point is.
What do you think about the performances that have been created in Singapore today?
I haven’t seen a lot. I’ve seen some of the SPAM performances. I like the idea that they do it in different locations.
The last time I saw them was at Substation. Josef Ng came and made some remarks. He saw a kind of duet (between) Ezzam Rahman and an Australian artist. They did a light comedy piece. A little bit theatrical. And Josef made some remarks saying that he doesn’t see it as performance art but theatre and it wasn’t the kind of thing he did when he was doing performance art. That there’s no attention to the presence of the audience. No reaching out to the audience. The actions were planned that it was more like a choreographed piece.
Then Josef asked what I thought. So I gave my usual answer about how I see the problem as not about whether this is performance art or not. And that what Josef is saying is about that kind of performance art per se based on the `60s idea of performance art, the classic kind we expect. Which still exists but isn’t necessarily suitable for every artist.
I think every artist has to find their own way. Just like painting—not everyone is suitable to do abstract or portraiture. So I said that I don’t see it as a problem that Ezzam did it this way, because he has a sense of humour, likes to play with somebody else and make something dangerous look like fun.
Among the SPAM artists, there’s only Kelvin Atmadibrata who tries to lean towards that kind of `60s-based performance art. But I see also a kind of hybrid form of theatre involving some choreography. I said this is okay and not a problem. Not all artists are suitable for that kind of mentality. It’s not the be all or end all in performance art.
So how did you guys critique each other in the early days?
We were more informal, but there was always Da Wu there. And he had a very good eye not only for performance. One of the things that I really enjoyed was he used to put slides of our paintings next to very well known international artists. And then we talk about it. And it’s very interesting because it gave us more confidence also.
I told you how a lot of time we don’t see ourselves on par with what’s going on with the rest of the world, that we don’t trust ourselves. But putting our works next to these people, we started to think, yeah, why not? They’re just as equally bad as us as we’re as equally good as them. They’re experimenting, but we are also experimenting.