Painting yourself bright yellow is certainly one way to gain attention – and that’s exactly what Lee Wen did in 1992. After leaving a banking career in 1988 to enrol at Lasalle College of the Arts, it was while studying in London that the Singaporean decided to paint himself head-to-toe in yellow. What followed was a series of shows – such as Yellow Man and Journey of a Yellow Man – that depicted the yellow Lee in chains, painting slogans and carrying flowers in locations across the world. The 54-year-old performance artist now has his first major retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum.
After two decades of using the motif, the question is: is the yellow man a cheap trick, or is there more to it than that? According to the artist: ‘“Yellow Man” raises questions on complex issues of identity formation, laughs at stereotypes, pokes at dangerous signs of human inventions and calls out to [its audience to] not be fooled by superficial beauty.’
He does admit, however, that a lot of people missed the point with ‘Yellow Man’, and didn’t see much more than superficial showboating. ‘Unfortunately, it gave more possibilities of being used by those it questioned, and I blame it on a lack of platforms to discuss them properly,’ he says. ‘Its success was to gain attention, but not many dug beneath its skin.’
Perhaps that’s part of the reason Lee has since branched out into more wide-ranging work that has incorporated drawing, sculpture and multimedia. He is also the founder of Future of Imagination, which took off in 2003 and has become Singapore’s signature annual performance art event, attracting many international artists to the city – an inception that helped earn Lee the Cultural Medallion in 2005.
Likewise, the new SAM retrospective doesn’t linger too long on ‘Yellow Man’, but instead exhibits a wide combination of works new and old, some of which have not been displayed in Singapore before. The title stems from a long-forgotten book of texts and illustrations published by Lee back in 1981, entitled A Waking Dream, which deals with issues of myth-making, individualism and identity through the veil of dreams and reality.
While Lee has humorously characterised the book as being ‘obiang [out-of-fashion] hip’, its themes take on a more profound meaning in the light of the artist’s recent battles with Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with five years ago. ‘My hands shook, my legs staggered, my alcohol intake stopped, but with proper medication I try to cope and work in response to changes in my body,’ he says, describing his recent struggles – which he has also incorporated into his work.
‘One piece, “Stagger Lee”, is based on the most recorded song in popular music history,’ says Lee. ‘I discovered the song after being nicknamed by [Future of Imagination partner] Jeremy Hiah, who saw me staggering.’
As with most of Lee’s work, the show has an underlying current of commentary on social issues. ‘I have some new pieces and some long-awaited restagings that I hope I can push further in relationship to my worries about the status quo,’ he says. One such work is a re-creation of ‘Ping Pong Go Round’, initially constructed and performed in 1998 in Melbourne. Using table tennis as a metaphor for dialogue and democracy, a doughnut-shaped ping pong table resembling a conference table was placed in a public area, standing as a sculpture or allowing viewers to interact with the piece and actually use it for a game.
Another key feature of the retrospective is a series of peripheral dialogues and performances (titled ‘Songs of Sisyphus in the Key of Narcissus’) continuing throughout the duration of the exhibition until June. Performers include contemporary artists such as Angie Seah and icons such as Tang Da Wu, while there are discussions with independent activists such as Vanessa Ho, one of the organisers behind SlutWalk Singapore and an employee with sex-work charity Project X.
‘Although I confront various social questions in my work, I have never seen it as nor called it activism,’ says Lee. ‘In these dialogues I would like to engage with local independent activists who organise interactions with members of the public as part of their activist work. That, to me, involves creative approaches that are very close to some art practices. Through these sessions I would like to find out the overlapping similarities and differences in our work.’
While the vast body of work and topics showcased in this exhibition may seem curatorially scattered, Lee returns to the theme of individualism. ‘The language of contemporary art veers towards individualism,’ he says. ‘I believe in the individual and especially for us as a contemporary society, to speak up for individual rights that may pertain to a minority, or are not seen as normal but do have the right to exist.’
Overall, the retrospective presents a thought-provoking collection that’s far more than a rehashing of the ‘Yellow Man’. Beyond that, there’s the historical value of seeing the evolution of one man’s work over the course of rapidly changing attitudes towards performance art in Singapore – a state that once banned it, but now funds it. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Lee Wen’s ‘Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real’ is at SAM until 10 Jun. For the schedule of talks and performances, see www.singaporeartmuseum.sg.