Lee Wen is one of Singapore’s most recognised contemporary artists and is considered by many a major pioneer for performance art in the city-state. He’s been on the scene for more than two decades and is best known for ‘Yellow Man’ – a series of exhibition-cum-performances that saw him, among various appearances, paint his body yellow to depict his ethnicity and use red chains to symbolise restrictions of freedom and human individuality. He is also a long-time member of The Artists Village, a group that launched contemporary art practices in Singapore in the late 1980s.
Singapore’s art scene has changed incredibly over the last two decades and you were part of the early vanguard, how has it evolved?
It’s changed a lot. There are more opportunities and there is support for less conventional media now, including performance, new media and installation art. Interactive and conceptual works are also frequent. Festivals and biennales mean there are opportunities to go global and to see international work. Beginning in the late ’80s and into the early ’90s, much of what we did was adventurous, even dangerous or insane. We were aiming to break out of the market-driven art scene and also respond to a postcolonial urge for identity formation. Not all of this was done consciously. Looking back, I think we were sometimes naive, but this risk-taking attitude made us edgy. Although there is more acceptance of unconventional art these days, there is less risk-taking because artists are more aware of boundaries and reluctant to defy the status quo. I’m afraid of the return of the Singaporean ‘kiasu’ tendency as complacency sets in and artists protect what has been gained through past battles.
You are primarily a performance artist. From 1994 to 2003 the medium, which is often characterised by spontaneity and unpredictability, was abandoned because the government required so many permits to stage it. Why was it considered dangerous by the government then?
Actually, my work is mixed media rather than specifically performance art. But with the demonising of performance in the mid-’90s, I felt the need to champion it. Not only could performance address injustices and our craving for more openness and tolerance, but the medium, due to it being considered subversive, became a gauge for evaluating changes around the narrow-minded attitudes in our culture. Performance was never completely abandoned, although regulations were implemented. Artists used several strategies to overcome restrictions. Some moved into theatre and dance, or changed the name of what they did to avoid regulations. However, I felt such evasive strategies only perpetuated social paranoia. Why was it seen as dangerous? Singapore is a small place with a multicultural population, a mega-city, which is also a tiny country surrounded by militaristic regimes. It’s not difficult to link the global post-9/11 paranoia to our own racial riots in the ’60s, which is what gave us these restrictive regulations.
Now performance art is back. What has changed in Singapore to make the artform more acceptable?
Singapore has an ambition to not only be an economic hub but also a cultural centre, hence all the renaissance city hype. So it was no surprise when funding and recognition were reinstated in 2003. But official events like the Singapore Biennale and Arts Festival tend towards entertaining and user-friendly kind of performances, so there is still a role for independent initiatives presenting the experimental stuff which may not appeal to wider audiences. However, the funding bodies do not differentiate and they expect us to be equally safe and appealing, so it remains challenging.
Do you think performance is still as relevant today in Singapore as it was in the early 1990s?
All media are relevant depending on context. I still champion performance today, although the battleground has shifted. The crisis now is in culture and society, not the art form. There is more sophistication but also a conservative backlash. Global geopolitical shifts have triggered changes in cultural attitudes but the game continues with increasing complexities. Within performance, there are more approaches today than ever before. New hybrids between performance and other media like the internet, theatre, photography and animation. The problem is we forget, and hence repeat what’s been done, so we fault the medium when we should blame our inability to remain in touch with contemporary times.
Your art has always dealt with social and political issues. Singaporeans are not known for so-called ‘engaged art’. Why have you pursued this line in a country with a population apparently so uninterested in these things?
Actually Singapore produces socially concerned art. It is less visible because our issues are more complex than they seem on the surface. As for the lack of interest, this is a mystery. What I do has always been a response to what is going on. Audience response is a lesser priority.
I see a major shift in people’s willingness to engage, or take a stab at determining their own fate. Is this due to the internet? Education? Examples of empowered people elsewhere?
You got it. Change comes from all those things but the culture of today is dominated by a tendency towards mass consumption, Hollywood, television. Opinions are shaped by three-minute news bites. It’s scary to see our world run by technocrats who hardly read books in their entirety and drafted their PhD as a Google cut-and-paste. We are talking more but we may not be communicating more.
The government’s policy since the 1990s has been to foster and manage the art scene. It has spent significant money on the visual arts. What effect has this had?
Within the community, art still doesn’t make business sense and maybe it’s not supposed to. How does materialistic society maintain its spiritual soul? Can artists still have edgy dreams while meeting their funding deadlines? Some things haven’t changed. I still can’t afford to make many big works because of money and space constraints. So I have baskets full of unfulfilled dreams. The media and schools seem more willing to discuss art, but they still don’t know what it is. Squares will be squares and circles are circles but never the twain shall meet.
Lee Wen will perform on 7 Aug at Sculpture Square for the opening of ‘Drawing as Form’, an annual group exhibition running till 28 Aug.