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Surfaces of the Political: Lee Wen

Surfaces of the Political: Lee Wen

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Published by Ray Langenbach

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Published by: Ray Langenbach on Nov 16, 2008
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SURFACES OF THE POLITICAL: LEE WEN
Ray Langenbach
1 Signs
In the next few paragraphs I will touch a few of the surfaces of the complex and extensive body ofwork produced by Lee Wen over the past few decades. Like that of many other performance artists,Lee Wen’s work is based in what might be called a performance iconics, relying on the strategicdeployment of visual and kinesthetic symbols and signs. His use of this emphatically semioticconvention positions Lee Wen’s works in a larger trend of recent Asian performance art, which Ispeculate derives from a braid of four cultural conditions, one contemporary and three rooted intradition. Singapore performance art has been profoundly influenced by China’s glyphic writing,Peking Opera, and visual art tradition, by the Southeast Asian diaspora of India’s gestural languageof dance and theatre throughout SE Asia, and by Japanese Butoh. Superimposed on these earliersedimentations, is the need of cosmopolitan performance artists to find a way to communicateacross linguistic boundaries.These image + gesture based performances also carry certain encoded attributes derived from bothWestern and Asian performance traditions: the human body as signifier and signified, and as botheconomic sign and political agency. The Western tradition of gestural performances reaches back tothe theatrical motifs of 18th century Realism, and 19th century Symbolism and Romanticism and, ofcourse, the 20th century modernist avant-gardes. In South East Asia, performance art also recallsand restores elements from local folk and popular performance conventions, such as Kebyar,Wayang Kulit, Bangsawan, et al. Acknowledging the collision of these polarities–local/global,modernist/traditional, formal/contingent, and surface/depth– is fundamental to an appreciation ofLee Wen’s works.Lee Wen uses many visual and sculptural signifiers, including animal hearts, live birds, deadchickens, eggs, tools, ping-pong, chains, guitar, boxes, buckets, and, with great regularity, yellowpaint. The deployment of semiosis as performance strategy has been readily accepted byinternational audiences, while more articulated verbal performances are often lost in translation. Bydeploying signs and symbols rather than longer, coherent verbal dialogues or monologues,performance artists working internationally avoid the problems of finding adequate simultaneoustranslation, and the inevitable mis-translations or misinterpretations that go hand-in-glove withtranslation. And they avoid seeing irritated local audiences who cannot access their meaningswalking out for a smoke in the middle of the performance. But on the down-side, this has resulted inthe phenomenon of the muted performance artist who syphons all discourse through a quite limitedlexicon of gestures and props, and is thusly buffered from having to engage in a complex and
 
reasoned analysis of historical, political, social or philosophical phenomena. This sort of research-based intellectual labor is often displaced by simplistic knee-jerk politics and unresearched ersatzhistories.Yet some artists, such as Lee Wen, have engaged a complex array of haptic icons and gestures,and have not shied away from the use of language in performance. When language is used, it too isusually presented iconically: repeated short sentences and slogans, usually running in parallel toanalogous actions. Consider, for example, his series of performances/installations
1
 entitled
Ghost Stories 
from 1995- 1997 in which he repeatedly used and visualised a phrase, commonly used inSingapore "kill the chicken to frighten the monkey" (
杀鸡吓猴
sha ji xia hou) as a reference to astrategy for government control. Lee Wen used the phrase as a signifier of repression in Singaporeand other countries, such as Korea. In his words, it connotes:[…] a typical way of social control. I used this as a visual metaphor for theextreme punishment of political detention without trial [….] social ostracismand […] extreme repression of freedom.I sometimes repeated the words in english (in mexico i used the spanishtranslation) during the performance like an incantation of an unhappyghost. or sometimes it is suggested in objects i use. eg in the installation inKwang Ju [Guangju] there were 16 bald chickens floating in formaldehydein fruit preservation jars surrounding a long table with military blankets astable cloth and sounds of monkeys screams from under the table. or i chopup a chicken during the performance (in poland and mexico) whilerepeating the saying (Lee Wen, email correspondence 3/3/03, sic.).“Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey” works on the ambiguity between a symbolic execution and
1
 
Ghost Stories was presented at the• 2nd Nippon International Performance Art Festival, Tokyo and Nagano Feb1995• 4th Asian Art Show, Tokyo, April 1995• 3rd Castle of Imagination, Bytow, Poland, June 1995• 1st Gwangju Biennale Gwangju, South Korea, 1995 (installation)• Hand-Made Tales, The Black Box, Theatre Works, Singapore, 1996 (installation & performance)• Simposio International De Escultura Mexico-Japon, Tuxtla Guttierez, Chiapas, Mexico 1997 (installationandperformance)• Sexta Bienal de La Habana, Havana, Cuba 1997 (installation) (Lee Wen, email correspondence 3/3/03)
 
real political threat. The monkey (citizenry) is warned that it too will come under the knife unless thewarning is taken to heart and subsequent behaviours are altered. Causality is ‘read’ backwards asthe forewarned and frightened public avoids the chicken’s fate by altering their behaviour before anysuccessive prosecutions are ‘necessary’. The result of the cautionary spectacle is self-censorshipa situation in which the antidote to what the government perceives to be social poison, becomesthe poison. In Lee Wen’s performances this complex political ritual is lifted out of historical contextand deftly distilled into a series of verbal-gestural tropes.
2 Surfaces
In 1935, during the establishment of Nationalist Socialism in Germany, the German philosopher,Hans Freyer, wrote of how the German people had come to “experience the power, the magnitude,and the infinite depth of the political....” (Sluga 1993:88)The ‘depth of the political’ Freyer was referring to was the desire in post-depression Germany forwedding of politics with action, ideology and philosophy: a moment when thought and action, thespiritual and the physical would all come together with a sense of national identity to produce a newGermany. Tragically, the goal was as fascistic and as it was idealistic– an idealism founded on actsof discrimination and ethnic cleansing.By contrast, rather than Freyer’s idealistic modernist evocation of depth and naturalised ideologiesof blood and earth, Lee Wen focuses on the post-modern surfaces of identity, the skin and thenation as cultural construction – as mask. This representation is no less idealistic perhaps, andoften tinged with the romantic... but is always laced with irony.In a recent image from the performance,
More China Than You #4 
(2008), we see Lee Wenmasking his body’s surfaces with banal objects and slogans of daily life, ideology and nation. ButLee’s most ubiquitous and resonant mask is the skin itself.In the
Journey of a yellow man 
series, Lee Wen painted his body with yellow paint, exacerbating hisgenetic stereotype.
2
Of Han Chinese descent, Lee is of course no more yellow than black peopleare really black or whites really white. These are linguistic tropes used to mark and discriminateculturally constructed ‘races’ or ethnicities. They are ‘anthropometries’, that is, methods formeasuring genetic differences. When performing, the painted body has the curious effect of alteringthe entire colour-scape around it. For example in this image of the Yellowman, all the surfaces
2
 
In his catalogue essay for the Third Asia-Pacific Triennale (1999) writer, Lee Weng Choy described Lee Wen’s
Yellowman 
trope: “While Lee Wen's iconic imagery may seem rather obvious, what he articulates is a complex andmultilayered negotiation of self-representation. As a Chinese, the all-over yellow paint exaggerates his own ethnicity, butrather than suggesting a straightforward embrace of Chinese-ness, his 'performance' of identity is ambiguous and playful.(Lee W.C. 1999)

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