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.
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.
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
In his catalogue essay for the Third Asia-Pacific Triennale (1999) writer, Lee Weng Choy described Lee Wen’s
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)