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Chiat Place, an artists’ space adopted by LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts The Schizophrenic Artist?
As one of Singapore’s foremost performance artists, Lee Wen offers a practice rich in complexity and conceptualization, and is most commonly identified with his performance series, Journey of the Yellow Man. Fourteen years after entering the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Wen is now the first resident in Studio 106, the former studio of the late sculptor Dr Ng Eng Teng. Studio 106 was adopted by the College to provide residencies for its post-graduate candidates and alumni, thereby encouraging ‘the development of innovative ideas through research, experimentation and critical discourse’ 1. New Works 2002 presents a series of two-dimensional works that the artist will work on for the duration of his residency. More than a return to his artistic roots of painting and drawing with the Artists Village in the late 80s, Wen’s latest project typically incorporates a conceptual construct. At least a portion undertakes to create a collection of 2D works which function in totality as an installation, a postmodern take on paintings which question their validity in today’s pluralistic art world. To Wen, “…it’s an installation of paintings. i think i'm too far gone a post-modernist to accept painting as painting anymore...but as u can see it’s not as what most people expect from a painting show and i wish to raise questions through my work. in a way its a painting show and yet not a painting show. a kind of critique and re-evaluation of painting's continued relevance.” 2 New Works 2002 will showcase works from the painting project Quadrophenia which will commence during Wen’s residency, although Quadrophenia may form but a subset of the complete exhibition. About Quadrophenia, the artist speaks:
Quadrophenia – the painting project On surveying my paintings over the years, I have discovered that there are at least 4 main types of personalities I have adopted, each one of them painting or drawing in a different way. Over the next few months I will try to identify more distinctly these 4 personas and create new drawings or paintings as these personas. The four main personas are as follows:1) A solitary type of person who does abstract works. In the beginning, he created mostly line drawings which tended to divide spaces into forms. Later he became interested in more variations of mark making. Recently the works fill the ground surfaces with scrawls which cover the entire surface, almost totally "black" –ing it out and yet not.
Drawing 1, graphite on paper
Drawing 9, graphite on paper
2) A mystical romantic who uses fantasy or visionary images to convey a surreal side of life. In a way making metaphor and poetry out of our subconscious and dream vocabulary.
3) A more gregarious character whose works reflect on social-historical surroundings. These are mostly figurative pieces which are based on some of the social issues that the artist finds himself sufficiently moved by to make some works that comments on it or commemorates it.
4) A playful conceptual type whose works are like games created by the artist. For example, one series of work involved painting a monochrome layer over another completed painting so that only a border of about 25mm is left to reveal the former painting. Later these paintings are put in a gallery where the audience is given chewing gum to chew and to make images on the monochrome surfaces with the chewed gum.
Arthur Danto, art critic and philosopher quoted Andy Warhol: "How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something." He compared and related it to Karl Marx’s forecast that one can "do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." To Danto, Warhol had proved through his works that we have reached an "end in art history", where artists have no need to contribute to art history, or to transform culture, or to propel art into new and risky frontiers. Whether this theory is true is debatable and still being discussed. For this project I wish to question the possibility of working under such a state of "freedom" where I can choose as and when I like to work in at least one of the 4 different personas that I have identified.
Far from a schizophrenic flitting from one fashionable art form to the next, Wen’s work has been marked by a consistency, seriousness and considered development of his artistic practice. His performance series Journey of a Yellow Man has gone through 13 incarnations, each involving Wen coating himself with yellow paint and investigating his oriental ethnicity, as well as the symbolism of the colours and objects used. He articulates, as art writer Lee Weng Choy has commented, “a complex and multi-layered negotiation of self-representation… Lee Wen's performances refuse these neat separations between art and life, the everyday and the extraordinary, freedom and necessity, and society and the individual.” 3 Each yellow man performance has been characterized by a theme, such as No.2: The Fire and the Sun, No.4: Libido, No.11: Multi-culturalism and so on, taking cues from either Wen’s internal conceptualizations or from the performance environment.
Journey of the Yellow Man No.2: The Fire and the Sun, “International Sculpture Symposium”, Gulbarga, Karnataka, India, December 1992
Journey of the Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism SeptFest Art Conference, " Multi-culturalism: In practice and on paper", The Substation, September 1997
Other performances have also been developed in series, such as Ghost Stories (first performed February 1995) where Wen, dressed in ghoulish garb, juxtaposed the irrational fear of the supernatural with the rational paranoia within authoritarian regimes. Neo-Baba (first performed May 1995), a play on the nomenclature of traditional Peranakan culture and the short-lived, absurdist Dada movement looked at “…art and artists in Singapore that show a possibility for individualism and self willed consciousness which overcomes normalization of mainstream culture to bring out unexpected discoveries in creativity, liberation and enhancing consciousness. No doubt, such unconventional art infringes and confronts the mainstream culture and inevitably invites criticism and even censure.” 4
Ghost Stories in Hand Made Tales, Solo Exhibition, Installation and Performance, The Black Box, Theatreworks, Singapore, March 16th 1996
Neo-baba, Solo Exhibition, Performance and Installation, VA-nishiogi Gallery Tokyo, Japan, May1995
Wen’s artistic practice is also consistent in its pluralism. A performance, such as Journey of the Yellow Man No.3: Desire also included drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures. As in New Works 2002, the art could be considered singly or in the context of an overall installation. Small paintings served as explanatory signs for larger paintings, a dig at how incomprehensible contemporary art can appear to the uninitiated; drawings contained words and images from the mass media, encyclopaedias and Wen’s own work to give a propagandist look; found objects and readymades were utilized as objects of for the artist to discover their meanings desire during the daily performances. The painting Yellow Man, Where Are You Going? in the exhibition, executed in 1990 before Wen’s departure from Singapore for studies in London, contained the initial germ of Wen’s quest for identity in his Yellow Man performances, and was executed with spontaneous brush strokes. Lee Wen explains: “The allusions were to the way I liked how some Chinese paintings were done, especially those with Zen or Taoist inclinations. Perhaps it was because the Chinese saw painting as an extension of writing and calligraphy. They were not hampered into stiffness
and over-respect for the painting surface that I find most uncomfortable about some western oil paintings.” 5
Journey of the Yellow Man No.3: Desire, Solo Exhibition, Installation and Performance, The Substation, Singapore 21-25 July 1993
Journey of the Yellow Man No.5: Index to Freedom was similar to No.3: Desire in that paintings and other objects were used as an installation backdrop to the performance, which continued for five days on different aspects of freedom i.e. 1) democracy, 2) work, 3) culture, 4) peace, 5) food. Here the paintings were used much more as tools of the performance: nine oil paintings were covered with black velvet cloth, as an act of "censorship" alluding to the then regulations on performance art in Singapore; red crosses were painted on the velvet, and the paintings whipped with ropes and chains on the first day’s ‘democracy’ performance; on the fifth day’s ‘food’ performance, three paintings were anointed with tears. Another nine panels contained fragmented images of the artist’s body. These images were further disfigured and transformed with yellow paint during the "peace" performance. Nine more panels with photo-images from the final day "food" performance were superimposed with text used in the performances. The 2D images were thus subjugated to the requirements of the artist for his performances.
Journey of the Yellow Man No.5: Index to Freedom, 4th Asian Art Show, Fukuoka Art Museum, Sept 10-Oct 16 1994
Plurality in painting style was already considered by Wen in an interview conducted in 2001: “… I do not deny that I may have an “impressionist” in me in some ways, however I was more an “expressionist” painter. We all come from some context and mine was in Singapore where I grew up looking at paintings and making paintings. I am not a purist and I do not deny being eclectic.” 6 He has considered his performance art to have evolved from his painting background, where the body might be a component of painting or sculpture, or the converse, where the act of painting and sculpture may be considered to be performance. In his work, Lee Wen deals with complex considerations such as East-West contradictions, the Chinese diaspora, cultural symbols, history, ethnicity and identity – these issues pushed him towards performance as they could not be dealt with using painting or sculpture alone. We await his return to painting and drawing with bated breath and abject curiosity to see what thematic and conceptual concerns will arise, particularly with Quadrophenia, which ranges from pure, non-objectivity to lyrical, romantic depictions arising from his own self-conceived mythology. What then is the key to Lee Wen’s art? “As I have said many times before, it’s not as if I know all the answers but rather I see art-making as a way to question and to think through things.” 7
Pwee Keng Hock, 26/9/2002 References: 1. Invitation card to the opening of Studio 106, 106 Joo Chiat Place, Singapore, Thursday, 12 September 2002, 5.30pm. 2. Personal e-mail from Lee Wen, August 2002. 3. Lee Weng Choy (1999) Artist essay on Lee Wen. The Third Asia-Pacific Triennale 1999 Catalogue, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia. 4. Lee Wen (1995) Artist’s Statement, Neo-baba, Solo Exhibition, Performance and Installation, VA-nishiogi Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, May 1995. 5. Lee Wen (1993) Artist’s Statement, Journey of the Yellow Man No.3: Desire, Solo Exhibition, Performance and Installation, The Substation, Singapore 21-25 July 1993. 6. Interview with Huang Zhi-ming for “Open Ends” - performance art documentation exhibition at The Substation, Singapore, September 14-30, 2001 7. Ibid.