The Body As Art
Posted on 21 May, 2012
On a balmy evening in April 2012, a performance took place in a courtyard surrounded by classical and contemporary architecture. The past and present nestled together, comfortably, in the Singapore Arts Museum which was formerly the home of a missionary school. It became the perfect setting for a piece that opened an exhibition showcasing multidisciplinary artist Lee Wen’s artistic practice over the past two decades.
The audience bore witness to “Almost Untitled: Lee Wen is Jason Lim, Jason Lim is Lee Wen”, a performance piece where the two artists interpreted and re-presented actions and objects used by each other in past performances. Midway through, Lee lifted up his shirt and pulled down his pants to reveal a scrawny body that has literally, and metaphorically, become his most powerful work.
The performance was confrontational yet inviting, contemplative yet urgent. It was a fitting start to the nearly 2-month long exhibition, with many actions echoing what the crowd would soon see in the galleries of the Singapore Art Museum.
In Lee’s works, his body has become both the medium and the message. This is most evident in his incarnation as the Yellow Man, a motif which recurs throughout the exhibition. In “Journey of a Yellow Man No. 6: History and Self”, a man sculpted in wire lies atop a wooden crate bordered by a web of spices in paper boats and metal chains. He is a shell of the Yellow Man in the photographs surrounding the central installation, commenting on the impact of migration on the search for self.
In “Splash!” the viewer is invited to walk through a narrow yellow tunnel. As he makes his way, he sees a video of Lee getting splashed with paint which is projected onto the wall at the end. The tunnel soaks the viewer in a lurid yellow glow and for a moment, he is as distinct and peculiar as Lee’s persona. Elsewhere, the Yellow Man is seen either curled up in a basin or wrestling with metal chains. He is the full-stop and parenthesis in Lee’s corporeal treatise on cultural issues and the creation of social memory.
While the installations and visual documentation on display reference past performances, they also possess an arresting aesthetic quality. Much thought has gone into ‘visualising’ the performances for the viewer. In “Anthropometry Revision”, a piece conceived in response to Yves Klein’s genre- defining Anthropometry series of performances, a series of life-sized black and white prints was produced which record Lee’s anatomy with startling accuracy and grace. Klein treated naked females as living brushes by covering them in blue paint and dragging them around a canvas. Lee took this a step further by becoming the brush himself.
In “More China Than You” the viewer is led into a room where a string of Chinese characters are emblazoned in red across white walls. The piece comments on the tussle between the individual’s search for identity and propaganda to forge a national identity. The clean simple design becomes a fitting vehicle delivering the artist’s message with compelling authority. Inadvertently, these installations have transcended their initial existence as records or products of his performances, evolving into artworks in their own right.
Holding an exhibition commemorating over two decades of artistic practice in a state-funded cultural institution adds a new layer to the discourse on Lee’s art, and performance art in Singapore. 15 years ago, it was unthinkable for a state museum to hold a retrospective of a performance artist’s work. Performance art was not funded for 10 years since the Josef Ng incident in 1997.
Is this ironic? Perhaps, considering how there has been friction in the relationship between practitioners of the form and the state. Slowly, but eventually, performance art made its way into the
Museum, providing a safe space to contemplate the varied discourses Lee has placed his fingers on. It also offers access to a wider audience, allowing his art to permeate the consciousness of many more. Does this mean it lies no longer on the fringes, or in the margins? Does that make it any less potent?
However the fruits of Lee’s labours are constantly pushing against the confines of the space. The works prompt questions and debate. You are left yearning to be transported back to that moment when the performance took place.
A generous provision of photographs, videos, installations and visual documentation helps to re-create the pieces. Yet try as they might, they cannot be reenacted with quite the same results. This is the uncompromising reality of the genre: each performance is contingent on the moment in which it takes place. In his Yellow Man persona, Lee dons a structure of Chinese lanterns and parades along the streets of Singapore. The cluster of lanterns – somehow reminiscent of a kavadi – is suspended mid-air in a gallery with a series of photographs documenting the act lining a neighbouring wall. There is just enough for the viewer to interpret the work and the context in which it happened; but also a certain ambiguity that allows you to create new layers of meaning.
There is urgency in the messages behind Lee’s works which has not been diluted throughout the years. His art prompts its audience to reflect on our postmodern search for meaning and identity, and how systems and structures sometimes endeavour to impede this search. With this, the journey continues.
Lucid Dream in the Reverie of the Real is on at the Singapore Art Museum until 10 June.
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY LUX