Naima Morelli

THE SINGAPORE SERIES — CHAPTER 12

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Lee Wen
I first met Lee Wen in Rome, in the courtyard of my very first house in the Eternal City. The place was in the local Chinatown, called Piazza Vittorio. This is not a nice Chinatown. It doesn’t have the fancy portal to mark its main street, nor particularly good restaurants or shops. Indeed, Piazza Vittorio become the go-to establishment for Chinese immigrants only in the late ‘80s, where they set up bare shops selling cheap clothes, where no one ever goes buy anything.

The building where I used to live in had a large courtyard that led into different buildings, and in the middle of the courtyard there was a small gallery, called La Nube di Oort. One day I got an email from the gallery saying that in a few days there would have been a performance called “Un evento piccolo ma significativo” (A Small but Significant Event), featuring artists Lee Wen, Myriam Laplante, and Mike Cooper. The press release explained that Mike Cooper would have recreated a sound performance – which he didn’t attend. His performance was a personal sonic response to a short video clip of part of English musician David Toop’s performance posted on Facebook. Lee Wen would have responded to Mike Cooper’s response and Myriam Laplante would have responded to Lee Wen’s response to Mike Cooper’s response. I thought this process of osmosis, lost in translation and enrichment in translation was quite jarring. In my mind, the artistic device was similar to the American version of Singapore which was Madripoor and my Italian perception of Madripoor. And neither myself or Claremont had ever visited Singapore at that point. The press release went on to say a bit about the artist’s bio. I knew two of the three artists. Mike Cooper was a white-bearded English singer-guitarist forever wearing Hawaiian shirts and a straw hat even in winter. He rose to prominence by innovating the international scene with the explorations of avant-garde sound. Myriam Laplante was a Canadian artist who moved to Italy a while ago. Her work, consisting of performances, installations, sculptures, photographs, and drawings never lacked in dark humour and was heavily parodist, absurd, cynical, sad and disturbing. Being a vernissage-hopper I happened to have seen Cooper and LaPlante in action a few times already. But I had never met Lee Wen. I knew him for being a pioneer of performance art in Singapore since the ‘90s. The press release informed me that his multidisciplinary work, spanning from writing to song, was a constant reflection on society, motivated by strong idealism and a revolutionary impetus.

The night of “A Small but Significant Event”, I was mesmerised by the performance. Lee Wen had a long eloquent face and a bohemian outfit. He was jumping around, hunched in the tiny space, playing his guitar and interacting with the public with somewhat of a cheerful gravitas. A friend I went to see the performance with described him as a Japanese Kabuki figure. Myriam LaPlante, a stout lady with short grey hair completely dressed in black, was wearing green reflecting glasses with the world “love” on it, that made her look like a psychopath. Successful in her intention, she was performing nonsensical actions. Mike Cooper was aloof in a corner, as if the madness created by Lee Wen and LaPlante was really none of his business. He looked lost in his world of glass objects, playing tiny sounds and of course, wearing an Hawaiian t-shirt and a straw hat.

A few days later I sat with Lee Wen in a bar for an interview: “For the performance at La Nube di Oort there was some discussion via email among us artists,” he explained. “We have never done this before and I have always wanted to do work with Miriam and Mike.” Lee Wen happened to be in Europe for a show in Paris (“Secret Archipelago” curated by Kai Hori), and he decided to say hello to his old friends. Myriam and Mike thought of organising the gig. The whole performance was based on humour and light-heartedness. “As Myriam said, it was based on the openness of collaborations and the way black market works, because we all had our own ideas. The only agreement was on the space and the time we would perform. There were no rules. So in a way it’s quite hard, we were not telling to tell each other what do what.”

Light-heartedness is a word that describes Lee Wen’s work very well. Throughout his career as an artist, he had always bounced between tackling big important themes with a blithe of the heart. Also, when I met him, he was struggling with Parkinson disease, but retained an incredible grace and fortitude. In a society where the sick body is almost a taboo, he was not scared to let his condition become one of the many facets of his life. He continued to travel and work around his limitations. Having witnessed the changes in the art scene in Singapore, I was curious to interrogate him about the state of the art in the country. I told him that reading about Singapore and looking at it from the outside, I was seeing a flourishing of art initiatives. I asked him how the situation was when he first started out.

“When you talk about starting, I think I had a lot of false starts, because ever since I was very young I really had this inclination to be an artist, but I didn’t dare to do it. Singapore is a country of pragmatism. Most of us want to have assurance that you get the job, the pay, the rent, and do what our parents want us to do. Also the people that I did art with or went to art school with also think about the practical idea of getting a job. I internalised it and I didn’t dare to go straight into art education. Art was like the beginning for me. In tertiary education I studied computers, software and business administration work.”

You started off by working in a bank, right?

Yes, I worked in a bank, but at the time I already published a book of drawings and poetry.

So for a while you have been doing both things at the same time.

Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of doing art full time at all. I didn’t dare, until I heard of Artists Village and Tang Da Wu. When I saw the way he worked I was really inspired; unlike everybody else he was unpredictable. So I followed his work from a distance for a while. Then when I reached the age of twenty-nine I told myself, I can’t work in this bank anymore. I was very unhappy with my life, so I asked myself, what can I do? Because I was reaching the age where I would either keep doing banking all my life or I was going to change everything. It was 1989 when a lot of things changed. The Berlin wall came down, and the Tiananmen Square incident happened. When I looked at all these events I thought: wow, these people are devoting their lives to higher ideals, and what am I trying to do working in a bank?! I don’t even dare to do what I really want to do, namely art. It was then than I quit my job and I looked for Tang Da Wu. I thought he was teaching at LaSalle, so I enrolled at LaSalle, thinking I could study with him, but by at the time I joined he had already quit. Not that he wanted to quit. They found out that the way he taught was not the way the school would normally teach and they didn’t renovate his one-year contract.

You mean that they didn’t like his teaching style?

They didn’t. Because in the drawing class he was talking about movement and the body. And then in school I met Zai Kuning. He was hanging out in the barding class, with a guitar and was a very self-confident artist. So we became friends and he brought me to Tang Da Wu and the Artist Village. I found that in the Artist Village, I was learning so much more than in the art school.

So the Artist Village was really your coming of age as an artist…

I think the Artist Village was the best thing that happened to me. It really gave me confidence to work as an artist. It wasn’t just about survival like my old job. Being an artist meant doing research, exploring how to do work which is relevant to the contemporary changing society. It opened up my life and I never looked back.

The Artist Village has been celebrated for their performances. You started from drawing and poetry, how did you first approach the performance?

At the Artist Village we actually started from a background of painting and sculpture. We didn’t see performance art as just one medium to specialise in. Even today, if you ask any artist in Singapore who does performance art, they will tell you they started from sculpture and painting. We don’t do only performance art. For me, I started performance in the Artist Village because we were taking part in an exhibition where performance was encouraged. At that time, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just reading some of my poetry and I created some action around it.

A shift in your way of doing performance happened when you moved to London. Can you tell me about that experience?

I stayed in London for two years and that changed my life, to a degree. When I went to London, I started to paint again and hold onto performance for a while, because the things we were doing in Singapore were always accused of being influenced by the West. They didn’t see that kind of art as something for our own culture. So I started researching how in the ‘60s people started doing performance in the West. In my country and in Asia, many countries only started performance in the late ‘80s or in the ‘90s. And I kind of related it to the philosophy in terms of painting to represent human life. In China the focus is the landscape, nature, whereas in western art it is more and more portraiture along the way. So I went to research about how we look at the self in art. Especially in China, since I’m Chinese. The Chinese philosophy is based on Taoism, where the human is just a small part of the whole cosmos. So usually humans are represented as very small in very big landscapes, whereas in Europe, where a Judaic–Christian–Islamic thinking is prevailing, the human form is central. I started to research about self-portrait. In the East, it’s very rare to have artists using themselves as the subject of their art, but in the Western context there was a whole history of self-portraiture. And I started looking at the first self portraits in Chinese art. Poets where often painters, because in Chinese painting in the beginning was a form of writing. They used the same brush and paper for writing.

When I think about the philosophy, the Chinese don’t want to look outstanding. The reference is always to a group, in societies. So when anyone is too outstanding they said it’s better to knock him down like a nail. So I realised that the self-portraiture came very late, because of the influences of the West, like the Jesuits missionaries. The only time Chinese people painted human face realistically was for rich people that had already passed away. Because to them, the growth of the human being is only complete when you die. So they don’t want to represent you realistically when you’re not dead, because you’re still transforming and shaping, so they are more abstract in that way about portraiture. My research into all of that was a bit difficult, because I don’t read Chinese and I was depending on the English translation. Although I was in art school, I actually went to the School of Oriental and African studies in London to do my research. It was only at SOAS that there were more books talking about Asia. At the same time, it helped me to also do a course in Chinese philosophy, ‘cause I didn’t have that kind of courses in the art school.

It’s interesting you had to study in the West what someone from outside would think would come naturally from your Chinese heritage. You reflect about that in your work as well, being perceived as a Chinese person, for example in the performance “More China than you”, which was replicated with different modalities in different countries…

That work was motivated by my observation of how China was opening up. At the time many people wanted to work in China, but not for a cultural interest. They merely wanted to gain the advantages of being in China for the market. China was a big market player and all the business were moving there. Surprisingly I found out that also artists were pushed by the same commercial reasons. It’s not just about the cost of living being cheaper or being able to afford a larger space – which Singapore lacks. When I went to China, I found out a lot of artists were selling much better. I then questioned the reasons why I wanted to move there myself. But my reason for moving was for learning the culture and getting close to my heritage. In Beijing, I hung out with Dutch researcher Thomas Berghuis – at the time he was doing his PhD and he spoke better Chinese than me. Now he’s in Guggenheim in charge of Chinese art. We got along very well. Thomas helped me translate if I had problems communicating with the Chinese. The performance title “More China than you” was actually suggested by him. I was complaining about my communication issues, and he told me in Chinese “Yes, compared to you I’m more China than you”. I realised that that disclosed the situation more than anything else, so I used the title.

The other thing I was interested in about this particular performance was that you staged it in different cities, at different times with different audiences. I was wondering if you were interested also in the different response of the audiences.

When I work in the cities it grows along the way, because the first time I might have certain ideas, but when I perform I start having feedback from people who question me and make me think about other ideas. For me it is a learning experience as well, not just about asking questions but also getting feedback so I learn something. I see art-making as a kind of intellectual discussion based on raising questions by making art. For me, a performance is also a process of image-making. Walter Benjamin talks about this actually, how language also describes an image. It is not only about words. So when I do performance, I ask questions to display the images through the actions. At the end of the day, I find that even when I write I make images. I’m not so much of an abstract kind of artist and recently I started to draw again but I’m always looking for a way of reaching out to the audience. These questions are relative to Singapore in the first place, but the work is not so unique that is not understood outside of Singapore. Besides, people in Singapore are a bit resistant to the idea of performance work and conceptual work, so I start to using colour pencils, to draw images based on performance work, because I think that people are more open to it.

It’s a way of drawing people into the art.

People are intimidated to see an oil painting, because it looks like something very high-art. And if they are not art-educated they tend to not be able to go into it easily, especially in Singapore where art education is so bad. The generation that I come from I have school friends that are very intelligent people, but when it comes to contemporary art they are just don’t get it, because they don’t get any background in school. What we had in school was very old fashioned, trying to paint as if they were doing a realistic image, that the photograph can do, you know. So they see realistic one for one representation as art, everything else is not art. So when I talk to them about performance they are just have a block. But when I do my drawing in colour pencils they are more easily opened to it, because they see it more as a children’s drawing. So recently I have been doing that, and I have even been trying to push art that way. When I was working in the bank, they had a really good collection of art and they were asking me what it meant. They always had a block, the Singaporeans. Even the very intelligent people cannot get it.

So do you think in Singapore art, contemporary art in particular, is more of an elitist thing, or do you think that everyone can appreciate it?

I think it’s more about the attitude. My mother has a very good friend who is not educated. At home we had one painting on the wall next to the television – to this day, it’s still there – just an abstract painting of a horizon. And this woman said the painting was really good and described what she saw in it. We discussed the painting and she understood exactly what I meant, even though it was abstract. That is because she was open-minded. She didn’t have an art background, but she was open in the heart. Anybody who is open can understand, but because their thinking is brainwashed in school and they are taught, “This is art, this is not art”, then people are always blocked.

Even using the term art and non-art…

Yes, it’s a preconceived idea. You can know all kind of theories and ideologies, but if you are not open you are only seeing what you are taught. Sometimes I feel this is a problem also among artists. As human beings we replicate the social systems that we are in. A lot of the time I find that artists, in Singapore just like everywhere, tend to criticise society, talking about freedom and all that, but they behave exactly in the same way they are complaining about. We are human, we get brainwashed very easily, but at the same time we try to fight, to resist that, to be free from that. A lot of times we fail. So it’s a constant struggle. For me I do it in a comparative way, I find a lot of times we haven’t moved very far away from what the Greeks found in the beginning. And the Hindu mythology, they have really talked about what the human condition is. Today we are facing the problems Socrates and Plato Atakiwa and the Hindu mythology already tackled, and we are only going to have different situations. Someone was saying that in terms of philosophy we are just a footnote to what Socrates and Plato have done really. The continuation of postmodernism is not really new. We are really coming from the Greek philosophers I think.

Well, if you look at it in the perspective of the new, you are not really looking for the new, you are looking for the relevant at this time, I guess.

It does get maybe more in-depth, but we actually discuss the same questions, because the human life is still the same. Although we have more problems of technology and all these things, the human condition is always the same. You are born and you die and you are born in a society with a social system where there is always the master and the slave. It didn’t change very much.

I was curious to know about your process for making. You work across different mediums, and you mentioned you had different phases in your life. Did you always have the same approach to art making?

Some of them are similar. I based my philosophy more on comparative culture, comparative literature, based on people like Joseph Campbell or Mircea Eliot. I’m fascinated by the recurrent story present in all cultures of the end of the world. When I think about it, I realise the world has already ended. In the past, the cultures were growing relatively isolated from each other. Then at the beginning of the industrial age, the volcano eruption in Indonesia happened. That day the world completely changed. It was something that happened in the east, but people knew it in Europe in twenty-four hours, because of the technology. For me this is the point that I see as the begging of the new world. You can’t isolate the culture anymore. Ever since that globalisation started, you cannot say that this worldview or narrative is the only one that exists. Because today, everybody knows that any worldview is among a certain group of people in the whole world. There is so much diversity. While on one hand, as I said earlier, we don’t have anything new under the sun, it’s also true that today we have more freedom to choose what to follow based on our background and our own preferences. But nobody can ever say their opinion is the right one. It’s the postmodern idea of an open world.

How do you feel when you apply this concept to art, and creating parameters for art?

It makes me sceptical. The art as well becomes much more open and no one knows if it’s good or bad anymore. Everything seems to be ok, but when you do that, everything is ok but everything is shit also! I find a lot of times it becomes very shallow, so for me it is still very important to talk about quality. But quality has gained more of a prejudice of reputation. It becomes more about the aesthetic of reputation.

It becomes more about the status of the artist.

Yes, because of the superstars in the art world are those recommended by certain writers. There are some people who think that just because someone is famous, it must be good. People don’t know how to judge anymore. People are just doing it based on what they hear.

It’s really difficult to build your own parameters. You can’t just take the criteria of the West at face value because that would be just…

And now it’s quite difficult even talking about East and West. I’m often asked this question, why am I doing all these things, isn’t that something from the West, and I say, “No, it’s not something from the West anymore.” I see there is a line that you can see every artist come from somewhere, then you practice in a certain way, and when you look at what John Cage did, it’s not just Western theory. He’s very much influenced by Zen and Hindu ideas, and it’s all mixed up these days. Nobody can claim to be only East or West anymore.

Yeah, like your food is American, your car is Japanese, your shoes are Italian and your watch is made in Bangladesh. And I guess Singaporean artists are in a peculiar situation compared to the neighbouring countries – you said for example that your Chinese background is something that you had to re-learn, as you were not completely born into that.

In a way, it’s far too generalised these days. But as I said, back to the idea of the end of the world, I agree with the theory of post-culture that there is no such thing as a monoculture anymore. Places like America are a melting pot. Singapore is also that, and many other places in the world. There is no specific Italian culture anymore. When I meet people here in Italy, people would say I’m Italian. I’m from this part of Italy, my father is from Ireland coming here, my mother was from India. Everybody nowadays comes from a mixture of cultures. There is no one person today that can say, “I’m only Chinese, I’m only Mongolian”, there are all these cross-culture variables happening. You play music that is influenced by blues music. But of course, postmodernism is a very chaotic way of talking about art and culture these days. No one can say one thing in art is the primary ruler anymore. No one can claim they’re the supreme truth.

And as you mentioned before, also in the past there have been a lot of cross-influences. I’m thinking about Van Gogh for example.

And just to go back to this thing about the world ending and that point that started the mobilisation, actually in the past already with the trade between the east and west, there is already cross-fertilisation of ideas, but also the old cultures, like china, Japan, or India always want to say they are at the centre and the others are outsiders. But before even the industrial age, there was an exchange based on the silk road. China always claimed to be the original place of new practices. Well, I think they are already influenced by India, where Buddhism came from, but at some point there were some people in China that claimed that Buddha was originally from China, you know, because he has this thing based on the idea of yin and yang. Even Marxism came from this yin and yang idea. So you know, they always want to see themselves at the centre. I don’t believe in that because if you want to talk about the beginning of the culture, it started from Africa. So we are all from the same family somehow.

In your personal exploration of this idea of multiple narratives and points of view, what role do you think this played in you moving to London?

The reason why I moved to London was to be more exposed to art. In Singapore, we have such a small population, and back then we also had a small number of artists. A lot of information we got was second-hand and third-hand. The history that we learnt about was only from the books. But when I was in London I was able to see real things with my own eyes. For example, Joseph Beuys’ sculptures and installation and I could listen to blues music live. In Singapore everything was filtered by other kind of mediums: television, books and magazines that I got from outside. So we were always wondering why we were doing this, if we haven’t seen it before. In London, seeing art with my own eyes and experience it made me more confident that what I was doing was real. Nowadays, a lot of people actually come to Singapore and you get to see them directly, but in the past this wasn’t the case. We felt isolated and knocked by a tradition who was signing us off as derivative from the west.

Today the scene seems to be a lot about the market. How does the experience of your generation and the artists you work with fit into this scenario?

Well, I work with a lot of artists interested in experimenting and they not willing to make art just for the consumption of the market. We are trying to do art that is relevant to the society, not necessarily beautiful for hanging in a hotel room. So even in terms of the traditional form of painting and sculpture, the work that my generation or my colleagues do is not so easily sellable, because it’s not the usual landscape or still life painting. The aesthetic and the context is very different for us, because we are experimenting.

Not just decorative art, of course.

We are not the only country with this problem, of course. The key is in having educated rich people, so they can buy local artists. They should be able to see the importance of helping artists and having art help them build their own identity. But in Singapore, even though we have artists producing work in that sense, it’s hard to be collected. Our culture is not prone to collecting art. If you look at the history museum, you’ll find they have very few artefacts. Most of the history is explained in photographs or video, diorama and things like that, but not real objects. That is because in the past the rich people in Singapore mostly came from a poor background. They were philanthropists, they’d give the money to charity, rather than collecting objects. That’s why even though there are so many rich people in Singapore, we don’t have a strong collector base. If you compare Singaporean artists of my generation to people of the same generation in Indonesia, Thailand or Malaysia, they are all very successful on a financial level and they are ready to retire very quietly.

For my festival of performances, we tried to take donations from sources other than the government, but this didn’t work out, so in the end we are funded almost 90% from the council. We don’t get support from corporations, because over the 20 years we had trouble with performance art, and now we have a very bad reputation. They are afraid we might do the same thing again. So they don’t want to give us any support whatsoever. We have to go a long way to convince people to give artists their trust, by sponsoring performance art.

It’s really interesting when viewed from the outside, because you see the Singaporean government having many funding schemes for the art, but at the same time there is this control on how the art should be.

Yes, this is the biggest problem for me also. I’d like to be independent from the funding, but Singapore is so expensive, and the problem is that the private sponsorship is not there.

So there is no private sponsorship?

There is, but not for this kind of work. Furthermore, if you want to talk about art patronage in Singapore, it is very problematic because most of the people who give something, they give it for something that leans more towards European, Chinese or Indian art. In the past, there was no collection by the private enterprise for local art. There might be one from China or from India, because they don’t believe in Singapore artists, they don’t have faith in them, they don’t have confidence in them. So even today, if you look at the private market for example, the rich will only buy something from Indonesia for example, rather than Singapore.

On the other hand, unlike the countries that you mentioned, Singapore’s government heavily invests in art.

Yes, the art infrastructure is supported very well in Singapore now, but of course is debatable if it’s the right thing to do. For example, in terms of studio spaces, Singapore actually needs more of them. Singapore is a very small island city state and it’s developing so quickly that the housing is very expensive. Artists need spaces to work in. So of course there are people who just work on their laptop these days, but if you want to make sculptures, you want to make paintings even, we have a lack of space. The majority of us live in government-subsidised houses. 70% of the population actually live in apartments, some of them very small and shared with the family. And that’s until they are 35, because if you’re not married you can not get these kind of subsidised housing. You can only buy a private house. Back in the day, there were still some cheap ones, but today it is hard, because the prices are crazy high. Expats coming to live in Singapore get their company to pay for accommodation, so they don’t have to worry. Everyone else can’t afford it. The problem is how to have artists working in these kind of conditions if we are not even selling the work. If we are not even earning enough doing a job to support us, how can we produce art? Many artists are thinking of going to neighbouring countries because it is much cheaper to work there. So it’s very difficult.

Yeah, it sounds really hard. At the same time, I see there are many schools. I’m surprised that there are so many art schools that form young artists…

Art schools like LaSalle and Nanyang were started by private money. It’s only recently that the government started helping them. In the past, they didn’t believe in them. The government in the early years didn’t believe in putting money in art. They though that only rich countries could afford it and art was not a priority.

They felt it was a luxury…

Even today, it is still seen as a luxury. When you think you don’t really need money to educate people about art, you are making a big mistake. The government still concentrates primarily on infrastructure and all the budget goes there, instead of going to the artists. Unfortunately, we are at the tail end and we don’t get much of it. So at the end of the day, who is gaining from the investment in the art? The private companies, the architectural firms, materials for building and the real estates are the ones getting millions of dollars that the Singaporean government seems to be investing, but when you think about the artists, they still are in deep trouble. We have a very good art sector now, but all the time they are inviting international artists, particularly the SAM, as if we think Singaporean artists are not good enough. So there is a double standard there. I see there is a lot do be done to help the production of art. They talk about Renaissance city, but how can one stand behind that claim if at art fairs and biennale 99% of the art is all foreign-produced? Singapore-produced art is a very small part of that. Most of the art is imported. This is ridiculous to me. We are not as lucky as we might seem.

How are curators working in this context?

Most curators just go and research as they would be given an assignment and always in a very short time, so they don’t see the ground level. There are some good curators, like Kurhadin Kohri, who was previously an artist, so was able to see art from a ground level.

So do you feel in general curators are not really involved with the artist’s work?

It is not that they aren’t involved, it is more that they don’t have enough depth or enough frequency. Once you’re in an institution, you’re so busy. There is so much paper work, so a lot of them just don’t have the time, even though the want to, you know? Too much bureaucracy. We have a lot of bureaucracy because we were an English colony, so we picked up on all of the kernels. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it’s too much.

There is a quote in an interview you did with Iola Lenzi, where you said: “Can artists still have edgy dreams while meeting their deadlines for art funding?” It’s a very interesting observation, because I feel especially nowadays to produce the work, artists have to spend a great amount of time securing funding and creating their opportunity instead of dedicating their time to the art itself. Do you think the way the art system is structured nowadays makes it more difficult?

A lot of the time you’re pressured into spending a lot of time on paperwork. There are so many projects going on with similar timing, you don’t have enough time to work on things in a natural, spontaneous way. You are forced to meet deadlines nowadays. At the stage I’m at, I have the possibility of getting assistance, but since I’ve always worked alone, when I asked people to do things, I feel I’m wasting time explaining everything to them. So recently I have started to do things by myself, without assistants. This year is a restart of what I started before, putting together my archive. I have been working on it consistently for three years. We’ve registered as a company, so we tried to make it more professional so we can get more support.