– Autumn/Winter 2018

Line Form Colour Action

Võ Hô`ng Chu'o'ng-Đài

Lee Wen, sketchbook, 1978. Courtesy the artist

I will begin with a notebook dated 1981, which Lee Wen kept while studying abroad in Canada and the US, populated with anx-ious, fantastical figures: a character poking at its right eye with its right index finger; strange and anthropomorphic shapes; body parts and ambiguous objects with stalactite extensions racing across space and ready to strike; labyrinthine lines wrapping around themselves, melancholic and deflated. Lee Wen was in his twenties and struggling to find direction. He was the youngest of five children who had been raised by his single mother, Lee Mee Lan, after the death of his father, the writer Lee Xue Min, when the children were still young. The notebook is laden with descriptions of periods of depres-sion and insomnia – constant self-questioning about whether and how to be an artist, his exploration of how to combine visual art (what he calls ‘doodlings’ and ‘animation work’) with his love of music and writing.1

In between the pages of angst and homesickness, we see eruptions of determ-ination and excitement. In a note from 6 December 1981, the young Lee Wen declares:

Action in is the expression of the self Without expression-action can the self be?

He was drawing and painting a world of aliens and alter egos on the verge of – but not quite

  1. In collaboration with NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA Singapore), Asia Art Archive (AAA) started working with Lee Wen in 2017 to digitally archive his material. I would like to thank Lee Wen and Bruce Quek of Lee Wen Independent Archive; Ute Meta Bauer and Samantha Leong Min Yu of NTU CCA Singapore; and Elaine Lin, Hazel Kwok and Nicole Lai of AAA, for making this collective effort possible. In 2018, the National Gallery Singapore joined in supporting this project.

  2. On how the modernising project led artists to rethink the purpose of art and the definition of contemporary art in Singapore, see C. J. W.-L. Wee, ‘Body and Communication: The “Ordinary” Art of Tang Da Wu’, Theatre Research International, vol.42, no.3, pp.286–306.

  3. See Kwok Kian Chow, Channels & Confluences: A History of Singapore Art, Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 1996; and Jeffrey Say and Seng Yu Jin (ed.), Histories, Practices, Interventions: A Reader in Singapore Contemporary Art, Singapore: Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 2016.

  4. Ho Tzu Nyen, ‘Perpetual Beginnings – Strands of Processes in Painting’, in Histories, Practices, Interventions, op. cit., p.295. The essay was originally published in Eugene Tan (ed.), Painting as Process: Re-evaluating Painting, Singapore: LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, 2004, pp.15–27.

  5. Ray Langenbach, ‘Looking Back at “Brother Cane”: Performance Art and State Performance’, in Histories, Practices, Interventions, op. cit. p.181. This essay was originally published in Lee Weng Choy (ed.), Space, Spaces and Spacing: The Substation Conference 1995, Singapore: The Substation, 1996.

  6. Amelia Jones, ‘“Presence” in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation,’ Art Journal, vol.56, no.4, Winter 1997, pp.11–18.

  7. Ning Chong, ‘Interview with Lee Wen’, The Artling [online magazine], 13 May 2014.

  8. Lee Wen, ‘Performance Art in Context: A Singaporean Perspective’, master thesis, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore, May 2006, p.18.

  9. The Artists Village was on private land, and the artists did not seek public entertainment licenses for their performances and exhibitions. The Land Authorities served TAV an eviction notice in 1989/1990. TAV unsuccessfully appealed to the agency and the newly formed National Arts Council; Lee Wen notes that he became suspicious of the Land Authorities’ motives when an officer mentioned media coverage of TAV events. See ibid., fn.46. See also Kwok Kian Woon and Lee Wen (ed.), The Artists Village: 20 Years On, Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2009; and The Artists Village, The Artists Village, Singapore 1988–1999, Singapore: The Artists Village, 1999.

  10. See Khairuddin Hori, Lee Wen: Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real, Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2012. See also Lee Wen, Anthropometry Revision, Singapore: SooBin Art Int’l, Chengdu: Red & Grey Art Contemporary, 2008.

  11. Video documentation of Josef Ng’s performance Brother Cane (1993/1994) can be found in the Ray Langenbach Archive at Asia Art Archive.

  12. Throughout the 1990s, he read extensively scholarship from a range of fields, such as political economy, postcolonial studies, Western art history, performance art, anthropology and theories of race. A notebook from 1999 shows his notes on Fredric Jameson, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Hegel, Francis Fukuyama, Alexandre Kojève, Theodor Adorno, Jun Ishikawa, Earnest Hooton, Carl Linnaeus and Jan Czekanowski. Another notebook from 2004 contains his notes on art history and theoretical studies of space and the body; he was reading texts such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s book On Phenomenology (19 45) and articles like Michael Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ (1967) and Rosalind Krauss’s ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’ (1976). These theoretical readings complemented his studies of the work of predecessors such as Carolee Schneeman, Yves Klein, Valie Export and Yoko Ono, and contemporaries such as Tr`ân Lu'o'ng, Mideo Cruz and W. Christawan.