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Interview with Lee Wen

ByThe Artling Team
Interview with Lee Wen

What is your earliest art memory?

The earliest thing that inspired me was a book of children’s drawings. I think it could have been something from the United Nations. It was quite a big colorful book of drawings done by children, which was among the books my father left with the family and which I later lost. It was one of the things that motivate me most of the time work. I used to be the youngest in the family, always left in the house alone. My mother was working. The only thing which occupied me was this book of drawings. It was very colourful, always a symbol of world peace, where people are able to come together to communicate through art. This was part of my earliest memories of looking at art and being motivated to draw and paint.


 Reflecting on your creative path, what or where or whom had influenced you the most?

In the beginning it was the books that I found in the library, books which showed works of Vincent Van Gogh for example. Even though I didn’t know who he was, one of the earliest paintings that caught my eye was The Starry Night. Vincent’s story is one of those which inspired me. Even Vincent Leow, who was one of the Artists Village members, took the name Vincent because of him.

The other artist which was quite influential while I was in the Artists Village was Joseph Beuys. Along the way as I met more and more artists in person, I found a lot of them to be not only good friends but also good teachers. One of them was of course Tang Dawu, the other was Boris Nieslony, a German artist who organized a lot of performance events. I saw him as a very pure person, like Dawu. I take my hat off to people like him because he doesn’t compromise. He could have been a very rich artist but because of his purity, he never got around to producing works for galleries. According to him, two times he was adopted by galleries but he just couldn’t take that kind of system of agreeing to make regular exhibitions by contractual basis.

The other person is Alastair MacLennan, who also did a lot of good works, but never sold in his life. When I knew this I asked him what it meant to him to know someone like me who made art and was willing to sell my works. But he told me not to worry about that, because he was a professor and he has enough to cover his expenses, but he understands that I don’t have anything else besides selling my works. After all, the works are the result of me spending time making them and not something stolen or otherwise.


[1]You have performed and showcased extensively in Asia and Europe, yet this is your first debut at an international art fair. What are your views or responses to exhibiting in a commercial platform?

Alamak. This is a very complex question. I wanted to address this in the speech I am supposed to make during the forum at the art fair. Many people oversimplify buying and selling art. For an artist, it is not money that motivates us. One author wrote a book about this. He is a Dutch economist and also an artist. He made a research about why artists are poor and found that artists can talk about life and death, art and culture, but shy away from money because it is something they don’t like to talk about.

I think because I had my initiation working in a bank, and although I can’t see myself working in a bank for the rest of my life, I learnt a lot about economics. Just that I am not happy while working there.

Also, because I am happy to know that someone like Helina Chan of iPreciation, who can take care of selling the works, leaving me with time and energy better spent on creating the works. I can only talk about why I do what I do but I am just as lost when asked about the work in monetary terms.


What is it exactly that you want to say through your work?

Like everybody else, I’m just a person who wants to express inner-most feelings in the best way I know of. One of the reasons why I take to drawing is because I find myself embarrassingly not able to use Chinese language very well. Instead I use English, being a child of the post-colonial country of Singapore. My father was an author who wrote in Chinese. If you talk to the older generations, a lot of people know him. There was once I went to a book shop which was run by Chng Seok Tin’s brother. I went there to look for Koh Nguang How. He introduced me to some of the people at the book shop. They were my father’s generation, or maybe slightly younger and they said, “哦,这个是魯白也的孩子啊,我看他没有这么厉害,没有他爸爸那么厉害”, and I felt so ashamed. But it’s something I have to get over.

Actually I see myself more as a writer and a story teller but I can’t write well. That may be why most of the drawings I do are quite narrative. I’m not as good as my father, who was a traveler and wrote about Indonesian culture to the Chinese. That’s why I chose art.

What other concepts do you explore through your works?

To me, my work is basically about making images. I see myself as an image maker. Walter Benjamin talks about how all of us are actually image makers, image being the word for imagination. We make images in order to communicate to each other. Even when we use words we are at the same time composing images for other to see. Even in a performance, I see myself making images with my body, the objects I use and the space I walk around. Of course, the Chinese language is literally that, because every single word is an image.

In terms of concepts – I don’t know how to explain here as it is rather complex, but I guess the reason why we are contemporary is because we deal with current issues. To me that’s what makes us contemporary. I’m comfortable being known as a traditionalist as well, but the conservative people will not see my works as traditionalist. However, I actually base my work on strong traditions I identify with. I am only called avant-garde because I choose to do things my own way, but actually when you look at the art world today, nothing is new, everything has been done before. The only way I can say that this work belongs to me is when they are based on my personal experiences.


At the fair, the gallery aims to showcase a breadth of your works made over the last 20 years. How do you feel seeing some of your earlier works such as ‘Journey of a Yellow Man’, ‘Anthropometry Revision’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ hanging side by side? How has your practice evolved over time?

You know, it is too bad that my works have to be shown in such a way. There’s too much to show, it is impossible to show everything. What we are showing is just the tip of the iceberg. Nobody has asked me to do an exhibition in the past 20 years, I had to organize them myself all the time due to lack of support in our society.

This country is driven by the state, from the moment it was born. It became that way not because we wanted it to be, but because we just allowed it to be. The central government told us that we have no resources for art and culture. And this is really sad because 50 years down the road since Singapore’s independence, we have lots of people with the resources to appreciate art. But to tell you the truth, most of them don’t know much about art. Most of them only know how to play golf and drink good wine.

I feel that this is a really bad attitude towards art, because you don’t need a lot of resources, you just need a good attitude to art. The problem is they just push it aside. Today they only concentrate on infrastructure. They talk about money, billions and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure. But when you talk about the essence, there is so little of it. Professors like T.K. Sabapathy can tell you the whole story. It is a sad case, for someone to be so dedicated to art but have no real fulfillment at all. Until today he has no chair in the faculty of art. Look at him, the most eloquent and knowledgeable art historian around and he deserves to be chair of his own faculty. That shows how pathetic this society is.


Ping Pong Go-Round is a unique, interactive installation piece, which was selected by Yuko Hasegawa (Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo) to be featured in the Encounters section at the fair. Please tell us what was the idea behind this work? How was it made? How is it culturally significant?

Well, in the first place, this originated from a request from the Singapore Art Museum, known at that time as the National Art Gallery. In the gallery at that time there was a conference room which they did not use. One of the curators invited me to do something to the conference table, but at the end of the day they did not have a single cent to give me. They said if I wanted to do it, I have to pay everything yourself. Can you imagine that?

At the same time, I got an invitation from Australia. I like to tell this story because it shows what artists can do well on their own without government support. The Australian artists did a fantastic event ‘Construction in Process’, consisting 50 over Australian artists and 50 over invited foreign artists, all of us working together hand in hand, independently without much state support but only private sponsorship. The artistic director and organizer, Richard Thomas, got us together and we were housed in a train museum in Melbourne.

I worked with an Australian, as well as a Japanese artist, Satoko Sukenari, to make the ping pong table using plywood donated by a private construction company. We did it in 5 days, displayed the installation at 3 different sites. The event was so filled with interesting projects it attracted the attention of the Reuters photographer and mine was one of the hit attractions, that he took extra care to photograph me and the ping pong table. The image of the doughnut shaped ping pong table came up in many newspapers and I think it was my first touch with the National Arts Council, and they realized that performance art could be something useful, beautiful and interactive as well. I think they changed their attitude towards me after this. Maybe, I’d like to think so.

The funniest thing was that news of our work came out in the Straits Times. The article called me a “display” artist.

I chose ping pong because it is a sport that is 100 over years old, and it is known as a fair game between men and woman. They can play against each other and be equally good. This to me symbolizes equality, unity and diplomacy. The table is borderless, just like a global, boundless world. It is both sports and art. When I put it out on the streets, people asked me, “are you going to put this table here and let us play?” When I said yes they waited for me in their suits and ties and played for a very long time. Another funny thing was, the color of the table was the same as the post office uniforms in Melbourne. The table was first put in front of a general post office, and it just so happened that they were having a strike that day. The post office workers came dressed in their green uniforms and someone thought that our ping pong table was part of the protest.

Ping pong is also a game that warmed up relationships between the US and China, hence ping pong also signifies ideas relating to diplomacy. Originally I wanted to make the table as big and close to Olympic size as possible. But I also realized that the small table is much more interesting. With a small table, you need to control your strength, just like how you have to listen carefully when someone talks.

In recent years, you were diagnosed with Parkinson’s and this has inevitably affected not only your health but also your artistic pursuits. Has this experience shaped your personal life philosophy? What are your thoughts on the future of ‘performance art’?

My illness doesn’t stop me. It is a fact and reality that I try my best to deal with it and not run away from. Only thing is I cannot drink alcohol, very sad.

The thing I got out of this illness is that I became more self-reflective. I feel a lot of pain in my body, but because of this I started to feel the pain in other people. My friends called me Stagger Lee, that’s why I did a performance called Stagger Lee. When I started to stagger and walk in a funny way, I started noticing people around me who have walking difficulties. There are more of them around than we know, but we don’t look at them unless we are also suffering. It was very strange when I got this problem with my body, I started to notice that there are a lot of old people out there who also have Parkinson’s, but they don’t bother to see the doctor because they don’t have time. Actually if they go to a doctor, they can get better.

I am of course limited by my illness, but at the same time I have become more conscious of how I make use of my time. I try to make the best out of it. The thing with performance is, I do it even when I am sick. In television dramas, we only have beautiful people with perfect bodies. But in actual life, people who have deformities, who are sick, are parts of this world and have something to say as well. This is why I continue to work. I am not asking for sympathy, but I am trying to do what I can do and live on. I am confronting death and sickness like everyone but with awareness, a consciousness that reminds me if not others of our imperfections and mortality. Which after all is what makes us human and perhaps a need for spirituality to be the ultimate purpose rather than this obsession with material wealth and insatiable hunger for power and empire.

Ipreciation Gallery is participating in Art Basel Hong Kong from 15 – 18 May, booth number C18. Lee Wen’s Ping Pong Go-Round installation can be seen at Encountersnumber E8.


[1] Abbing, Hans; “Why Are Artists Poor?: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts”, Amsterdam University Press; 1 edition (March 17, 2004)