– Autumn/Winter 2018

Lee Wen: Performing Yellow

Alice Ming Wai Jim

Lee Wen, Strange Fruit, 2003, one of 12 C-print photographs. Courtesy the artist and iPreciation, Singapore

I’m already yellow. Why do I still paint myself yellow? Yellow is the colour of the sun, the colour of the moon, the colour of the river that runs in the old country. It is the spirit of nobility, the glow of precious gold. The warmth and abundance of harvest, the power and faith in temples. In a different sense, yellow can also be the colour of dangerous hazards, confidential secrets, pornography and vices. It is also the colour of the persecuted and the oppressed.

– Lee Wen1

Singaporean artist Lee Wen’s series Journey of a Yellow Man (1992–2012), one of his most famous and long-standing performances, was not simply a personal affront, it was a political affront. At the intersection of Asian art history, critical race theory, and migration and diasporic studies, one is never far (enough away) from the chromatic framing of race and ethnicity: yellow race, yellow peril, yellow face, the forever foreigner. Born in 1957 in colonial Singapore and having grown up in the postcolonial republic, Lee Wen is no stranger to his persona’s explicit, racially marked body. Bald and barefoot, naked except for a pair of briefs and covered completely in bright yellow paint, ‘Yellow Man' spectacularly wandered through the urban spaces of different countries in various situations. The

  1. Lee Wen, ‘Journey of a Yellow Man No.5: Index to Freedoms’, artist statement for 4th Asian Art Show, Fukuoka Art Museum, 10 September–16 October 1994.

  2. Ray Langenbach, talk as part of Appreciating Art Lecture Series, Singapore Art Museum, 2011, quoted in Lee Weng Choy, ‘Stars and Spine’, Lee Wen: Variations On The Exquisite Body (ed. Lucy Davis et al.), Palo Alto, CA: Issuu, March 2013, p.67.

  3. For a description of the 1993/1994 Artists General Assembly controversy over Josef Ng’s New Year’s Eve performance Brother Cane in which he cut his pubic hair and was subsequently charged and fined for public obscenity, see Lee Weng Choy, ‘Chronology of a Controversy’, Looking at Culture (ed. Sanjay Krishnan, Lee Weng Choy, Sharaad Kuttan and Leon Perera), Singapore: Artres Design & Communications, 1996, p.63.

  4. Gregor Benton and Edmund Terence Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 1800–Present: Economy, Transnationalism, Identity, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.287.

  5. Lucy Davis, ‘Wings (Metamorphosis)’, Lee Wen, op. cit.,p.36.

  6. Lee Wen, ‘Will the Real Singapore Art Please Stand Up?’, talk presented as part of ‘Post-Ulu' exhibition organised by The Artists Village, The Substation, Singapore, 7 January 2000, Republic of Daydreams [blog], available at http://leewen.republicofdaydreams.com/re-imagined-self.html (last accessed on 15 April 2018).

  7. Singapore Department of Statistics, ‘Report: Population Trends, 2016’, Republic of Singapore: Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, September 2016, p.4.

  8. June Yap, ‘I Feel the Earth Move…’, Lee Wen, op. cit., p.50.

  9. Lee W., ‘Will the Real Singapore Art Please Stand Up?’, op. cit.

  10. Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Weiqiang Lin, ‘Multiplying Diversities: How “New” Chinese Mobilities Are Changing’, Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia: How People, Money, and Ideas from China Are Changing a Region (ed. Pàl Nyíri and Danielle Tan), Washington: University of Washington Press, 2017, p.43.

  11. According to the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. See Karen Gilchrist, ‘Singapore Named the World’s Most Expensive City’, CNBC, 3 March 2018, available at https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/14/singapore-named-the-worlds-most-expensive-city- to-live-in.html (last accessed on 15 April 2018).

  12. Until Raffles arrived, the island was occupied by 1,000 Malay people, a handful of Chinese farmers and the Orang Laut (sea people) indigenous to the region. The Orang Laut lived along the coasts of the region, including the settlement known up until the fourteenth century as Temasek (present-day Singapore), until they were dispersed to isolated parts of Southeast Asia as assimilation set in in the early 1900s. In Untitled (Raffles) from 2000, Lee Wen built scaffolding alongside the sculpture of Raffles standing at the Singapore River so that the public could look him in the eye at the same level.

  13. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, p.24.

  14. Ibid., p.25.

  15. B.S.A. Yeoh and W. Lin, ‘Multiplying Diversities’, op. cit., p.44.

  16. L. Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, op. cit., p.25.

  17. Instead of Straits Settlements currency, coolies in Singapore were paid in porcelain pieces that could only be used as currency in the ‘registered coolie house’ of the respective paymaster, in order to deter them from saving money and returning to China. See Roger Loh and Patsy Lee, Coolie Currency: Personal Reflections on Collecting History, Singapore: Invasion Studios, 2015.

  18. J. Yap, ‘I Feel the Earth Move…’, Lee Wen, op. cit.

  19. Adele Tan, ‘Lee Wen and the Untaming of Yves Klein: Art and the Iterative Force’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol.32, no.2, May 2010, pp.18–19 and p.21.

  20. Ibid., pp. 18–19.

  21. J. Yap, ‘I Feel the Earth Move…’, Lee Wen, op. cit., p.50, fn.5.

  22. Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, London: Routledge, 1997, p.2. ‘Explicit body artists “peel back layers of signification that surround their bodies […] to expose not an originary, true, or redemptive body, but the sedimented layers of signification themselves.’

  23. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, p.4.

  24. B.S.A. Yeoh and W. Lin, ‘Multiplying Diversities’, op. cit., p.52. ‘Other’ in the CMIO designation generally refers to Eurasians connected to the first three ethnic groups.

  25. Ibid., p.45.

  26. Sangeetha Thanapal, ‘Chinese Privilege, Gender and Intersectionality in Singapore: A Conversation between Adeline Koh and Sangeetha Thanapal’, boundary 2, 4 March 2015, available at http://www.boundary2.org/2015/03/chinese-privilege-gender-and-intersectionality-in-singapore-a-conversation- between-adeline-koh-and-sangeetha-thanapal/ (last accessed on 15 April 2018).

  27. Ibid., p.55.