Lee Wen, pioneer of performance art in Singapore, dies at 61

SINGAPORE – Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen, best known for his Yellow Man series, has died of a lung infection. He was 61.

The Cultural Medallion recipient, who also had Parkinson’s disease, is survived by his wife, Japanese artist Satoko Lee, 57, and 19-year-old son Lee Masatoshi.

He died at Alexandra Hospital on Sunday (March 3) surrounded by family and members of the arts community.

Lee worked as a logistics officer, computer operator and bank officer before he quit his day job in 1987 to pursue art full time. He went on to enrol in the then Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, and was also an early member of seminal artists’ colony The Artists Village.

His Yellow Man series, which addresses cultural stereotypes, includes works where he is featured stripped to his briefs and covered in yellow paint.

Lee’s biographer Chan Li Shan observed: “At the heart of it was Lee Wen’s dream of a society that overcomes stereotyping and superficiality. Can we understand differences and the concept of the Other? What does it mean to create a world with less prejudice, and more tolerance? Over the years, these questions preoccupied Lee Wen.”

Lee is also the founder of Independent Archive, a reference library and collection of archival material pertaining to art in Singapore. It is in Aliwal Street.

In 1994, after an outcry over a controversial performance by another artist, the Government started a 10-year, no-funding policy on performance art events. But Lee continued practising his art in spite of this.

In 2005, he received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for arts. In 2016, the US Embassy awarded him the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art.

Ms Chan recalled: “In typical Lee Wen fashion, he had generously divided the prize money of US$15,000 between the three nominees, saying that all of them deserved it equally.”

Satoko Lee, the late artist’s wife of around 20 years, told The Straits Times: “He was the best husband. I am very happy that I was married to him… He was a great teacher. He was someone who could open up your mind.”

Artist Vincent Leow, who knew Lee for more than 30 years, said: “He never stopped talking about art. I remember seeing him at the hospital (in December). He was struggling to talk, but he asked me to take out my sketchbook so he could draw – he wanted to put his ideas on paper. He was so passionate about his art-making.”

Performance artist and ceramicist Jason Lim, another old friend, commended the late artist’s decision to spearhead Future of Imagination, an international performance art event.

He added: “He was a mentor to many younger artists and was always very encouraging… He will always be (in my memory) the Lee Wen I knew: strong, smiling, always cracking jokes.”

The wake will be held at Potong Pasir Avenue 2, Block 145, on Monday (March 4) and Tuesday, followed by the funeral and cremation on Wednesday.

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