Singapore performance artist Lee Wen nominated for Freedom of Art Award

Lee Wen, an Australia-based Singaporean performance artist. The Cultural Medallion recipient recently participated in a group exhibition at the iPreciation gallery. -- ST PHOTO:  NEO XIAOBIN
Lee Wen, an Australia-based Singaporean performance artist. The Cultural Medallion recipient recently participated in a group exhibition at the iPreciation gallery. -- ST PHOTO:  NEO XIAOBIN

Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen has been named as one of seven nominees for the inaugural Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art 2015.

The award, which is presented by contemporary art fair Art Stage Singapore and the Embassy of the United States in Singapore, recognises an artist or curator fromSouth-east Asia who is actively committed to the ideals of freedom and liberty, and continually seeks to express these ideals through his or her work.

The award is named after Joseph Balestier, the first American diplomat accredited to Singapore - he was appointed US Consul to Singapore in 1836.

Lee, 58, was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2005, and is known for his performance art that tackles themes such as social identity. One of his most well-known projects is his Journey Of A Yellow Man series, in which he paints himself a brilliant yellow from head to toe - an exaggerated outward manifestation of ethnicity.

Lee, who studied at Lasalle College of the Arts, says that he is "honoured" and "surprised" to receive the nomination.

"It's a recognition of my efforts, because I think that a lot of the time, I'm trying my best to ask for more changes to allow artists to do what they want, but it can be quite futile," he says.

"Sometimes, I get the feeling that I'm fighting alone, so appreciation like this really encourages me."

In a statement on why Lee was nominated, the organisers referenced the National Arts Council's 1994 ban on sponsorship for performance art.

"The ban made Lee Wen and his colleagues grow firmer in their resolve to continue their practice even without sponsorship as well as bring contemporary art to a larger audience and prompted Lee to work overseas for an extended period of time.

"The ban on funding of performance art was lifted in 2004, but Lee Wen continues to fight for more openness both locally and internationally as the battle continues for him even today."

Lee says that he still hopes to see change in areas such as the Media Development Authority's regulations regarding performance art, and obscenity laws.

Currently, the authority requires that a licence be issued for arts performances, with few exceptions; and according to Singapore law, any person who appears nude in a public place may be fined up to $2,000, jailed for up to three months, or both.

Referring to obscenity laws, he says: "It's based on a very old law from the Victorian times, and that definition is definitely out of date. We should update ourselves on that, so that it reflects contemporary society."

The other nominees for the award are: Aye Ko (Myanmar), FX Harsono (Indonesia), Manit Sriwanichpoom (Thailand), Nadiah Bamadhaj (Malaysia), Pablo Baen Santos (Philippines) and Svay Sareth (Cambodia).

The winner will be announced on the evening of Jan 20, and the award will consist of a trophy, certificate and a grant of US$5,000 (S$6,690) to help the recipient continue his or her work. Art Stage Singapore will be held from Jan 22 to 25 at Marina Bay Sands.