Artist Michael Lee shows new works that build on familiar methods and reflect on death

Artist Michael Lee uses the black and yellow diagonal stripes of barricade tapes to signal a danger zone in Diagonals. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Artist Michael Lee uses the black and yellow diagonal stripes of barricade tapes to signal a danger zone in Diagonals. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

A part of Singaporean artist Michael Lee died in Berlin last year.

There for an artist-in-residence programme, he met many other artists from around the world who, like himself, had flocked to the city, a hotbed of art and creativity, to deepen their artistic practice.

The exposure, however, also shrivelled his confidence a little.

Lee, 42, whose body of work frequently references architecture, says: "I used to think the architectural model is associated with me but when I went there, I found that every other artist uses it too."

Forced to rethink his methodology, the experience marked his year in Berlin as a "tough" one, he says. "There were enjoyable moments, the art scene there is vibrant, but there was also a lot of expectation on my part to perform."

The disquieting process of self-examination though, gave him courage to put aside tried-and-true methods.

His new solo exhibition at gallery Yavuz Fine Art, the first since his residency at Berlin's contemporary art and culture centre Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, is a show full of risks.

Instead of scale models of buildings, the gallery is filled with works such as a neon sign, a video and a site-specific installation. The works are priced for sale between $1,000 and $20,000.

While disparate in form, a thread of thought holds through the works: his recurring fascination with what he calls the "linguistics of space", or how space is thought about, defined, labelled, and the techniques used to do this.

The show's titular work, Machine For (Living) Dying In, is such an example. The statement, rendered in neon, marries quotes from two famed architects - the saying, "A house is a machine for living in", by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier in his book Towards A New Architecture (1923), and the remark, "A house is for dying", by American architecture academic Douglas Darden in his book Condemned Building (1993).

For Lee, the observations "do not necessarily disagree with each other because to live is to die". So he rolls them into a single neon tagline to conjure a brazen memento mori.

Such notions of death and solitude continue through the show, including the video installation Gone Solo, which silently screens, from a small, upright coffin-like black box, details from reports of 45 people who were alone when they died or disappeared.

This theme is also explored in the series of paper collage works titled Hazard, which depict public and domestic spaces as sites where danger lurks.

Rendered in both two and three dimensions, the works bring to the fore the collage method of cutting and pasting together pre-existing materials, a technique that has always been key to his creations.

The difference is that instead of working on mostly pristine paper, as with his previous scale models of buildings, he now uses pages from books and magazines to tease out unexpected juxtapositions. In the collage Hazard No. 2, a reproduction of Diego Velazquez's painting Las Meninas in a book is transformed with a few cuts, folds and some glue into an anthropomorphic house with a sullen face.

He extends his eye on curious spaces into the realm of the gallery with site-specific installations such as Diagonals. Using the wall that bisects the gallery, he covers the reverse side, which visitors pass out of as they move to the back of the gallery, with black and yellow diagonals of paint in the vein of barricade tape. In doing so, he marks the front section of the gallery as a danger zone, one that visitors would have entered without realising, until they emerged from it.

Of the work, he says: "This might be similar to how things work in reality. Often, you realise you went through a dangerous period in your life only after it has passed and you have survived."

This observation may be true too for him as an artist taking risks and stepping out of his usual creative parameters.

He says: "I am proud of going out of my comfort zone and there is a sigh of relief because the risks I took amounted to something."