Lee Wen.

Lee Wen (1957–2019)

Lee Wen, a Singaporean performance artist, writer, and organizer whose work traces themes of European colonialism and the modernization of his home country, died last Monday of a lung infection, reports the Straits Times. He was sixty-one years old. Lee was perhaps best known for his “Journey of a Yellow Man” series, 1992–2012. He worked as a computer operator and an officer in banking and logistics before quitting in 1987 to pursue his art career full time, which also included involvement in various artist groups such as the Artists Village and the Black Market International performance arts collective. 

In 1992, Lee began his “Yellow Man” series, for which he covered himself in bright yellow paint and walked through urban landscapes in England, India, Japan, China, Thailand, Mexico, Singapore, and Australia. The project confronted Asian racialization and the political history of “yellow peril,” and became one of his longest-standing and best-known performances. “I’m already yellow,” Lee wrote in his artist statement for the piece at the Fukuoka Art Museum in 1994. “Why do I still paint myself yellow? Yellow is the color of the sun, the color of the moon, the color of the river that runs in the old country. . . . It is also the color of the persecuted and the oppressed.”

The piece’s third iteration was introduced in Singapore in 1993, a year before the Singaporean government’s National Arts Council placed a ten-year funding ban on performance art. For another celebrated piece, Strange Fruit, 2003, Lee covered himself in red paper lanterns, co-opting a stereotypical marker of Asian culture in an embodied engagement with critical race, postcolonial, and diasporic theory.

In 2005, the Singapore Art Museum awarded Lee the Cultural Medallion, and staged a midcareer retrospective of his work in 2012. In 2016 Lee received the $15,000 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art, which he split equally with two of the shortlisted nominees, as he believed they all deserved it equally.

“Let us not delude ourselves of ever reaching elevated states of nirvana, nor re-occupation of the mythical Garden of Eden, nor entering the heavenly gates when admitted into the holy temples of art museums or prestigious biennales and triennials,” he wrote in an essay on performance art in Asia Art Archive. “Instead, it is the nomadic journeys and endless battles that art revolves towards, a creative way of living with an awareness of our responsibility and a decision to choose freedom instead of the fatalistic acceptance of false security under the domination of selfish masters and domineering dictators. It is not that artists want to change the world, but the world may change us in ways that we are not willing to accept.”