An interview with Lee Wen, Kai Lam and Melati Suryodamo

12 02 2011

It was a hectic first week and many of us were still hung over the New Year celebrations. The Sub-city Rockers program of home-grown alternative music blasted the Substation as they started the New Year’s line-up of artists both new and familiar giving us performances with refreshing promise. The three-storey Substation had ended 2010 with works from Khairuddin Hori (Us and Them and You) and the annual Graey Festival, a plethora of contemporary performing artists from South and Southeast Asia. Singapore’s art scene began the year buzzing with Art Stage Singapore held from 12th till 16th January bringing to our shores the likes of Germany based, Indonesian artist Melati Suryodamo, thanks to Valentine Willie Fine Art. This short trip to Singapore gave R.I.T.E.S. the chance to invite Melati in their inaugural 2011 program. A hiccup with approval of the permit for artist Seelan Palay did not set back the tone of the day. Sha Najak who attended the event found that a review of the show would not show justice and resorted to interviewing the artists individually about their performances. Lee Wen, Kai Lam and Melati Suryodamo tell Sha Najak the concepts behind their latest performance presented for R.I.T.E.S. held at The Substation on 15 January.

(SN=Sha Najak / MS=Melati Suryodamo / LW=Lee Wen / KL=Kai Lam)

SN: The first part of your performance looked like it was set in a bedroom. Was this what you intended it to be?

MS: If the image has given you a scene of a bed room, I accept that. But for me it is about going out of from a home, through the door and sleep out of the common space. I wanted to bring out the anxieties of stepping out and the fear that every child might have when they leave their parents home.

SN: Tell me about the part where you danced on stage with a red cloth. What was it about?

MS: For this performance I tried to formulate my understanding about gestures of homeless people. When I was travelling to some places, I observed homeless people on the streets, under the bridges, in front of the shops, the market, etc.  I’ve not seen many homeless people in Singapore.

It is related to my personal stage of being homeless or not having the real sense of rootedness. I lost it gradually and have been reducing the concept of home, back into the most minimal state of it, which is the body and nothing else.

I was not intending to move around and travel to different places, but more about releasing the possession of materials that bound my life. It is such a relief to be in a state of mind where there is nothing to lose. All dimensions were reduced into a narrow scope, and the big world out there feels like a wave of air, bringing me from one spot to another spot. It does not matter where. Like a little fish in the ocean, like a bird moving over the continent, like the sand in the river.

SN: What was going through your mind with the marching scene? Is it an ode to your native country, Indonesia?

MS: Actually it has nothing to do with any specific country. But the military gestures, came up to my mind when I remember how our mentality was educated to build up our nationalism. Yes sure, I received this indoctrination when I was a child. When our country cannot protect us and respect your basic human rights, how are we supposed to relate to nationalism? And why nationalism? Some children in Russia are military trained and prepared for war deliberately. They were told, to be ready to protect the country from enemies Ideology and politicians are using their young generation to form the the future of their country.

SN: The final part of your work is a scene where you cut out square boxes from a book of world maps. What was going through your mind?

MS: I refer to the idea of the world without borders, which is utopian. The borders exist and since they exist the world is divided into different kinds of classes. The idea of global market has not been a successful result. It overlaps older issues and brings the world into a different dimension. Recent political situation is an effect of a big change from the old form of polarization into new polarization. But polarizations are still there. If our humanity is not maintained, soon we will be losing trust on people’s origins, culture and respect to their beliefs. Cutting a square, making a hole on the map book, feels to me like digging the globe instead of embarrassing it.

SN: There were 3 parts to your performance – the folk music, the tea serving, the performance with the red slippers/red pail/box filled with fake defecate. The whole performance was called Anyhow Blues Project and I can see this in the folk music as well as tea serving. How does the third part (improvisation with red pail/slippers and box of feces) tie in with the Anyhow Blues Project?

LW: It is not very much a structured performance. I did it like a stream of consciousness through some songs I play and I talk a little about what the next song or previous one was about as I make some related or unrelated actions. For example, with the fake shit,  it refers to “same old shit” as in when history repeats itself. I sing a song with reference to licensing and censorship referring to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s visit in 1991, hence the dewberry perfume which was Cobain’s favorite perfume and sprinkled it on the plastic shit for the audience to sniff. I see this as an “anti-performance performance” as much as I see performance art as an “anti-disciplinary discipline” as Marvin Carlson in his definitive book termed it. A few years back we had a forum  organized questioning “Is performance art in a state of menopause?” Doing performance art can be as safe and complacent as any other genre of art as it becomes widely accepted into the mainstream. Yet many who take their “cutting edge” or avant-garde status for granted. In my attempts at working with ballet music or folk songs I try to look back in time and history at the same urge that is making work based on my personal life situation and current changes in society around me. I use the word ‘Anyhow’ as a cross-reference to Singlish to a make-do spirit but with an attitude in delivery i.e. Art based on conceptual thinking and philosophy. And not “anyhow anyhow”. So objects I use can be anything like a red bucket and a pair of clogs. Used in some focused actions, concentration of energies they just become dare I say it, “art” and I don’t mean dead art as in dead art.

SN: It was my first time learning that you survived Parkinson’s disease. To me, this is inspirational. Partly due to my experience in social work but also that you have picked up the guitar and started playing once again. Was there any connection of this in your ‘anyhow blues project’?

LW: I have been dealing with it since “Interakcje 2007” Piotrkow Trybunalski in Poland where I first got problems with moving my left fingers and left leg. At first I thought it was due to my scoliosis. After a wild goose chase with various doctors I found out it was Parkinson’s disease 3 years later. It had become so bad sometimes I could not type on the computer or open the door with a key or cut my own toenails. And I had played the guitar for a long time and used to do my own song which was why I got into performance, where I met and used to jam with Zai Kuning who read his poetry with The Artists Village in the past. Zai is the guitar maestro, I just do the basic chords but I liked making up songs with my own lyrics. So my first actions were readings, which I dropped out of eventually and when I went full swing into it I forget all about the guitar and songs. With medication now, my fingers start to move like it did before and while hanging out with Zai again after long years of going in different directions, it was such a joy to play the guitar and sing again that I had to get into the “Anyhow Blues Project”. It’s really a part of how I cope with my health as much as it’s a comment on society and life, and also about the trials and tribulations of friends like Zai and the Artists Village. As the songs were in the beginning mostly inspired while just spontaneously singing and playing about things we were talking about. There is much more about my relationship with language and music, death and suicide etc. as well. But I think you have to wait for the “book” in good time.

SN: Why did you serve blue tea to the audience? I recall you mentioned that the blue tea is good for detoxification. Is there an attempt to link this to for e.g., purification of the inside or were you trying to say that we should change within the self before seeing change on the outer self.

LW: For a start I work closely with visual images. So the blue tea strikes me as a visual rhyming with the blues I sing. And I do have a self-destructive nature, which is probably why my body is fucked, but I get back to the cleansing again and again. I am embodying my own contradiction and my life has always been a struggle to reconcile them that is how I see it. I admit that there is something rotten about me. My dig is that I am consciously trying to deal with what I think is relevant to others who may not notice it until maybe we make it available as art.

SN: One of your songs, ‘Art is Dead’ seems to reference local arts scene. Is this true?

LW: I try to relate what is happening to me in the local context as much as anywhere else. I find that the experience of globalization in Singapore is intense since the industrial age began. What happened here is even more intense because we are so exposed to the world and yet we’re a small island city-state, controlled by a nanny mentality government that I fear some of the not so egalitarian policies are spreading to the rest of the world without anyone noticing. There is a tendency to read into what is happening with the socially engineered cultural developments as all growth and generative in human consciousness but in truth this could actually killing or is killing our humanity quicker than we are aware of it. I hear more young artists make works based on research of what is happening in prize winning trends set by international branding and Mafioso curators rather than based on actual life experiences or their own evaluation of human values. The emphasis of our media in highlighting the success of artists are based on market value and their shameless repetition of tested formulas rather than research, innovations and explorations of new ideas or debate on social values and our human conflicts with power and evil. We are trivializing our humanity which is already extreme and dangerously surrendering our ethical core of civilization to greed disguised as progress, development and nation building. My song is a warning cry in desperation.

SN: You mentioned in your performance that your work touches on removing the self from representation. Could you elaborate more on this?

KL: My sound works allow me to remove myself from the visual representations temporarily. By removal, I meant sound works as an alternative to the visual culture. It allows me, to put away the obvious representations that come with a baggage of my cultural ethnicity and social / individual background as a visual artist.

This comment was made as a reference about sound based works in relation to performance art. Sound works are by nature non-visual and it shares inherent qualities with other performance forms as a ‘live’ expression performed to an audience in a given time and space. By non-visuals, it does not oppose the sensibilities of the visual but rather it exists as a parallel form of expression, at times merging into a singular inter-disciplinary art form.

SN: Have you ever done work on consumerism/environmentalism before?

KL: I am not working directly on ‘green’ issues or consumerism/environmentalism.  As a ‘global citizen’ living in a industrialised society, one cannot avoid ecological and environmental issues  as we come into daily contact with mass produced daily needs and contribution to impending wastages. I see ‘environmentalism’ or ‘consumerism’ as manufactured concerns, coming from a new 21st century schizophrenic consciousness that is arising out of our fears and aspiration for our heavily industrialised future. But more importantly to me, it is about individual direct actions and working out rational responses, not for, or against any movements, but observing, questioning and interacting through acts of art and maintaining a neutral position consistently. This is my artistic goal.

SN: You mentioned that you’re trained in visual arts but that your sound work is an extension of your visual art practice. How did you make the transition and where else will your work evolve into?

KL: I like to explore the hybrid in art, as each encounter brings me new perception on the processes and reproduction of art. By ‘evolve’ I assume you mean transitions or crossovers from various disciplines in my artistic work. When I was beginning to work as an artist in the mid-90s, I could not afford to rent a studio to work in, the question was how can I transform my art production into processes to respond to my personal accessibility? So I did away with the traditional studio framework of art-making and I found a process in performance art, producing more site-specific and material-based works of ephemeral nature. It transformed my outlook about art greatly, but I am still engaged in ‘traditional’ forms of art making constantly.

Traditional art forms like sculpture and painting are equally important in cross-genre works, the ‘inter-disciplinarian’ way of working by artists has been going on since a long time, it becomes more evident in this era as ‘art’ is constantly being analysed and categorised to fit into a perceived cultural framework to serve certain functions. To me, it’s the ability to integrate different forms of creative practices into an entire whole that is the ingenuity in art’s hybrid form.

SN: How did your trip in India impact on your practice? Can you talk more about what you will be doing in Varanasi?

KL: I think India has to be experienced in the real to be able to grasp a true understanding of the place, its people and its long history as one of the earliest human civilisation.  My words are mere descriptions, and will not be able to capture the true meanings of India here.

India inspires me to create, but at the same time, I am cautious about romanticising its cultural meanings and significance as an artist working with tendencies to ‘appropriate’ contexts or ideas. I had the possibility to re-invent my language in particular with recyclable materials as art. In my last trip to the southern states of India, through observation of the Indian people’s daily pragmatism and largely due to economical factors, recycling is like an industrial part of the Indian society. Recycling serves as an alternative way to use lesser mass consumer products, it also makes full use of a certain material and transforms it to give it a new function. This approach can contribute fairly to the ecological equilibrium and this is a model that can be appropriated into artistic productions.  For me it is insightful to experience how recycling can be a part of the everyday life in India, and it inspires me to adopt such approach in art making.

In Varanasi, I will be observing the Mahashivaratri festival. It is a holy festival where Hindu devotees worship Lord Shiva consistently for three days as a ritual of devotion to the Hindu god, and at the same time, there is also Drupad Mela (3-days festival of Indian music) by hundreds of musicians in the streets, numerous Hindu temples and Ghats along the Ganges River. To my tourist-gaze, it will be a carnival of music, colour, sound, in one of the holiest city on earth and I am looking forward to it!

(Photos by Jason Lee)



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