US award to Singapore artist for promoting freedom of expression ‘not political’

Giving an annual prize to Lee Wen, a performance artist who denied a Singapore government ban, is not an attempt to send a message to authorities in the city state, ambassador says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 12:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 12:20pm

A Singaporean artist has received an award from the United States embassy for his work promoting freedom of expression in the authoritarian island state – but the embassy denies it was trying to send the Singaporean government a message.

Lee Wen, an internationally acclaimed pioneer of performance art, persisted with his work during what was effectively a decade-long ban on performance art in Singapore and continues to advocate more openness in society. In 2014 he needed hospital treatment in Hong Kong for an injury he suffered after speaking out against China’s human rights record at an Art Basel forum. He claimed to have been attacked by an unidentified assailant.

Kirk Wagar, US ambassador to Singapore, said the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art – now in its second year – was not an attempt to push for more freedom in Singapore. Balestier was the first US consul general to Singapore in the 19th century.

“There is no political agenda,” Wagar said at the award ceremony held on Tuesday at his official residence. “This is an Asean-centred award. I think the struggle [for more freedom] is the reason for the award, either it be here, Myanmar or Vietnam. I don’t think any country on this planet has got it figured out, mine included.”

Wagar elaborated on the idea of universal values – a concept that some Asian governments such as China’s are particularly wary of. “I think one of the most interesting conversations that anyone can have … is what are Asian values, what are American values, what are Western values, what are African values. They are very uncomfortable conversations to have but I think very meaningful conversations to have, because I believe once you’ve peeled away at the onion there aren’t that many differences in your core values,” he said.

The ambassador stressed the award had nothing to do with American foreign policy.

“I want to be crystal clear about this. I think that it’s easy to assume because the US embassy is involved, that we are trying to make a statement. We are not. If we were using this as a political platform it would reduce [the] credibility of what we’re trying to achieve here,” he said.

The regional award is co-organised by Art Stage Singapore, one of Asia’s biggest contemporary art fairs, which opens today. Its founder, Lorenzo Rudolf, said that without freedom, there could be no good art.

“We don’t want to provoke, but if you really want to support good art, you have to support the conditions for the artists. It’s positive for everybody,” he said.

We don’t want to provoke, but if you really want to support good art, you have to support the conditions for the artists. It’s positive for everybody
Lorenzo Rudolf

Lee, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, persevered with performances during the government’s ban on performance art – a decision taken after Josef Ng, another Singaporean artist, cut off his pubic hair in public in 1994.

While censorship still exists in Singapore, Lee has received the Cultural Medallion from the government and his work features prominently in the new National Gallery of Singapore. Meanwhile, Ng has been working in China as a curator and has just been named managing director, Asia, by Pearl Lam Galleries.

The fact these former nemeses of the Singaporean government are now embraced by the mainstream art world doesn’t lessen the impact of the award, according to last year’s winner.

F.X. Harsono, an Indonesian artist who battled the Suharto regime in his country, said Lee made art that was against government policy and many artists in Southeast Asia still faced the same restrictions.

“The prize is still important in a region where the freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted. This is the only award of its kind in the Asean region and many artists are now aware of it. It’s making a real impact,” he said.

Two other artists were selected as finalists – Aye Ko from Myanmar and Nguyen Trinh Thi from Vietnam.