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Visual Arts

Insights: Michael Lee

Examining the ideas of anonymity, acceptance, empathy and social roles within urban existence.


Published: 7 Dec 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

In this interview, Michael Lee delves into the ideas behind the works that encompass drawing, text, and diagrams in A Place for Nobody.

In 'A Place for Nobody' you delved into ideas of anonymity, acceptance and empathy while at the same time attempting to resist society’s focus on hyperindividualism and competition. These currents undergird many of your recent works. Could you share this direction in your practice? 

To some extent, hyperindividualism and competition in today's society align with Singapore’s culture of neoliberalism, meritocracy, and what may be perceived as elitism, though this is not meant as a judgment. As a younger artist, I admittedly engaged in individualist practice and healthy competition with peers. However, now, as an older artist, I cannot keep pace, partly due to age and partly due to a growing 'class consciousness.' Financially and philosophically, I no longer wish to contribute to the notion of artists as 'exceptional' beings, which I find toxically optimistic. Instead, I have found solace in anonymity, self-acceptance, empathy and letting go.

<em>My Garden</em>, Michael Lee, 2023.  

'My Garden' is a mural you created for 'A Place for Nobody'. Right from the initial conceptualisation, you expressed interest in creating a mural installation for the exhibition. What aspects of the mural format attracted you, and could you also provide additional insights about 'My Garden'? 

The mural format feels both public and anonymous. Writing or drawing directly on the wall is a public statement, often conveying meaningful, useful, or important content; essentially a 'selfless' act. In My Garden, I painted the opposite: joyful objects and activities, in other words, 'selfish' and self-indulgent things. Inspired by Voltaire's 1759 novel, Candide, which critiques hope with 'one must cultivate one's own garden', My Garden embraces self-preservation, while acknowledging vulnerability. Equal spacing between icons underscores my inability to rank these sources of delight. By sharing personal joy as a relative nobody, I hold myself accountable for self-love.

'Friendly Strangers Party' is a work you have presented in two exhibitions in Japan in 2019. Given the distinct variations in its presentation across these iterations, how did you decide to display it in this particular manner at the Esplanade Community Wall?  

Friendly Strangers Party features pennant flags recounting personal encounters with people of unknown identity who left a lasting impact on me. In its first presentation in Osaka in 2019, the flags hung on curved lines, creating the illusion of an impending or abandoned party. In Onomichi later that year, I let the organisers hang the flags as they deemed fit, and they did so on 'broken' dangling strings, evoking a forlorn ambience which I enjoyed. In its current third iteration at Esplanade, the recessed wall provides a contained space, akin to a parallel world where flags fall like rain. The work remains adaptable to new contexts.

Detail of <em>Friendly Strangers Party</em>, Michael Lee, 2023.

On the topic of rain, you have shared that it is a recurring theme in many of your past works, such as the recent project 'Museum on Air' presented at the Singapore Art Museum in 2018. What attracts you to the motif of rain? 

The rain motif first appeared in Office Orchitect (2011), specifically in the timeline section that accounts for the life and work of the fictional K. S. Wong. Museum on Air (2018) took the form of a cloud that rains icons symbolising the arts community's aspirations for a contemporary art museum. In the present exhibition, rain appears in Friendly Strangers Party (2019) in terms of flag arrangement, and also as one of 74 doodles in My Garden. Rain carries the duality of nature: renewal and destruction. My affinity with rain evolved from childhood fun to poetic imagination, appointment cancellation to job opportunity. I count my blessings for not having experienced rain in a really bad way.

Within the exhibition, situated next to 'Friendly Strangers Party' is the work 'Anybody, Everybody, Nobody, Somebody', which takes the form of a Venn diagram. This work contemplates diverse social roles and their intersections. Could you elaborate further on the work as well as touch upon this idea of the 'useless diagram' that we discussed in early conversations on the exhibition? 

<em>Anybody, Everybody, Nobody, Somebody</em>, Michael Lee, 2023. 

Consider a maid on a luxury boat: initially a nobody, but after a shipwreck, she becomes a somebody all due to her survival skills on the island. Our social identity is a relatively fluid Venn diagram, variedly based on personal and social circumstances. Anybody, Everybody, Nobody, Somebody is my first diagram without a legend, inviting the audience to mentally fill examples illustrating social roles and their intersections. The use of multiple pieces of Perspex sheets that look like glass create an illusion of floating bubbles.

My fascination with permutation and combination serves two purposes: to acknowledge reality, from atoms forming molecules to collaborative projects, and enhance my understanding of complex phenomena.

With Friendly Strangers Party, how the flags are arranged is a unique combination of organising them by alphabetical order and flipping alternate flags. In this way, I explore new interpretations across individual encounters with strangers, seeking patterns and anomalies. The preference for fixed-order permutation or random combination depends on context: wrong ingredient sequencing could mean culinary disaster, while excessive contemplation before mixing a cocktail can result in unproductive paralysis.  

A Place for Nobody  by Michael Lee is on view at Esplanade Community Wall from 29 Sep 2023 to 7 Jan 2024.

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