Art is an invitation into other worlds: Artist Michael Lee

By Patrick BenjaminEvents - 15 April 2012 2:28 PM | Updated 16 April 2012

Art is an invitation into other worlds: Artist Michael Lee

'Office Orchitect' (installation view)

In this self-curated retrospective, the 39- year- old local artist and People’s Choice winner at last year’s APB Foundation Signature Art Prize showcases his multi-genre oeuvre comprising video works, prints, interactive murals, photographs, architectural models and book publications.   

Thematically, the works are a cornucopia of both the personal and national narrative pertaining to issues like the pursuit of success, Singaporean identity and history. 

This is typified in highly accessible works like the 'Office Orchitect' (2011), a mixed media installation comprising 12 models of architectural marvels as well as texts and infographics, all based on the life of a fictitious local architect called KS Wong.  

Before he represents the Singapore art scene on a year –long artist residency at Berlin’s Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Michael Lee speaks to Patrick Benjamin about the creative process behind his on-going retrospective.

Dreams and imagination are a recurring motif in your works. What are some of the earliest images from your childhood that have subconsciously seeped into your works?

Spiderman chopped up into pieces on a conveyor belt. Yes it was a childhood dream image, but it was also both traumatic and arousing. It doesn't appear in my work literally but the kind of mood is one of the things I aim for in my work.

Scenes of Singapore, from 'Mapping Worlds' series (Installation, Singapore Art Museum, 2010)

Most of your works are layered with a playful theme, but are they fun to produce?

My creative process is least filled with fun than a lot of deliberation, self-doubt, procrastination, trials and accidents (some of which required A&E attention).

What’s going through your mind as you build the architectural models for buildings that don’t exist, and aren’t going to exist?

For immediately buildable or feasible buildings, I leave the job to the many architects alive. My role is in identifying blind spots, reaching other worlds, and fostering imagination. Some of the thought nuggets in my head while making fictional buildings are: "Hmm, too realistic", "Wa, this is damn impossible to do but I like it", "After this, I will not make another model" (a promise of which I never kept).

Do you think humour is a very crucial aspect of your art?

Humour became critical since my Hong Kong stint from 2007-2009. I learnt to understand and use humour both for survival and as an aesthetic strategy. It has long been more than a means of amusement. The Court Jester, during the Middle Ages in the West, was given leeway to speak the truth, albeit in a hilarious way. In this regard, humour can be a tool for criticism. 

Depictions of offices are often dismissed as boring and formulaic, was “Office Orchitect” a refusal to conform to this stereotype? 

'Office Orchitect' is an alternative work space, one where imagination is foregrounded. I was wondering if there could be a space that accommodates daydreaming more than tangible work output. 

Artists are worried about their career and being artists and looking like artists. Your thoughts?

My career is always on my mind. No one forced us to be one, so if will decide to get into it, we must not complain. I tend to absorb the follies and failures that come along the way, rather than complain about it. I like the fact that I don't need to look good every week day, but I'm not saying I must look and smell bad all the time. It's all about basic respect and not shooting our own foot. Art is an invitation into other worlds, so we do whatever helps that mission, I suppose.

The world of art is so much about touting, so what’s your take on folks who thought that your vote canvassing for the APB People’s Choice Award 2011 was wrong?

I want to apologise to them for disappointing their expectations of an artist, which may include just focusing on art-making rather than getting our hands 'dirty' in marketing our products. But armchair accusation is always easier than trying to recover investments of time and money into making work. I was literally broke when the Signature Art Prize nomination came up; I asked for a vote that could potentially mend pockets; I didn't steal. 

What exactly does it mean to be a Singaporean artist in the 21st century?

Being a Singaporean artist means you have a lot of resources and training at your beg and call -- your education, the social stability and government support for the arts It also means you have to find your own way of 'breaking out' of comfort zones, of doing your own thing.

'IR Hemihouse', from 'Office Orchitect'

Genre and medium hopping is a something you immerse in, what’s your secret?

My working process begins with a wish list of keywords, eg. "link flower and building", "update Brodsky", "surprise the audience as they walk towards it", "between 2D and 3D", "get back to gym"... then I find materials and techniques to do that. I usually wait till the last minute to execute the actual work. More efficient this way, with the impending deadlines and chances for career suicide.

A brief insight into the joys and challenges of curating your own retrospective.

I initially feared the works will look incoherent with my many techniques over the years but fortunately, the show turns out looking rather consistent. Relooking at old works is a love-and-hate experience, but also an opportunity to confront what I have done and am worth straight on. Many people frowned on the self-curation, saying a retrospective should be done by a museum and all. There you go, all the stereotyping... *yawns*

What can we expect from your residency in Berlin?

On my Berlin trip, I expect to do two things: study the ruins (Berlin Wall, half-complete structures commissioned by Hitler, the modern buildings undergoing redevelopment) and also start afresh. Building my network is also part of the agenda.

M:trospective: Michael Lee’s First Decade 2001-2011 runs till April 29, 10 am to 6pm (5pm to 9pm on Thursday), Studio Bibliotheque, Goodman Arts Centre, 90 Goodman Road, Blk B, #05-04. Free Admission. Closed on Mondays.