How To Change The World Without Really Trying: Reflections On Performance Art Today

Lee Wen considers whether performance art has lost its edge in resistance to mainstream culture.


There seems to be an ongoing obsession within contemporary society to advocate for a vision of the future. When we responded to this excessive concern for the future by calling our performance art event "Future of Imagination" in 2003,1 we were met with varied responses. Our initial idea was to have a bright-sounding title to overcome the negative image that performance art had acquired in the past decade; however, in hindsight it was too loaded and sounded perhaps like a propaganda catchphrase in concert with the ubiquitous political slogans that often boast of providing a better tomorrow, or perhaps commercial sound bites selling real estate or investment schemes. The hope was to call for a shift of emphasis to the imagination in relation to the concerns for the future, and not to become obsessed with approaching the future with angst, anticipation, and anxiety.

Recently, we put a temporary stop to the festival and turned it instead into a regular one-day or one-evening programme, so that it could become a consistent feature of the cultural landscape—and not only every year or two. At the same time, we hoped to instigate dialogue and discussion by holding talks and hosting a blog.2 Without critical discussions and assessments, we felt that the level of appreciation would only remain at the level of curious, casual onlookers.

We need to look back and apply observations of performances, as well as festivals, to help us learn and respond to current trends. I have already discussed the three most immediate concerns of remuneration, resistance, and regulations within performance art practice in Singaporean contexts in a previous essay.3 I would like to further investigate this and emphasise some crucial points for serious reflection and re-assessment of our present state before taking appropriate actions.

Performance Art: Shifting Perceptions of Time, Discipline and Authenticity

There have been many definitions suggested for performance art; its openness towards hybridisation and the blurring of art and life dichotomy derived from a shifting of social values, aesthetic tastes, and historical understanding of cultural productions and their appreciation.

Ray Langenbach once read a passage to me from Marvin Carlson’s then just-published survey of performance, describing it as an "anti-disciplinary discipline resisting conclusions."4 Perhaps it was because it was read to me while I was going through the physical manifestations of my own anxious questioning and musings, that this proposition for an "anti-disciplinary discipline resisting conclusions" has now become my favourite description of performance art.

At the time, I was buried up to my waist in the backyard garden of the house I shared with fellow artists Jason Lim and Vincent Leow. This was the second part of Nychthemer 1 and 2; where I first walked in a circle for 24 hours from sunset to sunset on 8 to 9 November 1996, and the following year was buried up to my waist in the centre of that same field for 24 hours from sunset to sunset on 8 to 9 November 1997. My question touched on how the universal acceptance of the Greco-Roman calendar, and measuring time as a 24-hour day being one of the first steps towards the globalised situation we are in today, has already sabotaged various cultural authenticities based on other traditional concepts of time and calendars.

One principal motivation for me to do this performance was the increased bureaucratic difficulties of organising art, and especially performance art, in Singapore. I wanted to do something without having to go through all of that. So I distributed photocopies of a hand-drawn pamphlet to friends and did the performance in my backyard. I was not worried about whether I had an audience or not; people came at whatever time suited them. While I was enduring the 24-hour day with steadfast persistence to not fall asleep, it struck me that perceptions of time, discipline, and authenticity are inevitably inter-connected with the human activity we called art. What we often generalise as "contextual" can be broken down and analysed under these three significant phenomena for a clearer, objective understanding and its qualitative appreciation.

The changing nature, forms, and strategies of art productions from that of tangible objects such as paintings and sculptures to ephemeral performances or conceptual processes have resulted in debates and discussions on whether the new practices can actually qualify as art. The disagreements more often than not involve the various perceptions with regard to the nature (and not just the measure) of our time and the meaning of discipline, in order to achieve authenticity and relevance. An artwork produced is considered historically relevant and worthy, be it performance art or any other forms of art, when it realises certain measures of interventions, disruptions, or manifestations of radical shifts in perceptions of time, discipline, and authenticity.  

Realisation of Radicalism

At a time when performance art has supposedly gained a level of acceptance in mainstream culture, it is necessary to re-evaluate where it stands and orientate the game at play. In spite of the celebratory mood of some when looking at the growing proliferation of performance art festivals—and the widening international networks of artists initiatives who organise them—I fear the euphoria is premature, elevated by self-deception and conceit, and blinded to the actual crisis in art and cultural production in our deeply-troubled, contemporary society. The questions we discuss in reference to performance art are neither new nor peculiar to those who profess themselves to be "performance artists" or proponents of performance art. Most of the time, our questions concern art in contemporary society and the basic questions recur; as our time is one that is incessantly changing.

With rapid developments in technology bringing forth promises of progress, yet endangering our very survival, we arrogantly ignore the climate changes that have already made our planet look doomed for extinction, as we continue, unabated, to enjoy ever-more luxuries to satisfy our complacent, consumer lifestyles. Globalisation is advocated as the panacea for economic development while we pay no heed to its side effects of failing, if not worsening, to bridge the North–South divide, but also its destroying of indigenous cultures, the extinction of more ecologically-sound lifestyles and the forcing of communities into our sick, consumerist and destructive ways of living. We celebrate with ever-more cultural spectacle as developed economies flex their muscles with global international art exhibitions, expositions, and biennales that are in danger of evolving into semblances of trade fairs and market capitalism.

Details and dynamics differ in different countries; however our common struggles are that of being artists as cultural workers and producers, who address various current issues in response to the changes tantamount to crisis in our societies, inter-connected as they are by the globalised nature of our present time.

Crises abound in our rapidly-changing world in terms of technological, ecological, psychological, spiritual, social, and political relationships that all affect the artists' area of concern: art and culture. With awareness of these various pertinent crises, we should not merely exclusively hold up the flag for "performance art," giving it an unnecessary privilege and relish its outdated notoriety of being radical and cutting-edge in itself. The competitive claims of radicalism between different genres of art production are as reactionary and as superficial—almost detestable—as any propagation of trendy artistic labels, not unlike commercial branding logos and the promotion of fashionable status symbols.

Art, which includes "performance art," is a manifestation of human consciousness that must seek to express itself in response to our collective crises of the present day, and which hopefully will find a certain level of clarification and reconcilement of these contradictions, for us to then face the future with hope and dignity. It is necessary that art today aspires to provide us with the artist's dreams and visions of possible realisations or pathways of healing, if not moving us into real commitments towards peaceful co-existence and a renewal of our common humanity, or pointing towards necessary actions in our communal social structures as means of confronting the on-going crises of human evolution. Only then shall we justify any claims to cutting-edge radicalism by any artistic practice, and not only that of performance art alone.

Relevance of Performance Art Festivals

The idea of international art symposiums and festivals began after the First and Second World Wars as artists began to believe that exchanges through an international fraternity and network would help to create inter-cultural understanding and communication, directly contributing to global peace and harmony. The sculptor Karl Prantl (1923–2010) was said to have organised the first, post-War manifestation of such symposiums, the International Sculpture Symposium (Symposion Europaischer Bildhauer), held in an abandoned stone quarry in Sankt Margarethen in Burgenland, Austria, in 1959. Since then, they have been held in various cities and countries around the world.5  

Having survived a narrow escape during the devastation of Dresden, the traumatic experiences of the Second World War had inspired Prantl not only to initiate such international symposiums, but also to work in abstraction and avoid the human form—creating forms using nature's own destructive processes in order to create anew. His forms, which were void of any recognisable figurative images, strived towards a language which overcame specific cultures and which must have seemed to him like a universal language of nature.6 

The international performance art festivals of today began with the same motivation of building bridges between different cultures. We should not forget the legacy that we carry. The desire for new experiences by artists in travelling and participating in the growing network of international art events in various countries around the world should not be motivated merely by romantic notions of exploring foreign and exotic places. However, intentions of building bridges may not be as immediate or coherent as anticipated. Contemporary art, not to mention performance art that explores cultural productions in response to the changes of our times, as well as an evolved consciousness of the artist, may not necessarily communicate easily to an uninitiated audience. Like any new or evolving language, it takes time for discourse, debate, and dissemination. Furthermore, the open-ended stances, conceptual processes, or abstract, formalist strategies adopted evoke complexities and layered meanings rather than complimenting the earlier, post-War search and desire for a universal art language through abstraction.

International events organised by artists' initiatives still hold significant relevance as they provide an alternative representation to those organised by the institutions that follow partial agendas and criteria usually submissive to the ideology of the state, if not the manipulative powers of an insular art world or commercial market concerns. However, artists' initiatives must be careful and consciously take heed to not become equally disposed and guilty of the various corruptions that they set out to resist.

Anarchy and Dictatorship in Our Midst

As our society grows in complexity, there are gains in individual choice and freedom. This is a major development in our cultural history, whether we like it or not. Authorities enact new regulations of control to keep society in check. New practices of art productions are necessary in augmenting our evolving humanity, and yet are unfortunately often mistakenly read as the severance of the traditional, time-tested social fabric that keeps the social group together. The need for self-preservation and conservative desires of maintaining the tyranny of the power structures held by the status quo that intertwines with fears of losing intrinsic unique identities, jeopardises the transition and transformations of our humanity in response to the demands of the confusing rate of changes in our contemporary society. Increasing conflicts, crimes, and other disruptions to social order arise out of our different beliefs and loyalty to various possible systems of social sovereignty.

For the artist who embraces the ultimate goal of complete individual choice and freedom in the vein of advocating anarchy as the autonomous, pragmatic, peaceful alternative to that of being ruled by elitist privileges of class, power, and property, one must become more conscious of individual responsibility and social accountability in one's actions. Extremes will only lead to the perpetuation of the inherent contradictions of our flawed and restricted social systems, if not self-destruction and extinction.

As contemporary art and culture become liberated from traditional practices, there is always the threat of losing or damaging the time-tested fabric sense of community. By suggesting and presenting radical alternative possibilities of art production, we set out to question the prevailing social systems but at the same time create new possibilities of community. However, these art events, meetings, festivals, or even individual public interventions that artists' initiatives often model their organisation structure upon are inevitably based on the prevailing social systems we come from and manifest in. It is inevitable that stronger individuals will take control or be looked up to for leadership in any social group. Artists' initiatives creating alternatives to the cultural mainstream may succeed in providing platforms and expanding networks, but without a conscious effort to also encourage management, organisation structures that reflect their anarchic intentions remain trapped within the subject of their resistance.

We should also bear in mind the need to explore and experiment with different possibilities in organisational structures that allow more individual, responsible participation and shared decision-making in order for it to be relevant and to grow. If not, the alternative that is being represented only replicates the dictatorial and authoritarian models that exist in our society and hence our radical resistance would be short of its own desire for anarchistic tendencies. The celebrations of committed sustenance and proliferation of various performance art events and festivals are not necessarily evidence of success but instead a perpetuation of our inherent failure and dependence on the flawed imperfections of prevailing society. Artists' initiatives have to pro-actively attempt to re-model organisational structures to allow the growing and veering towards greater autonomy for individual participation rather than dependence on the "artist dictator or imperialist" in our midst.

Individual Visions Versus Social Consequences

One commonly-held opinion that favours performance art as the premier art genre that expands authenticity is due to its being a direct expression that comes from the individual self of the artist: undirected, script-less, unplanned, and unrehearsed. Furthermore, it is suggested that performance art is a more universal language since it is usually more visual, rather than being based on oral language or written texts. It is not to be argued that this is one strategy that may help artists to arrive at a higher degree of authenticity. One classic debate is that of performance art's claim of authenticity over theatre. Performance art is often claimed as being closer to a real life situation and the independent direction of the artist as opposed to a script-based contrivance in theatrical performances. However, there can be authenticity in a well-produced Shakespearean play even today. Indeed, theatre may also retain its affinity to the radicalism and criticality of performance art if it is done with appropriate sensitivity of the time, discipline, and authenticity.

Many of the artists who are known for strong political comments and socially critical content admit that their art arose from personal experiences they felt strongly about. In expressing their "lived," personal experiences, the engagement with complex social issues seeps through.

Arai Shinichi is well known for his performance titled Happy Japan, where he is seen to be grotesque and cynical when making his comments about his disgust for the manga bestseller Senso-ro (War Theory) (戦争論),7 where he lambasts its extreme claims of being the aggressor and wrongdoer during well-documented atrocities in the past, such as the Nanking Massacre and the sex slavery imposed by Japan during World War II. Most people notice the shocking actions of the artist and usually judge him based on their own attachment to traditional decorum, but overlook the fact that these are sincere personal experiences of disgust and wrath that Arai expresses so clearly that it is hard not to respond.

In a recent workshop with performance practitioners and students at TUCA in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Arai gave us three basic actions, which were used in slightly different manifestations in his many narrative demonstrations of his personal life. He provided us with options of: putting an egg in our mouth, doing a handstand against a wall, walking in a straight line while balancing a bucket of water on our head, or a combination of these three actions while at the same time calling out our own name ten or more times. Our tasks involved focusing on a bodily action and at the same time verbally repeating a phrase. These simple actions in various permutations and variations, when juxtaposed with his personal anecdotes, provide a tension-filled narrative that at times was humorous and grotesque, forcing a reaction from the audience.

Arai had discovered a few, succinct actions, which were also personal and based on his own body's ability to create tension-filled images, which could deliver his narrative in a manageable, yet uniquely personal and emotionally-charged way. Arai also made it clear that the political content does not make him an activist, but that his anti-disciplinary discipline has invented a personal-yet-universal form of language. The artist who sincerely looks at his own personal experiences and transmutes them into art will ultimately make consequences of social and political dimensions.

Many artists in advocating an international and universal art for art's sake, an objectivity akin to that of scientific research, try to distance themselves from any idealistic utopian motivations or political agendas of social activism. Tehching Hsieh in his presentations often reminds us that he is an artist and does not intend to make any social political statements or "to change the world." Hsieh's one-year performances are masterpieces that were conceived by a sensitive individual who plainly expresses the human condition of living in a socially-constructed world, caught within an intrinsic political web of power relations. The strength of his vision and commitment has already made an impact on our perceptions of art and society and has helped to induce changes in our perceptions of the world, art, and culture—which he said he did not set out to do.


Historically, performance art overlaps with conceptual art in their both being radical strategies that attempt to affect social criticism and changes through cultural actions and interventions. After having gained acceptance in the cultural mainstream, has performance art lost its edge for resistance to mainstream culture, as it has been incorporated into the status quo?8

The question is not for performance art alone or any dominating genre of art—but that of art in recalling Adorno’s dilemma of "poetry after Auschwitz."9 For what we have seen in the rapid changes that have characterised the half century, post-War years may have given us a euphoria of optimistically embracing a hopeful future of progress and improvement of human comforts into luxuries via economic growth and the opening up of maturing societies into providing increasing security and chances for democratic choices. And yet there have been many more unresolved conflicts and symptoms of global climate change, leading to unforeseen natural disasters that threaten our human survival and portend an impending extinction, as well as dictatorships that exist under the guises of democracies.

Adorno's aporia is often misunderstood as an interdiction or call to an end of all art; on the contrary it is acknowledging the many questions we continue to confront with urgency, and a constant vigilance to the ongoing crises of the human condition. The triumph of anti-art, if any, which McEvilly celebrates, is only a chapter, which saw a paradigmatic shift in cultural production. However the unfinished project of art is a continuing struggle, a road without an end in temporary states of triumph.

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. 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. Therein lies the need for resistance, and the purpose of our work as artists: without really trying, we change the world.

Lee Wen is an artist and organiser of art events in Singapore. He has been exploring different strategies of time-based and performance art since 1989. A contributing factor in The Artists Village alternative in Singapore and the Black Market International performance art collective, Lee has helped initiate and organise events such as Future of Imagination and R.I.T.E.S. (Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak), in order to platform, support, and develop performance art practices, discourse, infrastructure, and audiences in Singapore.



1. Future of Imagination, Singapore, international performance art event, organised by Kai Lam, Jason Lim, and Lee Wen on 6 Dec 2003 at The Substation. Subsequently: FOI2, 8–12 Dec 2004, Sculpture Square; FOI3, 10–14 Apr 2016, The Substation & Singapore Art Museum; FOI4, 27–30 Sep 2007, TheatreWorks & Post-Museum; FOI5, 12–15 Nov 2008, Sculpture Square; FOI6, 7–11 Apr 2010, Sculpture Square & Singapore Art Museum,

2. R.I.T.E.S. (Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak), organised by Kai Lam and Lee Wen, The Artists Village, to create a regular platform to support the practice, research, and development of performance art,

3. Lee Wen, Performance Art Performing (FOI6 catalogue, 2010), 4–8. Will also be published in Sharon Siddique, William Lim, and Tan Dan Feng, eds., Singapore Shifting Boundaries: Social Change in the Early 21st Century (Singapore: Select Publishers, 2011).  

4. Marvin A. Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 1999), 188–89.

5. Andrea Schurian, "Seine Steine schlagen Wurzeln," Der Standard, 8 Oct 2010,

6. Yehuda E. Safran, The Sculptures of Karl Prantl, See also:

7. Arai Shinichi, "Arai’s Zanzibar, Tanzania," See also:

8. Thomas McEvilley, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism (McPherson & Co., 2005), 351–52.

9. "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today." Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Theory & History of Literature, 1995), 33–34.



LEE Wen, 李文

Wed, 1 Dec 2010

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