Stories: Michael Lee

Stories: Michael Lee

Michael Lee, Skeletal Retreat No. 1 (on pillar). Aluminium and plastic, 125 x 230 x 235 cm, 2013; 
Home of Ivy Hodge, 1968-86; Home of Teoalida, 2007-/1979-; Home of One-Legged Woman, 2012, 
from the series “Dwelling” (on wall). Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 cm; 60 x 60 cm; 60 x 50 cm, 2013. 
Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin. Photo by Ute Klein.

 

 

When Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997) was first released, I had just turned five. It’s unfortunate that I had no recollection at all of the film, and now I cannot feign my oblivion as Michael is telling me it was the film that rooted him to his Masters thesis at the time. His browser flicks to life and I see a childhood snapshot – a still of a dapper young boy graduating from kindergarten, and I think of myself taking that same picture as Michael feverishly burns the midnight oil analysing 12 Storeys. It’s funny how we’re both meeting now, and time seems to be the jester between us waving his court staff, seemingly parodying albeit affixing something we both recognize, that time’s passage is heavily laden, never lilting. He says that picture helped him get through many nights of near surrender during his studies. I suppose then, while time is a sardonic joker, that sentimentality takes a long time to erode.

 

Michael’s thesis was based on inter-generational communication, provoked by his delving into family secrets. “My lecturer told me not to pick something so controversial,” he adds wryly. I can see a hint of the dapper kindergartener smile playing, but only for a split second before he comes back to the present moment, where we are seated in his thoughtfully designed home, signs of life peeking at me in their seams of artful containment; the plants bobbing the surface of the trench pond angled to the wall, the plump fish underneath, the assured books on the shelf. It dawns on me how apt 12 Storeys was for Michael’s thought processes, not just as an artist, but for someone who stirred at the signs of realizing that cloister had its secret functions, refinement and growth, something like how a snail would be throbbing inside its shell, privy to any external conditions. Just as they are held together by resolute shells and soft bodies, with all their miscellany and confinement, this is how secrets form. He had had a dream, when he was studying, of his grandmother and a relative of hers long after they had died. He was not particularly close to any of them, so this dream prodded him to find out why they even crossed his minds. As their history unfurled and trailed, he thought about the mishap of keeping secrets, leaving rheumy traces.

Portrait of Michael Lee, Chinese Kindergarten on Outram Road, c.1978. Photographer unknown.

Portrait of Michael Lee, Chinese Kindergarten on Outram Road, c.1978. Photographer unknown.

I don’t want to reveal what he found out about his grandmother, in appreciation that he had let me in on this nestled portion of his life, where I was carefree and he was most likely bogged down with academia priorities. But this contraction from the line he had furtively cast fished him something that would angle his work permanently – the laying down of architectural emotion. In the sterility of a building exterior, he baited on what very few allowed themselves to let on – that a building speaks volumes about a society.

 

Michael Lee, National Theatre (1960-86) (TOP LEFT MODEL), from the series “National Columbarium of Singapore”, 2009.  Paper board, Various dimensions on 1:100 scale. National Museum, Singapore.  Photo by Tan Hai Han.

Michael Lee, National Theatre (1960-86) (TOP LEFT MODEL), from the series “National Columbarium of Singapore”, 2009. 
Paper board, Various dimensions on 1:100 scale. National Museum, Singapore. 
Photo by Tan Hai Han.

Who was running the system? What were they seeing and reading? Solid structures held highly malleable microcosms within, just as secrets did. Michael pried those out without an overstatement. I think it is significant that he noticed construction sites in his childhood. He would be on a bus ride home and these sites would be fleeting past his eyes. Very early on, he was a temporal spectator to things being deliberately made. He might have had more room for possibility then. He recalls giving a tour to students at the National Museum of Singapore in the late 2000s, where National Columbarium of Singapore (2009) was exhibited. “We had a quiz for them, we asked them to guess which of the hundred structures were real and which weren’t, and a lot of them felt that the National Theatre was too sci-fi.” We discuss how youth nowadays are a lot more pragmatic. Hopefully they would still look out buses and see construction sites zooming by and question how a city is built. “I don’t watch much television,” I inform him. “You’re such a snob,” he replies, good-naturedly. I laugh and hope that if I were on that tour, I’d give less rational answers.

Michael Lee, Diagonals (installation view with the artist), 2014.  Emulsion on wall, polyurethane on PVC and enamel on galvanised iron, 294 x 650 cm.  Yavuz Fine Art, Singapore. Photo by Ken Cheong.

Michael Lee, Diagonals (installation view with the artist), 2014. 
Emulsion on wall, polyurethane on PVC and enamel on galvanised iron, 294 x 650 cm. 
Yavuz Fine Art, Singapore. Photo by Ken Cheong.

This is Michael’s twenty-first home. I’m wondering if it ought to be celebrated, like an obligatory birthday, but I don’t mention that because when I entered he showed me Machine for (Living) Dying In (2014) and I begin to understand that mellow excitement and subsequent exasperation that comes with each fence posted year, the strand of yearning tugging one towards places you are unfamiliar with. Yellow and black stripes hustle the exhibition space, warning you to back off not for your safety, more for resigned acknowledgement that you will never quite understand everyday peril as well as what goes on between formation and evacuation, all of these which later bury themselves in. The work is stark, both the colours and the cushy discomfort, dentures regarding our views of danger, toil and need. We think we know better, until we realize that we don’t and can’t. He was nomadic. He found places to settle wherever he knew how, on terms that seeped inside his mind like forgotten history tunnelling into his dreams.

Michael Lee, A Loser’s Respite (detail), from the series “The Consolations of Museology”, 2008.  Digital print on paper, 13 x 51 x 72 cm. Photo by Tan Hai Han.

Michael Lee, A Loser’s Respite (detail), from the series “The Consolations of Museology”, 2008. 
Digital print on paper, 13 x 51 x 72 cm. Photo by Tan Hai Han.

He was one of the more reclusive artists I spoke to, but I was grateful that he let on more than his words. I was doing a profile of him, and his literal profile was what he gave me during our talk. He faced his shelf, he diagonally called out to his partner, he looked downwards pensively…I think there was hardly a time when we faced each other directly. In fact I preferred that, it was non-confrontational, I was aware of the distance between us which wasn’t so much a rift, but more of a protractor like approach to communication, premeditated but inherently gradual. When I left, I liked that feeling that I wasn’t hosted, but housed.

 

All Images Courtesy of the Artist unless otherwise stated.

 

Michael Lee is an artist, curator and publisher based in Berlin and Singapore. He researches urban memory and fiction, especially the contexts and implications of loss. He transforms his observations into objects, diagrams, situations, curations or texts. He has staged solo exhibitions at Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin), Hanart TZ Gallery (Hong Kong), Baba House (Singapore) and Alliance Francaise de Singapour (Singapore). He has participated in various biennales and other international platforms: Shenzhen Sculpture (2014); Kuandu (Taipei, 2012); Asia Triennial (Manchester, 2011); Chongqing (2011); Singapore (2011); Shanghai (2010); Guangzhou Triennial (2011, 2008); city_NET Asia (Seoul, 2007); Asian Traffic (Singapore, 2005), and World Expo (Aichi, 2005).

 

Euginia Tan is VADA’s 2015-2016 Curator. She has published three collections of poetry and is completing her first play. She is interested in the notion of stories (within stories, within stories) and how much of these are lost, or can be resuscitated, when converted into various other multi-disciplinary platforms. Euginia also graduated from Curating Lab 2014.