PG Lee on Simple Gestures, Confronting Mortality and the Futility of Possession


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Slow Conversations
Issue: On the Anthropocene

Filed under: installations, sculpture
Lee Pheng Guan (PG Lee) (b.1974) is a visual artist with an MFA from LASALLE College of the Arts and a degree in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Practicing primarily in the media of video, sculpture, and installation; Lee frequently includes performances in his work; as he examines the ephemeral nature of human existence coupled with personal and collective memories. He has exhibited locally and internationally and had his first solo show, Weight/less, in 2015 at the Institute for Contemporary Arts Singapore. More recently, he participated in the 2018 Asia Culture Center Arts Space Network Residency at the ACC ASIAPLEX Studio in Gwangju, South Korea.
For our conversation, he picked out media art, sculptures and the bodies of work by conceptual artists. We speak to him, before the backdrop of his solo exhibition Gravitas at Supernormal, about his approach to material, art making, and the concept of an artist.

He Weeps For You by Bill Viola involves a simple gesture and a minute detail that becomes amplified and extended. Drawing from his interest in eastern religion, Viola took this idea of a "large world" and "small world", and their strong connection to each other. He then toys with the idea of bringing together these two worlds, a microcosm and a macrocosm. How do these ideas of connected worlds intrigue you?

I saw Bill Viola's work for the first time when I was in New York, when I chanced upon his retrospective in the Whitney Museum of American Art. I had no idea how to process He Weeps For You. I entered into a dark room and a sudden "crash" shocked me — it was the sound of a drop of water falling onto a device that captured and amplified the noise. The droplet was also video-projected such that within that it was the reflection of the entire space and the people in the space. It was incredible to me that everything was captured in that drop of water. There is a meditative clarity, and the droplet falls. The clarity disappears, and you wake up. It was as thought I was in a trance and then I snapped out of that with a jolt.

Seeing this work was such an experience to me. What gripped me was the idea that something so tiny and insignificant could hold so much. I was inspired by how the work embodied something so profound through something so small. It is so simple but there's so much meaning embedded within the work.

Prior to seeing He Weeps For You, I was very pictorial with my own work. I wanted to express how I saw things, and I never thought of using the objects around us as a means of expression. This work really helped spark a change in my attitude towards objects. All the objects around us embody a story and a meaning. In order to tease these stories out, we have to observe these objects closely.

There is a distinct materiality that we see in your practice. In a previous conversation, you had mentioned being attracted to materials that are common-place and accessible, in order to draw from their “everyday-ness”.  Talk to us about your approach to material.

Sometimes we chance upon things that immediately speaks to us. These things calls out our name — "Use me!" There are also other things that are built into our environment, and we overlook many of these things because we’re just so used to them.

When I’m looking for materials for my works, there are usually two ways I go about this. Sometimes I have something I’d like to say through my works, and I’ll need the right material or object for these purposes. Other times, I look around or thinking about a material for an extended period. I place myself in situations where I can interact with or think about a material differently, particularly in ways that we might not ordinarily approach it. This helps me to really get a good understanding of what I am seeing or touching.

I find myself using sand as material for a lot of my works. Sand is all around us, and it can be found almost anywhere. I began to think about sand, its qualities, and asked myself if there might be something about the material that I might have missed. When you think about, study or research a material for awhile, there will come a moment where you’ll come to a realisation about things. It is a very simple approach, but I think it really helps one connect with the formal qualities of a material.

Most of the time, the materials I use in my works are familiar. I think of myself as an average guy. My hope is that if I can find some meaning in these materials, then perhaps the visitor might be able to come to that same conclusion too. I like the idea of the commonplace and using things that are immediately available. It helps people to form relationships or associate themselves with the work easily.

² Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), Francis Alÿs

You use sand and paraffin wax in your work Sisyphus, and the materiality of it really come through in your performances with it. Sisyphus shares that formal similarity with one of the works of Francis Alÿs, an artist you've picked out for our conversation. In his Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), Alÿs pushes around a large block of slowly melting ice around the city. You mentioned that Sisyphus crumbles a little whenever you relocate it, and that it could dissolve under our tropical sun. Do you see that sense of temporality connecting Alÿs’ work with your own?

I did Sisyphus before I came across Alÿs' work, actually. Throughout his practice, Paradox of Praxis 1 really stood out to me and I think that might have been how I was introduced to his practice.

For me, Paradox and Sisyphus' similarities are mostly formal. Through the action of pushing, Alÿs sought to complete something. He wanted to make the work disappear. Mine attempts the opposite. Every time I push Sisyphus, bits of the ball comes off. Before pushing it around another time, I need to ensure it is full again by adding to it. In his work, Alÿs wanted something to end. However, I want to make my work bigger and fuller through this process of destruction. Both Alÿs and myself are trying to engineer an idea from something very simple. However, the similarity ends at these formal aspects. Conceptually the two works are totally different.

When I think of Alÿs’ works, what stands out to me is his gestures. To me, his practice is a series of well thought out ideas summarised in simple gestures. A lot of his work is politically driven as well. I saw the video work Watercolor at the Gwangju Biennale. That was a work in which he collected water from one side of a strip of land and poured it into the sea on the other side of the land. This is just another example of how he uses gestures in a simple yet meaningful manner.

His work inspired me to eliminate the embellishments in my own works, and to boil everything down to one thing that truly summarises an idea. Simple actions and objects have the potential to communicate something really powerful. I don't think I've achieved this successfully yet, but I’m constantly trying to make works with this in mind. I want to eliminate as much noise as possible.

⁴ OPALKA 1965/1–∞ Détail 1520432–1537871, Roman Opałka
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1975

You've also picked out the artist Roman Opałka, who describes himself as such: “All my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life." His works are imbued with a sense of ritual, and through them we get a glimpse of the infinite. Opałka’s work can also be said to be centred around a very bare concept that shows something much greater than itself. What do you draw from his practice?

Opałka’s influence on my work is fairly new. In the past, I was always fascinated by artists that could wow me. The first time I saw one of his works, I thought it was just another conceptual artwork. However, I had the good fortune of seeing a collection of his paintings. When you see all of these works side by side, the realisation that Opałka dedicated his life to a single idea really hit me.

I think of his infinity paintings as embodying the sum of a person's life. By thinking of numbers as seconds, minutes, days or years, one can really get a sense of time passing. Opałka’s infinity paintings eliminated everything. They defined life in its simplest terms. We humans tend to overcomplicate things, and we often fail to see that a life is just a life. In the context of the larger universe, a single life is just a small blip. It reminds me that there is no purpose in making art, and in that sense, it almost becomes anti-art.

Keeping in the vein of Opałka’s work, there is another artist whose works have inspired me in a similar way. This is Tehching Hsieh, who recently exhibited at Coda Culture. Hsieh’s practice really moved me towards thinking about how one’s life could be used to illustrate a single philosophy or ideology, and how one’s body and existence can be used as a medium for this work. I wouldn't even call Hsieh a performance artist because I think his work goes beyond that. I think performances are temporal, and they are finite in terms of duration. If your work extends throughout your entire life, it definitely goes beyond performance. In a similar way, Opałka achieves that through his gestures of painting numbers. What you get is a very condensed version of what life is all about, which is not a lot.

I'm a Buddhist. I believe that in everything we do, we should try to aim for emptiness. We should not cling on to too many things. Opałka’s work has become an interesting point of reference for my own practice. I don't have to say too many things, rather, I can just focus on saying one thing.

For this interview, i’ve picked out a selection of works and artists that have guided me throughout my practice. They have helped me consider the kind of artist I want to be, as compared to informing the exact kind of works I’d like to produce. I think that every artist needs to have a certain set of principles, or be driven by certain ideologies. These philosophies become very apparent in the works they make. When I see Opałka’s work, I see exactly what I want to do as an artist. I want to speak about what I think it means to live life, and I’d like to do that through my art. Of course, I try to suggest rather than force upon people my beliefs about living. I think that Opałka’s practice suggests that there's a way to do this.

You're returning to art after a long hiatus. How has your relationship with art shifted over the years? Has your approach towards art changed with time?

When I was an art student, it was always about having an idea and executing it. I think this is a journey that a lot of artists go through when you’re just starting out. This transformation happened a bit later for me because I didn't begin my practice immediately after graduation. I stopped developing for awhile in terms of my thoughts on art-making.

During my Masters, it took me some time — but eventually I started to picked things up from where I left them.

I shifted my focus away from creating forms to something that was a little more profound. I began looking closely objects and observing materials.

For many artists, this would have happened ages ago and at the start of their career. However, this journey took fifteen years. Within these fifteen years, however, I have experienced a lot in life. I have interacted with a lot of materials, not as an artist, but just in my day to day life. I've also had a lot of experiences like death, separation and happiness. For example, I experienced the passing of my dad. I was able to channel all these experiences back into my practice where I left off. In that sense, these fifteen years gave me a good break and allowed me to better understand things from a layman’s point of view.

Coming back, what is significant is my ability to appreciate materials a lot more, and to channel my focus into finding materials that speak to me. I am now able to use all my experiences to create art. I think in youth, sometimes you don't have enough in you to say anything of importance. Right now, I’m more likely to give less fucks. I’m just focused on what I have to say. These are just some of the things I’ve grown to care more for.
⁵ Gravitas, PG Lee
Installation View at Supernormal

Cripplewood by Berlinde de Bruyckere is a wax sculpture that resembles the trunk of a fallen elm tree, weighed down by sand sacks and other torn material. It explores themes of mortality through the figure of Saint Sebastian, the most depicted saint in the city of Venice, where the sculpture was displayed. Your work also frequently come back to the notion of death, and you have also described what you create as memento mori. What about Cripplewood's exploration of death fascinates you

Even before I read the wall text accompanying the work, I immediately felt like Cripplewood was speaking about mortality. When you see the work in person, it feels like you’re looking at a really large dead body. It feels like something really organic. It looks like a tree, but is also not quite a tree. It resembles muscles, tissues, and even faces. It reminds me of the transformation in the animation, Akira. Yet, somehow it was very calming and peaceful. The sculpture makes you want to touch it and to caress it. That was my immediate reaction to it, at least. Even though it resembled a dead body, I immediately felt the desire to touch it. I think in some way it reminded me of witnessing my dad's dead body. It had the same texture and coldness of the skin. You know that the body has no life in it anymore, yet you still want to get close to it.

When you think of dead bodies, for example if we consider roadkill, it often conjures up rather grotesque ideas. However, Cripplewood made me want to embrace that which I feared so much. It forced me to directly confront this notion of mortality. A lot of my work tries to do that as well. I want people to be able to see mortality as something approachable. We need to talk about it and to embrace it. I’m trying to mimic that experience by inviting people to confront their mortality. I don't know how to do it just as yet and I'm still playing around with that idea.

This notion is also quite present in my current show Gravitas. Nothing here is alive, yet I'm trying to give all of these objects a sense of life. I'm presenting things that are already dead, yet these dead things don't have to be scary, discarded, or forgotten. In my work, I try to preserve the memory of what these objects embody. I try to remind people that these things were once alive, and to make it such that they don't look dead. In Gravitas, I work with the notion of a tree as an ideology. It is a set of relationships.

You can only call a tree a tree when all the parts are interconnected. It has to be complete. When a tree is not complete, the ideology falls apart.

I think there is differences between wood and parts of a tree. The Tembusu tree in this show is used as a metaphor for ideologies.

You understand the tree as having to be a complete system. It cannot be individual discrete fragments; everything has to all come together in order to form the coherence of a tree. Do you see Gravitas as the reanimation, as a coherent ideology that you've build out of putting together these separate parts? Are you trying to put together the tree again?

It is an attempt to do so, but I think I've failed. I was trying to embrace its failure as part of the work. The show is a form of meditation over the idea that if something is dead, it is what it is. Clinging onto things is often very impulsive behavious. At some point, the things we cling onto will disappear. We have to let go of them. We think that we want things and that we need things, but all these things that we want to possess, we will one day have to give away because we no longer have the capacity to hang on to it. On the deathbed, all these things become irrelevant.

Through my gestures I am, in a way, pretending to be a gardener or arborist by trying to heal the tree. I'm trying to resurrect something, but it's impossible. It's an eternal struggle. I am just like everyone else. I want to cling onto and possess things, but I know I shouldn't. That summarises a lot of my work. A lot of the works appear very zen or minimal, but they are manifestations of my own internal conflicts. I try to present the works in a way that remind visitors of the internal struggles that all of us have to deal with.

At my age, I'm starting to attend the wakes of some of my peers or their parents. It is always an interesting experience. A wake is somewhere a person’s life is often consolidated. After that point, that becomes your notion of them. That memory stays with you until it is then your turn to leave.

Some say there are two deaths, once when you die and once when everyone has forgotten about you.

I wrote about that for my Masters thesis as well. I can't let go of a lot of things, but I know I need to. Making these works is also an incredibly cathartic experience for me. I understand it now, but I want to also show other people that the clinging onto things is quite futile.
⁶ Gravitas, PG Lee
Installation View at Supernormal
Gravitas is now open.
The exhibition will run at Supernormal until 8 March 2020.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.

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