The Electric New Paper :
Art on the flag: A publicity stunt?
IT'S no publicity stunt, he insisted. But that's not the case with some of the other statements of this artist, one of whose works has been banned from being exhibited.
By Faith Teo
25 January 2003

IT'S no publicity stunt, he insisted. But that's not the case with some of the other statements of this artist, one of whose works has been banned from being exhibited.

The more we probed, the less clear things got.

Mr Justin Lee Chee Kong (left), 39, had painted an image of the Singapore flag, but instead of a plain red half, he had put in various red images of the Chinese characters for double happiness.

But the law doesn't allow the flag to be defaced or altered.

So the Media Development Authority (MDA) informed him that he would not be able to display the painting, named Double Happiness - A Fantasy In Red, at his South Bridge Road exhibition.

In an email reply to The New Paper, an MDA spokesman said: 'The request was rejected as the National Flag is a national symbol and no words or graphics should be superimposed on it.'

Mr Lee sent out a press statement, written by his publicist Pwee Keng Hock asking that the piece be 'treated as an artistic and complimentary interpretation of a national icon'.

When The New Paper visited Mr Lee, who also works as a window display artist, he told us 'it's all my hard work. Physically and mentally, I'm exhausted'.

We asked him if he knew that altering the image of the Singapore flag was wrong before he started on his piece, he first said: 'No.'

But this contradicted the press release which stated he 'knew there are restrictions in the use of the flag but assumed there was nothing offensive in what he had painted'.

Then he admitted that he knew.

But not before making this reporter repeat the quote and question several times.

Okay, why do it then?

He said: 'I know as a citizen that we are not allowed to do it, but this is art and I am an artist'.

And anyway, 'it looks good'.

We asked him whether he was doing this with an ulterior motive. Free publicity, perhaps? Paint a picture you're not supposed to, have it rejected, cry foul.

Again, it was an insistent 'No'.

'Narrow-minded' was the term he used to describe the art scene here.

Complaining about restrictions on artists, he asked: 'Then how are we going to prove ourselves?'

Indeed, how? How is life as a Singaporean artist? We asked a few people who should know.

Said Mr Tan Siah Kwee, president of the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore: 'Everyone must know their boundaries, and artists cannot be exempt from this. Artistic freedom... should not be abused.

'The Government's decisions to impose laws and rules can't exist solely to curb an artist's creativity.'

When we told Mr Tan, 54, about Mr Lee's situation, he felt strongly that the nation's flag is to be respected, and understood why the painting was banned.

'UNACCEPTABLE'

To freelance drama director Jonathan Lim the Singapore flag is 'an important icon' and Mr Lee's work 'unacceptable'.

But Mr Lee says the work is simply a display of one's love for one's country and an expression of joy at Singapore's success. He said the Chinese words in his painting, often used at weddings, signifies the marriage between our Asian roots and Western lifestyle. The boundary between red and white echoes the Singapore skyline. A contribution to his country from a proud citizen.

But the law is the law.

And it should be, for everyone, said Mr Lee.

'What about Gu Wen Da's flag made of hair?' He was referring to the Chinese artist's installation, exhibited recently at The Esplanade.

Mr Lee felt the use of hair to create the nation's flag was distasteful, and noted that a flag created in the wrong colours was also, well, wrong.

He was upset at what he termed MDA's 'double standards'.

MDA's reaction to these comments was not available at press time.

PENALTY

Under the Vandalism Act of Singapore, anyone who alters the image of the national flag with any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or in any other way can be fined up to $2,000, jailed for up to three years, and given up to eight strokes of the cane.


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