Passengers: 1.5 Tim Lee
Tim Lee's artistic practice is concerned with public figures from sports, art history, and popular culture. He examines key moments in the careers of particular individuals and explores how these moments relate to a larger cultural history. In the case of Neil Young and Steve Martin, he looked at the various ways in which the musician and the comedian struggled with the public's expectations of their creativity—how Young's constant transformations have surprised, and sometimes confounded, his audience, and how Martin became trapped in his first comic persona and later transformed himself to reassert his creative freedom.
Tim Lee was born in Seoul in 1975 and lives and works in Vancouver. In 2002 he received an MFA from the University of British Colombia, Vancouver. Lee has had recent solo exhibitions at Cohan and Leslie, New York; Lisson Gallery, London; and Presentation House Gallery, Vancouver.
A Conversation Between Tim Lee and Jens Hoffmann
Jens Hoffmann (JH): When we met for the first time in 2002, you
described yourself as a performance artist working with photography. Can you elaborate?
Tim Lee (TL): I think the joke I had in mind back then was that because I was too busy being in the photos, I was physically unable to take my own picture. Still, while I'm admittedly not at all technical with a camera, I liked the idea that I could inhabit a tradition of photography through the idiom of conceptual art, which, of course, is oriented around performance. Plus, I was already performing in my videos before I started working with photography.
JH: Do you consider yourself part of Vancouver's tradition of conceptual photography? I know you admire the work of Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham, for example.
TL: I'm not sure how much my work directly relates to a Vancouver tradition. That is to say, the work that emanates from that city deals very much with the antagonisms between nature and culture, and that's a discourse I don't really engage with at all. But, having said that, I feel I may have an affinity, if not with their subjects, then with the artistic sensibilities of artists like Stan and Rodney. For instance the idea of an askance perspective, and trying to articulate a warped way of looking at things, is a line one could draw connecting Robert Smithson and Dan Graham to Ian Wallace, Ken Lum, and onward.
JH: Many of your works combine and conflate issues of race and identity, popular culture, art history, and humor.
TL: My contention is that these terms are often viewed separately when they should be viewed as coincident and complicit. No autonomy is truly free from others. Even if the connections between some moments are tenuous—such as the link between Johann Sebastian Bach and Peter Sellers—certain commonalities may still be there. Working with these various narratives—whether in slapstick film, hip-hop, or conceptual art—means finding a way, somehow, for them to come together and form a mutual history.
I think when I started to make my work, I had a set of essential interests that gradually built upon themselves and expanded in different ways. And as I got going and continued with new projects, the terms started to shift to a point where I now find myself moving on. Of course, this motivation to advance thematically does not necessarily negate the terms I started with. On the contrary, figures like Steve Martin and Neil Young have been continually interesting to me. Both have made an ongoing project of continually upending what they were doing in order to find new ways to progress in their respective fields. Yet despite these continuing changes, certain values have always remained constant. In the end, I suppose it's the vague unpredictability of their processes that I like.
JH: You studied art history, which is rather unusual for an artist. It is very apparent not only in your work but in your whole approach to making art and being an artist. What are your thoughts with respect to the concept of the artist as an intellectual?
TL: When I was at university I pretty much backed into art history, and from there I backed into making art. This may or may not be telling. Because I wasn't at first really interested in actively producing culture—like, say, being in a band—I sought to participate in different ways, which at the time meant writing. Writers like Greil Marcus and Raymond Williams initially influenced that interest, and then I discovered Dan Graham, who, of course, inaugurated his art practice through his writing and then moved on to become a performance artist.
I wouldn't personally subscribe to the "intellectual" tag. Although I am interested in theory and informed by it, perhaps my ambitions as an artist manifest themselves in ways that are more irrational. Maybe it's because I prefer to ask absurd questions than provide logical answers. Generally, once an idea starts to take clear shape, I find myself wanting to complicate it in order to move on.
JH: The photograph Untitled (Steve Martin, 1972) (2005) was your contribution to the Passengers group exhibition. How do concerns of race, humor, popular culture, and art history play out in that piece?
TL: That photograph came out of a hypothetical question I find myself always asking. In this case: When did Steve Martin become Steve Martin? The Steve Martin we see on stage and screen is probably not the Steve Martin we would encounter in his home. This means that his persona, like his art, is a construction that he had to work toward creating. I was thinking about this question and imagined a past moment when Martin might have imagined his future self—that is to say, the Steve Martin we came to know—and thought this moment might have been the tipping point. My image of him in 1972 rehearsing his act in front of a mirror with a banjo and an arrow through his head is my depiction of that moment.
Thinking about Martin's stand-up provoked certain thoughts. Because his act was so confrontational, I realized that there was a political unconscious behind the routine, in that he worked to upend normative conceptions of the Waspish male. In other words, he overexaggerated the image of the white male authority figure by dressing up in a white suit and acting wildly and irrationally, almost as if he wanted to subvert his own iconicity. All this may or may not have been intentional, but even if the subject of race was latent, I do think it was there. So, of course, when it comes to myself reinterpreting Martin's act, this makes the issue more overt, and the simple obviousness of the presentation makes a certain point about how the social construction of a persona is inextricable from a narrative of race.
There are other things happening in the picture as well, further toward how the image of me playing the banjo is presented in a way that is completely wrong. For example, although I'm right-handed, I'm holding the banjo the opposite way, and the mirror reflection that should correct this mistake is instead flipped again in the photographic transparency, so the viewer is left misreading an image of me misplaying a musical instrument. The mental acrobatics behind this triple-stage flip-within-a-flip-within-a-flip were inspired by the work of Dan Graham. Like Martin, Graham sought to make art that knocked down conventional structures.
JH: Your works are often upside down, mirrored, or in other, often even more complex, configurations.
TL: Those strategies are key. For one thing, they make my work fundamentally formal. By themselves, the acts of flipping, spinning, cutting, reflecting, doubling, and multiplying are inherently simple, but recombined in different configurations, they can become something more complex. Playing with these perceptual terms becomes a way of investigating vision and looking at how we look at things. And if the logic of my work is built upon a structure of perceptual mistrust, these misrecognitions can be reconceived as a kind of askance knowledge.
JH: The relationship of Neil Young and Steve Martin with the city of San Francisco is also part of the new works you created for this exhibition.
TL: Well, it's funny. I've never made work specific to a location before, partly because my art is so much about cultural drift. Still, when you invited me to participate in the show, I thought about your loose mandate to make work that somehow reflected upon San Francisco, and after some research I came up with the odd coincidence that both Steve Martin and Neil Young recorded live albums in the city in the late 1970s. And while each of the recordings was important in that artist's career, both works are more essential in how they contributed to the public's conception of their respective genres. That is to say, our conception of stand-up comedy is due in large part to Steve Martin's routine, which is analogous to our general knowledge of 1970s rock via Neil Young. Normally, these two fields are understood as separate, so I started thinking about what might happen if the two parallel historical moments could be conflated into a weird, tertiary history.
My work based on Neil Young is a photograph that riffs on the Steve Martin photograph we just talked about, except the inversions are not just mirror-horizontal but light-and-shadow-vertical. The work about Steve Martin is a single-channel video that loops Martin's highest point of hysteria on that live album—a crucial moment when he makes iconic his own delirium. Both works are about performativity and the formal composure behind being restless on stage. And hopefully they will succeed, in that thinking about one artist helps us understand the other.
JH: Role-playing is an important element in your photographs and videos. You take on a very particular set of characters such as Bruce Nauman, Steve Martin, Chuck D, Harry Houdini, Glenn Gould, Neil Young, Mike D, and others from different fields. How do you choose your characters, and how do you integrate them into your artworks?
TL: Each of the individuals you just mentioned has certain associations. Whether it's Glenn Gould in Toronto in 1981, Bruce Nauman in San Francisco in 1967, or the Beastie Boys in New York in 1998, each is representative of a particular time and place. This relates to what I said about Steve Martin earlier: What happens when someone becomes someone? And how different is our current idea of that person than when we first encountered him? In the world, there are many, probably thousands, of Steve Martins. Yet when we hear "Steve Martin," we only think of one individual.
But there are also many different ideas of Steve Martin, and maybe those conceptions compete against one another. The Steve Martin we encountered in the 1970s—the slapstick comedian with the arrow through his head—is different from the Steve Martin we know today, the art collector and writer for the New Yorker. The general idea is that at some specific point in Martin's artistic career, his name became proper, and thinking about how an artist goes about articulating his proper name, and how our ideas of that person can shift, tells us something about a particular historical moment while also illuminating our present distance from it. I suppose with my work, this all then might become more complicated, in that as I remake these specific moments, the projects take on a strange, added dimension of myself trying to articulate my artistic persona through others trying to articulate theirs.