Interview: The Difficulty in Distilling Suzy Lake

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Suzy Lake occupies a unique position in contemporary art history, having both helmed and contributed to the advent and advancement of at least three important media and conceptual markers: identity politics, photography, and performance. However in its production of the first comprehensive survey of Lake’s work to date, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) interestingly oriented its frame around a different set of three: Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto, the sites of Lake’s politics, life, and work.

Despite her important initiations in the 1970s and ‘80s, Lake has only recently been subject to international recognition and canonical placement. Her acknowledgement has arrived, in part, with a wave of feminist-art-related exhibitions that sprung up in the mid-to-late aughts (the 2005 Venice Biennale; the 2006 Zurich exhibition of feminist art, It’s Time for Action; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: 45 Years of Art and Feminism, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Bilbao; WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the MOCA LA; and Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibition that opened in tandem with the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art).

Lake has long asserted that femininity is a construct, producing personae for her lens that variously mimics and upbraids the “Seventeen Magazine  media” while issuing an urgent commentary on both the male gaze and feminine self-perception, and women’s tendency to perform their gender. Her earliest work in this regard occurred before her audience was prepared to discern the self-reflexivity and performed difference that was crucial to its critical function. Indeed, Lake’s use of performance, masking, and role-playing was a tool, less a subject (Robert Longo terms A Genuine Simulation of ..., 1974, “a conceptual work with a heavy dose of content”). These representations formed a vehicle for the articulation of a façade, an un-reality. Our cultural intelligence regarding the difference between performed identity and self-representation would catch up later.

I toured through the AGO’s survey with Lake following the night of its opening, where she had resurrected her performative alter-ego Suzy Spice and discussed the experience of producing her pivotal series Are You Talking to Me? (1979) to a rotating audience of largely young observers. It had been an appropriately energized unveiling (Majical Cloudz performed downstairs while Amelia Ehrhardt performed Lake’s photographs under the direction of a puppeteer) for an artist whose stamina and prolificness is not abating. Nevertheless, Lake talked to me about her shift in focus from the more urgent politics of her early career to the subject of aging. There were sparkles in her hair.

Where did this survey come out of? Whose initiative was it, and how long has it been in the works?

It’s been about four or five years. Initially the three women curators – including Michelle Jacques [former AGO curator of Canadian art, now chief curator at the Art Gallery of Victoria], Georgiana Uhlyarik, and Sophie Hackett – proposed it. The real problem was scheduling. I was very fortunate that they were determined that it not be a small show downstairs, that they wanted it to be a very, very serious show. So I was extremely honored and really pleased that they were taking the work so seriously.

Why now? Is there significance to the timing of Introducing Suzy Lake?

I think what’s interesting is that the big feminism shows happened around 2007/08, and someone like Georgiana [Uhlyarik], who’s an avid feminist, could see that although there was a bit of follow-through interest in feminist works from the ‘60s or ‘70s following those shows, then there was a lag, and you’d only be seeing males in the institutions again.

[When we were forming this exhibition] Georgiana would frequently use the phrase, “we are the daughters of Suzy Lake.” It was very important to her to have someone like Tavi Gevinson (b. 1996) writing in the catalogue. And I think that all of the women of my generation are interested to know how younger women are taking feminist issues that are happening in our world today.

Can you tell me about the curatorial premise [“Detroit, Montreal, Toronto”], and why there was a focus placed on your geographies?

Right from the very beginning, their curatorial premise was to deal with Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto as influences on me both politically and aesthetically, and my influence on those cities. (In Montreal, for instance, I was politically active, and the founding member of the artist-run center Véhicule.) So it was important for the curators to have an entry-point, like conservative Detroit in the 1950s.

Much of my work since the 1990s has dealt with being an older woman. The body work I did in Montreal, I was a sweet little thing [laughs]; when I came to Toronto a number of things happened in the first couple years. I had a daughter; I returned to political activism but of a different sort; I was still using my body in my work, but less so. I had to reckon with pictorializing things differently, that I wasn’t a young woman.

There’s a quote of yours that I was drawn to: that in the 1990s you made a conscious choice to shift away from the body-as-politic to make room for a different association, a different site. I’d be curious to know how organic or conscious that break or evolution was for you.

I didn’t really see it as a break. I felt that, just as there was a misrepresentation of women in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the persistence of media positioning women as sweet little Jackie Kennedies, Seventeen Magazine, that imposition. That to me was political. So I started seeing that things might be easier if I tried to blend in. Because I’m thin, when I did the Suzy Spice work, for instance, people would come up and say, “you look so young” – and I’d say, “no, no, no, I did the Suzy Spice work for the irony of it.” I was 53 years old.

In other words, I was a professional woman being asked to pass. And I probably could have. But that bothered me, because I felt that all of the experience I’ve had in life has made me richer. And it made me angry that maturity and experience were valued in men, in the professional field, but less so in women – unless they were “trying to pass.”

Using my body in the work from the 1990s onward is very politicized, but most of it is a lot more quiet and politically more poetic. I think there’s always the poetic element in my work before. But as a mature woman I could trust that coming out in the work more. That it’s also a celebration of a different beauty. That it could be a discrete presentation. I realize that I used to be a different woman – but a lot of the time addressing the same issues.

As I researched for this interview, I noticed how clear your website is in demarcating your bodies of work as parts of a larger ethos – this clarity is somewhat rare in artists’ presentations of their own work.  It occurs to me that you might have a very firm grasp on your work and its canonical import, a self-reflexivity about how your accomplishments are positioned in their wider contexts. Have you always had that perspective, or is it resulting from this moment where you’re being treated to this important retrospective?

I did have a different website that was woefully inadequate. It covered my work from the beginning to the present, and then things got so busy in 2006 that I didn’t update it [until recently]. But a number of things in my career put me in a position of being aware of an overview, such as the early 1970s work that’s been referred to a lot. People who haven’t seen it, know it. (And then they’re surprised by the materiality of it when they see it in person).

There’s the horrible part of “mid-career artist,” where as I proceeded to continue to make things, I felt like I still had to answer to the work of the 1970s. Yet I wasn’t going to mimic the work of the ‘70s. I wasn’t going to go back. That’s not why I make work. But that [previous work] gave me the confidence that there really was a logic and development of the work, that it had a real continuity.

You’re one of the trailblazers –

I’m not used to words like that! [laughs]

 with regard to performance, identity politics, and photography. Each one of these has undergone legitimizing trajectories over the past thirty or forty years, in part because of your work. How has it felt to witness your media, perspective, and politics gain credibility to the point that they’ve been utterly absorbed?

Well, we didn’t, back then, have models for what art looked like, so we had nothing to lose in terms of the choices of materials we were using. I was surrounded by the most generous community of modernists, in terms of [their] perceptual strategies. The thing is, they were often the subject, and we were meant to take them as the tools. We were really trying to figure out how we could visualize it, which made it look wrong, and we were using materials that weren’t traditional because in the subject matter we were dealing with, the traditional media intended to make them look illustrative as opposed to urgent.

So I think, in terms of younger generations dealing with identity politics, we’re in a different century – of course they have to carve out that territory. And if my early work can serve as a springboard … I don’t think we’re necessarily going back, as young people stop and consider these same issues.

There was an interview on Q several years ago between Jian Ghomeshi and Gloria Steinem

Oh isn’t that interesting all by itself! [laughs]

Ghomeshi asked her about the latest iterations of feminism, and how, in popular culture, they’re playing out a certain kind of forgetting – women denying any association with the term, for instance; pop icons reverting back to confectionary self-representations, etcetera. Steinem said that if she’d done her job well, they wouldn’t know to cite her. “They won’t know my name, ideally.” How would you reflect on that as both an artist and a feminist? As someone who’s helped established vital perspectives and applications that are, now, in many ways, assumed, even taken for granted?

It’s become part of our vocabulary. And actually during the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition I did get to meet Gloria Steinem and we joked around. She was a little middle-class Chicago kid, and I was a blue-collar kid from Detroit, and we talked about the decades. [Before the WACK! show], a lot of feminist work was dismissed, because many people or critics presumed that they knew what feminist work looked like. So whether they made conjecture from reproductions, or just thought of Lynda Benglis or Judy Chicago, or whatever. As the show toured each American city, and Vancouver, men – professional men in the arts community – would say to me, “I cannot believe how much the work in this show contributed to the development of new choices in media, materiality, the sense of scale; the quality of the work; the thoroughness of its thinking.” So many of them sounded like they were apologizing for overlooking the work. In other words, we were doing our job, we just weren’t in a position where people were citing it.

So how does that feel?

I think as an artist in the studio, you do what you have to do in the ways that you have to do it. And if you have to invent something new, you have to invent something new. And often it’s meant with culture shock, and an audience picks up on it a couple of years later. I’ve always prioritized the studio over career, in that sense. And as someone who had to teach full-time, and I had a family, even though I never stopped making artwork, I didn’t have time to do the “career stuff.” But as far as that goes, I was aware that my work [would] fit into a lot of the periods where curators were putting other artists. My work would have been appropriate; I would know that my work would have fit. I knew that I was being overlooked, and I wasn’t sure what I could do about that.

You changed galleries not too long ago. Did that have an effect?

I was very fortunate to have a gallery on Queen Street [Paul Petro Contemporary Art] that kept my work visible to a younger community, and he did a very good job of that. But I think in terms of a different perspective, I changed galleries because I really did feel that I needed a woman to represent me [Georgia Scherman Projects].

And you’ve been in the care of women for the mobilization of this show.

Oh definitely, definitely. My curators are so wonderful. They protected me from a lot. They kept a positive tone, and hid their frustrations from me, and were committed to doing this show in the right way.

The other thing, too, is that when the AGO was being renovated in [2000-2008], Matthew [Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO] took a group of us artists through the fourth floor before it was finished. We climbed a ladder. And he talked about not just having the building change, and becoming more contemporary and more competitive, but about a mandate change to support more Canadian artists equal to belonging on an international stage, and presenting the work on that level. I really felt that even though the economy crashed, and Matthew must have had to make all kinds of decisions he didn’t want to, that I was one of the first artists that was the recipient of that mandate.

There have been very few living (or recently deceased, as with Betty Goodwin) Canadian women artists presented with this large a stage at the AGO, certainly. I can think of Joyce Wieland, for instance, but no one else in the last decade or two. There’s been far too few, though these women are profound company to keep.

Yes. And the women who work in the trenches here, in layout and design, marketing, etcetera – not in the position to choose whose work is shown – they’ve said to me, [whispers] “you know, it’s about time. It’s so good to sit down and work with a woman.” Because we navigate problem-solving differently. But, regardless, these people work very well with whomever they have to work with – but they were really, really proud to be working on an exhibition of a woman artist, I think. Whoever it was.

You pulled Suzy Spice out for the opening of this exhibition, to the thrill of your audience. But it had been a long time since you last had, over a decade, if I’m not mistaken. What was your reason for your departure from performance?

The performance element of my work has always come out of an expressive base, where I want my audience to understand what it feels like – either psychologically or physically.

I stopped performing because performance was getting predictable. And I really wanted the challenge of having my photographs feel like they’re performing as though I was performing live. I would have to use formal strategies, perceptual strategies, things I knew about color. In terms of form and content, the work is layered in their decisions all being in the direction of having my audience really understand what the work is about, not just what they look like. Something like duration.

Speaking of duration, it’s a key element in your body of work, particularly your attempt to capture it in photography. How do you respond to the new technologies and the ease with which photographic manipulation is now possible? Are you happy to see these advancements, or is there something lost? 

Something gets lost, but something gets gained. In the long run, I’m curious about the new generation assuming that these face transformations were done in Photoshop, when it predates Photoshop, for instance. It becomes light that that was done. But, certainly, in terms of my interest in movement and time and performance and duration – throughout all my work … I knew how the shutter speed would effect and represent movement and time. But what I didn’t know was what digital was going to do. So, in these works [Reduced Performing series, 2008-09], I bypassed the digital camera and went straight to a flat-bed scanner. It’s a sensor recording the information. And I’m doing simple things like blinking, breathing, and crying to see how the sensor is going to record movement differently. It’s a completely different thing.

When I was teaching, digital [photography] was coming in, and I could see my students being quite careless about lighting and things, thinking “oh, I can fix it in Photoshop.” I would say, “oh yeah! But, if you stop and think for five more minutes, then you have a perfect image, and think of all the wonderful things you can do in Photoshop without having to correct it first!” So I think that the next generation is probably going to catch up and think of the advantages and disadvantages, and, again, offer us different things.

I feel a sense of extreme disassociation when I see myself in photographs and film. Because self-portraiture is such a through-line in your work, looking back at yourself reflected through these frames, is it you you’re looking at?

No. I’m not acting; I think it’s really important that it’s the artist reflected there. I think it gives it a credibility – “I’m interested in this, I’m thinking about this, I’m troubled by this.” But whatever has provoked the work that I’ve picked out of the world, I’ve tried to distill it, and de-particularize it, so that you can recognize the anxiety, the thrill, the challenge on your own terms.

People want to know the biographical element, but it’s not important. I did the work by things happening in the world, and how the concept comes to presentation, day-to-day, and its distillation, so that you know what the resistance is that you’re having. I think once you know what that resistance is, you’re empowered, because you can do something about it. You can think of alternatives, and move forward.

 

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