Suzy Lake, Performance of Protest
November 19, 2019–January 18, 2020
[En anglais] There is an adage, coined by the éminence grise Richard Schechner, that the phenomenon widely described as performance is in fact a restored behaviour, or “twice-behaved behaviour.” Suggesting that no single act is ever devoid of predecessors, that we are in fact engaged in a continuously reiterative process, this conceptual framework helps us rethink the past, present, and future contours of our very existence. Performance is what we have been already, a series of invisible forces driving towards what one might describe as a habitus—a set of socially recognizable codes shared amongst a population.
In Performance of Protest, the seminal Canadian-American photographer, performer, and video artist Suzy Lake presents her first solo exhibition in New York City. Organized by the Arsenal Contemporary Art, in the heart of SoHo’s rotating commercial landscape of trendy boutiques, cafés, and restaurants, the exhibition selectively reframes some of the artist’s most iconic works from the 1970s. Nostalgic in its aestheticization of analogue technologies and the archive, yet highly relevant in its critical deconstruction of subjectivity, sexuality, and gender vis-à-vis lens-based media, images of the artist in her various identities continue to resonate. Captured performing variously staged forms of protest—then and now, again and again—the show acts as an ode to past rebellions, a commentary on contemporary modes of digital representation, and an inquiry about the future of dissent in a frightfully fraught socio-political climate.
Before entering the gallery, gazing through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Arsenal, Pluck #2(2001/17) catches the eye from the street. The 31.5 x 41 inches chromogenic print focuses on a pair of shiny golden tweezers extracting an “obtrusive” hair from the chin of the artist who wears glistening red lipstick. Enhanced by the proximity of the lens to the body, the open pores, blemishes, scars, and wiry hairs protruding the skin come under close scrutiny. Standing in contrast to the influencer photoshoot happening around the corner outside of the newly relocated Supreme store, the image is a reminder of the circulation of stereotypical phenotypes as capital in an airbrushed beauty economy. Also visible from the street is Imitations of Myself #2 (1973/2013), a grid of twenty-four images from the 1970s in which Lake performs a step-by-step makeup routine. The exaggerated, intentionally didactic mode of representation catalogued in this work, including the staging of the piece where the artist casually sits in a pastel coloured kitchen, foreshadows the cultural phenomena of YouTube makeup tutorials. Inserting the imperfect or in-process surface of her face in Pluck #2 and Imitations of Myself #2 against the glossy backdrop of SoHo’s postmodern development, Lake questions what constitutes gender and sexual artifice and/or authenticity in a hyper-performative environment.
In the main hall of the exhibition, the viewer is treated to large-scale reproductions of performances for the camera first created in the late 1970s. Impositions #3 and #4 (1977/2016), alongside Choreographed Puppet #11 and #4 (1976/2007), respectively show the artist’s restrained body becoming a visceral register of internal and external tension. In both instances, the presence of a labouring body under the bondage of either self-imposed ligatures or puppetlike strings manipulated from above creates a rich kinaesthetic tension in the room. In all of their dated black-and-white glory, it is impossible not to consider these works through the contemporary fetishization of the archive, specifically that of the 1970s. Lake’s stretching of negatives and enlarged analogue photographs, which at one time suggested a rough and uncut aesthetic, now enhances the materiality of the object as a desirable and commodifiable historical document. Navigating the nostalgia for past technology reappears in the backroom of the exhibition, where a projection of On Stage (1972–74) shows Lake “role playing” in various interior and exterior contexts. Originally conceived as series of images running continuously on a slide projector, the work was remastered in 2006 to be played from a digital source as a video. In its current iteration the piece attempts to mimic the acoustic aura of a slide projector by reproducing the apparatus’ iconic clicking sound every time the image changes. At one time problematizing questions of identity and troubling definitions of “one true self,” Lake’s restaging of On Stage poses an entirely new set of issues concerning the preservation and presentation of historical media and performance. It is in these theoretical and practical gaps between past and present, in the break between performing resistance then and reviewing it now, that Performance of Protest provides some of its most poignant inflection points.
In the more recent series Game Theory: Global Gamesmanship (2019), Lake continues to think through structures of power as iterative processes that are enforced repetitively. History Repeats Itself and The Game is Afoot (2019) both place the artist, now forty years older, on a broken marble chessboard with a series of sculptural rooks, bishops, knights, and kings. Unlike the other prints in the exhibition which mostly feel grounded in recognizable physical spaces like the 1970s loft studio, the kitchen counter, the street, or a red wall being demolished, the decontextualized black box and floating stage of Game Theory creates an atemporal effect. Effectively in the game itself, as both queen and multiple pawns, the artist bears witness to the damages of contemporary society. She also appears to preside over numerous versions of her past self neatly assembled across the gallery. This conscious mirroring allows the body of work to endlessly refer back to itself in a productive manner that charts the evolution of Lake’s career in its relationship to time, space, embodiment, media, and commodity. Capitalizing on its own “twice-behaved behaviour,” Performance of Protest is propelled forward by a delicately complex series of interrelated performances.