Sculptor Li Chen and new media artist Susie J. Lee bring their distinctive meditations and explorations of the human relationship with time to the Frye Art Museum. Li Chen’s pieces, rendered in clay, wood, wax and wire, moves from the general to the somewhat specific — we see human events through a spiritual lens. Susie Lee utilizes contemporary media technologies to deliver a time-based experience, and moves in the opposite direction — the meditation on individual experience illuminates the human condition. Because of the nature of their media, Chen’s pieces seem to expand time and Lee’s work to encapsulate it.
Mostly self-taught, Li Chen, who works in Taiwan and Shanghai, began his career crafting Pure Land Buddhist statues. Realizing that he wanted to explore ideas with his craft and make his own statements, he moved away from traditional depictions, experimenting with contemporary attitudes and questions. He quickly made a name for himself in the international art world, creating highly polished, monumental statues of rotund sweet-faced figure gods that seem to float and hint at ultimate truth.
In “Eternity and Commoner” Li Chen breaks his own mold by further exploring his medium and artistic expression. His figurative sculptures define the passage of time in terms of material decay and human aspirations in light of the Buddhist interpretation of eternity. Created as studies that would later be transformed into large-scale sculptures, Sky Breaking Gale, Earth Piercing Fire, Visual Perception, and Audio Perception are expressive figures in mid action. Wood, rope and wax form the skeleton for the textured clay covering for Sky Breaking Gale and Earth Piercing Fire — figures reminiscent of guardian gods. The raw clay covering is allowed to dry and crack to reveal sinewy rope “tissue” wrapped on wooden skeletons as time gradually disfigures and transforms the bodily form. Some clay figures are kept “alive” for a time by Li as he applies water to their surfaces.
The wooden skeleton theme is repeated throughout Eternity and Commoner, as the symbol of our earthly mortality. We come into this material world, make our way in it, ignoring our mortality until we depart. What constitutes immortality? In the installation, “Eternity,” Li portrays a parading entourage with the most powerful individual — a small god — represented as a monumental 12-foot tall figure cradling material riches in his arms, surrounded by protectors and admirers. Constructed with what looks like scavenged wood pieces, the spectacle takes on a triumphant, but ultimately empty appearance. When walking around the spectacle the abstract constructs suggest the forms of men on horseback and farm animals running underfoot, either bowing to or ignoring the celebrated figure. The followers are constructed with a seemingly ragtag organic skeleton of wood. The central figure, on the other hand, is an orderly structure, like that of a tall building. But even strength and power are temporal.
Li Chen’s loving devotion to his pieces is evident in the details of his work — the inscribed textures and faces in clay the tight wrap of rope around wooden skeletons. Evident in “Commoner,” the skeleton corpse that serves as a counterpoint to “Eternity” in the adjacent room is the intricate construction of wood pieces wired together that are the bones of the skeleton. It lends to Commoner a kind of compassion.
Local media artist Susie J. Lee’s “Of Breath and Rain” bridges two works that explore the hidden crevices of human experience. Using digital technology she creates time-based works that allow the observer to experience and note the peculiarities of human existence — those spaces that connect us and separate us. Her works most often involve collaborations, which acknowledge this abiding interest.
“Breath” is a time portrait that is one in the series, “Still Lives: Exposure, 2010,” which Lee created for the Washington Care Center, an alternative long-term care facility in Southeast Seattle. For the series, Lee visited (and continues to do so) residents once a week over a period of three months to listen, converse and to generally become a part of their lives and have theirs be a part of hers. The outcome is a series of 30-minute video portraits played on matted LED monitors which are encased in frames lending a formality to the portraits. Based upon Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings,” which he painted on the walls of his home during his 70s as he was feeling growing estrangement from society, Still Lives evokes similar feelings of separation.
In Lee’s portrait, “Annie,” a black background and unusual perspective (recalling Goya’s “Half-Submerged Dog”) lends a mysterious depth that focuses attention on the still subject, who we come to realize is a woman sleeping, the rhythmic rising and falling of her chest barely noticeable until it becomes something to watch for, to pay attention to, pacing time for thirty minutes. The subjective passage of time as either slow or fast comes into play. Contemplation of our own aged future filled with waiting time and our distance to it float in and out of consciousness. Thirty minutes may seem a long time to watch someone breathing or waiting, but as a time-based, life-sized portrait, a certain presence is felt when we are in its vicinity, even when not looking at it. It is an experience eerily apart from watching a short video or looking at a painting or photograph.
In “Rain Shower” one is immersed in a “visual and aural choreography” of memory. In a slightly darkened space, spots of light dance along the floor to the sound of individual voices, a Bach piano interlude and bamboo drumming interspersed with moments of quiet, randomly appearing and disappearing. The empty periods fill with expectation of the next occurrence, as we recall what happened before.
The rain of light serves as an apt metaphor for how we encounter memories — how they come unbidden, and engulf us or come in fragments and disappear. Light represents the fleeting translucence of memory. Rain Shower attempts to focus our attention on how memory works with the imagination to remove us from present time.
“Out of context and out of step with the ticking clock, our memories powerfully conjure up physical sensations and emotional landscapes, dislodging the present to reveal time’s mutability, in which time seems to speed up, pause or stop altogether. Then, back in step with the present, we examine the space that a memory has filled and wonder what else was there, what might have gone missing, what might not return.”
In collaboration with the Frye, Lee created an art book to complement and commemorate the show — a 600-page flip book of Rain Shower that also contains background information, essays by writers Kolya Rice and Rebecca Brown, and an encased flash drive — memory — that holds digital recordings of both installations and interviews with Lee and curator, Robin Held.
Another of Lee’s works entitled “Unplug, Try Again” (March 1-31) is on view at Lawrimore Project. In her inimitable style Lee plays with the unanticipated outcomes of the intersection of human relationships and technology and of technology and ecology.