Tim Lee's Untitled
(Alexander Rodchenko, 1928), 2008
by Toby Kamps
Tim Lee describes himself as a performance artist whose audience is the camera. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia - home to conceptually oriented photographers like Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall, and Roy Arden, whom he counts as mentors and friends - Lee poses and performs for humorous, deadpan still and video images layered with historical allusions and cross-cultural references. He uses rudimentary trick-photography and video editing techniques to cast himself as hockey great Bobby Orr scoring a legendary goal for the New York Islanders, to accompany himself on all three parts of an intricate Beastie Boys tag-team rap, and enable his untrained hands to play pianist Glenn Gould's intricate "Goldberg Variations." Full of formal and conceptual inversions and art- and social-history savvy, Lee's works use equal doses of absurdity and logic to build on the artist's not-quite-mainstream Korean-Canadian identity as well as the legacies of aesthetic and athletic pioneers as diverse as rocker Neil Young, comedian Steve Martin, pitcher Ted Williams, and artist Dan Graham.
In Untitled (Alexander Rodchenko, 1928), 2008, a new work comprised of a grid of four black-and-white photographs of hands holding an antique Leica I camera aloft, Lee draws on a typically diverse set of interests - in this case the work of early twentieth-century avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and contemporary camera advertisement imagery. Rodchenko, a Russian Constructivist sculptor, photographer, and graphic designer active during the Bolshevik Revolution, used the new, portable 35mm format to enliven and estrange familiar subjects - from portraiture to street scenes - by shooting them from dramatic angles. Lee has long been fascinated by Rodchenko's creative restlessness and his acrobatic, askance views, and believes the Russian artist created a new, "unproper" perspective - a nonrational, nonlinear outlook on the world. To further the connection to Rodchenko's dynamic handheld photography, Lee asks that the images - framed in a revolutionary red - be periodically rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise on the wall. Lee also says the work was inspired by what he regards as an obvious yet ignored "sleight of hand" - that the images of cameras in their advertisements are obviously not taken with the camera being advertised. To reconcile these disparate stories, Lee rigged a Rube-Goldbergian system of tilted mirrors to allow him to use the Leica to take a picture of itself. The resulting images, culled from hundreds made with this device, are both honest self-portraits of a camera by the same camera and self-aware allusions to Rodchenko.
In the digital age, making a work in which one of the earliest 35mm cameras meditates on itself seems like a nostalgic act. The four photographs of the uplifted Leica, enlarged from small portions of negatives for a grainy, high-contrast immediacy, seem like they could be taken from an agitprop poster advertising Russian director Dziga Vertov's legendary 1929 experimental film The Man with a Movie Camera, which reveled in film's ability to evoke the energy of modern life. However, Lee downplays any sentimental readings of the work, preferring to discuss formal aspects like the inverting effects of his mirrors and the "acrobatic" quality of the images, which show all angles of the camera.
Even if Lee does not, Oskar Barnack, inventor of the Leica, would certainly see something celebratory in these four images. After all, it was Barnack's camera, ancestor to the millions of digital snapshooters in pockets around the world, that forever changed the ways we document ourselves and our worlds. That Lee uses a camera as the subject of a playful and self-reflexive study of machine, eye, and art is yet more proof of photography's indispensability as an aesthetic and intellectual tool.