Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tim Lee wins Sobey Award, Proves Art Writers Can Eventually Produce Things of Societal Value

So.... I've been wondering of late what the value of art writing really is. Because... you know... sometimes trying to translate art for the public can be construed as "dumbing down" on the one hand and "highfalutin' n' irrelevant" on the other.

But luckily, Tim Lee's win last night of the $50,000 Sobey Award should give art writer like myself heart. Why? Because Lee himself was once an art writer, and his win suggests that maybe, just maybe, art writers could produce something of culturally recognized value. Yes! [insert repeated fist pump here]

In honour of Lee's win (which, to recap, designates him as 2008's best Canadian artist under 40), I am at long last running the transcript of my phone conversation with him which took place on the eve of the Sobey semifinalists exhibition opening at the Royal Ontario Museum back in August. The condensed version was published in the National Post around that time. Read on after the jump for more of that good stuff.

Image of Tim Lee's My, My, Hey, Hey from Canadian Art Online

Tim Lee interview August 2008 by phone with Leah Sandals

Q What prompted you to become an artist?

A That’s an interesting question. I guess like everything else I backed into it. I did a bachelor of design and while I was doing my undergrad I guess I was more interested in writing. So consequently I was more encouraged by my English professors and Art History professers to pursue writing. So I pursued art writing and then I got backed into being an artist through that. So it wasn’t like I had any eureka moment or epiphany. One idea led to the other. And while I backed into the idea of making art, which was tangentially related to my design practice, I suddenly backed into the weird notion I could be a performance artist.

Q Why performance?

It was a way for me to enter art production. Because I was interested in this historical moment bridging the 60s and 70s where you have this first wave of performance artists like Adrian Piper and Dan Graham, who inaugurate that tradition of amateurs performing. And I thought there was enough historical distance from that moment that I could use that as a dry template to inaugurate my own art practice.

2 When did you get more into works that were remakings of other people’s work? What do you find intriguing about that process? Why people like Steve Martin and Neil Young and Houdini, and not Picasso or Seurat or Pollock?

I guess my idea of that was… I think I was always interested more in other people‘s creativity and I think maybe other artists, if I didn’t have an art practice of my own. This is where this critical engagement came from in terms of writing about other artists. If I didn’t have an artistic persona of my own I could articulate mine through that of others. And maybe other artists are doing that too. So I’m interested in Dan Graham, but he was always interested in Ray Davies as well—I was interested in that trajectory.

Simultaneous with that trajectory is that it could be disproportionate through time and unpredictable. What if it came to me remaking Steve Martin or Glen Gould or the Beastie Boys, but they were doing remaking themselves? I guess in a weird way the first work I made was really about that. I guess one of the questions I always ask is when does someone become someone, when does someone’s name become itself? There are probably a million Steve Martins in the world but when you hear it you think of Steve Martin. But even in that we have the slapstick Steve Martin from the 70s. We have the collector, the novelist, the contributor to the New Yorker, the dramatic Steve Martin acting in Mamet films. So that was kind of my interest.

And then with that it started to become my prime line or trajectory. The idea that maybe we could learn aspects about Steve Martin if we looked at Neil Young. When you think about Glenn Gould you might think about the Beastie Boys. So in the end it became a weird field theory where I encapsulated all these artistic genres and names and points in history. One name led to another and gradually I started to realize what I would do with this. As a creative joke I wanted to make a new work every year for 20th century.

3 What will you be showing at the Sobey exhibit and where did it come from for you?

Well I guess it sort of made sense for me just to show work that I made about Canadians. So it’s work about Neil Young and Glenn Gould. You know the Glenn Gould monitors feature my remaking of Gould’s own remake of the Goldberg Variations. So this is my remake of a remake of a variation of an original. This is what I mean about things being a manifestation. From Bach in Vienna to Gould in New York to Gould in Toronto to myself in Vancouver in 2007. I used that idea of a remake of a remake of a remake.

The Neil Young work is split between two different photos I’ve made about Neil Young. It’s two moments in his career, one in 1968 when they released his solo album, when Young went apart from Buffalo Springfield and charted his own solo course. And the other is about Neil Young when he recorded Rust Never Sleeps in San Francisco in 1979. They’re both photographs and this one kind of represents like myself trying to approximate Neil Young onstage playing both the acoustic and electric guitar. The other is a reversal of Hey, Hey, My My. It's My, My, Hey, Hey.

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