Born and raised a mile or so into Queens from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, educated at Harvard and Hunter College’s MFA in Manhattan—and a one time mumblecore siren to boot!—artist Seung-Min Lee has borne witness to a broad range of developments in neo-liberal hipsterdom. And with this milieu typically comes blasé attitudes about pre-millennial P.C. concerns like race and gender, which, in her performances and videos, Lee translates into desperately funny provocations. Underlying the camp of her No Master Dutchman’s (below) hammy blackface and Geisha makeup, and Sing Le No More’s (above) sadistic Beyonce bungee cables, are biting social commentaries that push past the ironic affect of self-deprecation and into the uncomfortable unknowns of dubiously tasteful self-exploitation.
How did you come to be an artist? That can be answered with any degree of detail and emotion… and do you consider yourself to have a primary medium?
Lately I've come to realise that my primary medium is performance. I started painting when I was 13, had my first solo show when I was 18 at a space on the Bowery called The Asian American Arts Center. I was a pretty serious abstract painter until I was 28. The first performance art I ever did was during my senior year of college, in protest to the sexism of the on-campus a capella groups. I climbed the stage of the most popular undergraduate lecture class called "Justice," dressed very conservatively in a white button down shirt tucked into a navy wool skirt and a giant homemade strap on dildo tied to my waist, I sang "Lola" by The Kinks and then announced the formation of a feminist a capella group at Harvard. It was terrifying and exhilarating. When I got off the stage I was hooked. Painting never felt as good after that. I struggled for a few years to make paintings with a performance-y aspect, using physical restraints on my body to generate images, but it never had the same directness. I am kind of ambivalent to pledging allegiance to any medium. I'm not a video artist. I use video to document stuff the same way anyone with a cellphone would start recording something they witnessed that is out of the ordinary. I just want that kind of immediacy in my work too. The Beyonce video "Sing Le No More" is shot on a iPhone the same way countless YouTube tribute videos are.
Do you work alone?
Usually. In the past two years I've collaborated more with other artists and would like to do more with sound artists, comedians and dancers in the future.
One of the most unfair yet essential questions you can ask an artist who adopts different looks and personas on camera is how Cindy Sherman's work may or may not influence them — so?
Sherman has great style but I like her freakier drag queen children more like Yasumasa Morimura. I always knew about and admired Cindy Sherman of course, but the "stock" white girl types her work alludes to never captivated me as much as Morimura's weird insertions of his queer, Asian, male body into iconic images from mostly white, Western highbrow and lowbrow culture like Manet's Olympia, Frida Kahlo and Marilyn Monroe. I like to be served beauty and aggression in equal parts on a plate of palpable vulnerability. That's also why I prefer video over photography, I like to see the moments before and after something triumphant and feel that entropy travel from my head to my stomach. Still images can do that to a degree but not with the speed and intensity I want.
Another knee-jerk question: are you a feminist? Or rather, what place does feminism explicitly have in your work?
Of course I am a feminist. I'm pretty sure that I am just a character in the dream of a giant who fell asleep reading Judith Butler for his Women's Studies class. I like doomed confrontations. What's more feminist than that?
You allude to No Master Dutchman as a kind of Sartrean platform for miscegenation—can you explain that term?
“Miscegenation” is an outdated term for "interracial" that people and the government used in the past when laws were written to make interracial relationships, then called "miscegenation" illegal! So I prefer to use the word "miscegenation" anachronistically because it does keep alive the idea that the acceptance of "interracial" relationships is a very recent, hard-fought victory in the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. Racial mixing was always perceived as the ultimate threat to society because it blurs the fictional boundaries between nations and people that those in control want to keep in place.
Where does the narrative for that piece come from?
The text is taken from Dutchman, a polemical play about race relations by Amiri Baraka from 1964. A young white woman hits on a young black hipster man on a subway car and things escalate to violence when he doesn't conform to her ideas about black masculinity. The characters in the play seem so contemporary their dialogue could be a transcript from a flirty Friday night on a Brooklyn L train. Of course I am neither a black man or white woman and would never be cast in any production of this play so I had to do it to myself. I met Amiri Baraka when I was 16, he asked me if I was Korean and when I replied yes he said "In 1976 I was with you, in '80 I was with you" then he gave me the raised fist of solidarity and said "Never forget the revolution my sista." So I said okay.
What are you working on into the summer?
I'm going to be traveling a lot this year to Seoul, Berlin, Venice and Paris and I'm working on a character for a performance right now who will be like a passport to these places.
You're very funny and you clearly appreciate how productive it can be to insert comedy into serious contexts. Who are some people you think are funny? What is funny? What urgently needs to be funny?
Despots are funny. I am sad that Kim Jong Un isn’t as funny as Kim Jong Il but even that is kind of funny to me, you know—funny sad. He just inherited this king spot from his father but he's only a moon-faced weirdo with no life skills. If he had been born in South Korea instead of North Korea his dad would have just set him up with a Paris Baguette franchise. Failure is funny. I think failure can also be a mode of political action. That's why we need comedians and comedy. There has to be a class of people who are appreciated for being failures instead of successes. Something has to balance the stars of the "Greed is good"/"Success by any means" attitude that governs things.
Interview by Kevin McGarry