For more than half her life, Susie Lee intended to be a doctor, preferably a hand surgeon. Now, she is making art in a nursing home, where the care is basically beyond doctors. It's there that Lee created 12 silent video portraits of residents, each a half hour long. They make no attempt to idealize their subjects but do try to represent them, while admitting the frailty of even this basic human task. The series, called Still Lives—as in the Dutch tradition of the arrested development of fruits and flowers, or as in this person still lives—is not easy to watch. Even its way of being difficult is difficult. It straddles the lines between art and documentary, and takes no position.
The subjects were asked to sit in front of a camera and try not to move a muscle. Afterward, one subject recalled reviewing the whole sequence of her life's events while the camera was on: "I can't tell you all of it, but I can tell you I went all the way from point A to point Z in that half hour, and it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen." For their first public showing, Lee wanted the portraits to hang on the walls inside the nursing home where they were made, and wanted the subjects themselves to be the first audience. A resident whose grown daughters sit next to her in her portrait—and whose son has recently died—has requested to be wheeled down to the hallway to watch her family's portrait over and over.
"I kept asking myself again and again, 'What is this?'" Lee says about Still Lives. She'd gone into a nursing home—Washington Care Center in South Seattle, where the events coordinator signed up to bring in an artist through a public-art program—with the vague idea that she wanted to make work about aging. She began visiting regularly, to see if the environment would tell her what to do, and it did: Much of the making happened before the filming, when she listened to the residents talk, combed their hair, put lotion on their hands. She might have gone on doing that for longer, but some of them had limited time, so after three months, she started to film.
Based on those interactions, she set- designed each portrait after one of Goya's late, so-called "black paintings"—private pieces made directly on the walls of his house and not discovered until after he died. She then lightly costumed and positioned each subject (usually brightly lit in a darkened room, filmed by cameraman Ryan Adams) and asked them to hold the position for 30 minutes, which turned out to be a long time. There were no second takes, and no edits afterward. Whatever happened, happened.
You might think of Lee as an experimental researcher. She experiments in materials, and in ideas, following whatever questions arise at the intersection of those two categories until she arrives at something that contains some new sense. All her work has a corporeal, sensual quality, but is also highly exploratory. She double-majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale before going on to a master's degree in science education at Columbia, and her work as an artist has a surgical quality: You can tell she wants to help people, but there's nothing sentimental about it.
Lee's parents are immigrants, but Lee has never been to Korea. Her work has always been about what we take forward and what we leave behind as we go. And the art that she makes—and the art that she curates, as in her clay-based group show Wet and Leatherhard at Lawrimore Project this year—has always been time-based, time-aware, and preoccupied with the problem of things slipping away. Her sculptures and installations, often with sound (sometimes music—she plays piano), include a projected finger "touching" a physical surface, a vision of burning twine snaking across a piece of curved wood the length of her body, congealed light hardening into shaky shapes in bodies of water, and lines of light drawn on the moving skin of dancers' bodies.
She didn't take her first art class until she was 28 and stressed out at the prospect of applying to medical school, already knowing on some level that she didn't want to go. (Her parents, unbeknownst to her, had a lab coat made with her name embroidered on it when she was a child.) That first class was at Kirkland Arts Center, when she was living on the Eastside with her then-husband, who worked for Microsoft. "I'm a really physical person, whether it's karate or piano, and in clay, there's the smell, the feeling of it, and even a sound—this clap, slap, slap—and I just remember feeling like, man, I could do this for hours on end. And I did, and I got carpal tunnel."
She kept going anyway. She did a nine-month baccalaureate at the University of Washington's celebrated, concept-heavy ceramics department, with artists Doug Jeck, Jamie Walker, and Akio Takamori—a kind of trinity of sensibilities, from emotive to analytical to philosophical. She made some bad work, then went to grad school in the same department and made some more bad work, but never wanted to stop the experimentation. Her breakthrough happened in her second year of grad school, when she went out to a public park with a video camera while everyone else was sitting down in their homes to Thanksgiving dinner. Frustrated, she made a video of her hands digging in some sand, then decided it wasn't enough—it needed to be projected on sand, so she coated a canvas in sand. The final piece was not great. "But it made sense," she says.
After graduating, she was invited to join the gallery Lawrimore Project, and she sold work at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007; those sales got her into a show this year called Desire at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, where her work hung next to pieces by some of her heroes, including Marilyn Minter, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Richard Prince, and Bill Viola. Still Lives, her latest work, is unfinished: She's creating more portraits of new subjects this month for her Salerno, Italy, gallery.
Still Lives could easily have gone wrong. Lee gave herself every obstacle: a subject prone to kid-glove treatment, public funding, collaboration, first showing the work to the subjects themselves—the sort of obstacles that flatten out work. But Still Lives is infinitely complex. The men and women stare at the camera with heads full of memories, forgotten and kept; they fall asleep and are jarred when they wake up under the lights and eye of a camera; they begin to talk to themselves or to people not there, dreamily (with the sound off, the specific words are not included in the final projections); they move their hands as if they are performing long-lost tasks (one aged physician seems to sew sutures in midair); they weep; they tip over in their wheelchairs or sit like perfect stones; they grin; one man proudly wears horns; they let out great yawns.
It is stunning to see them writ large on flat TV screens finely framed and hanging on the wall, because people are so seldom televised doing nothing for any length of time—especially the very old, who are seldom seen at all—and it is provocative to see them in costume but playing no roles but themselves. (The costumes, with their plain artifice, make their wearers seem more real.) When you first come upon them, you think they are photographs. Some people have asked whether they are live feeds coming from the rooms. But, like endurance versions of Warhol's slowed-down, five-ish-minute Screen Tests, these Still Lives contain a tremendous amount of action once you begin to see it, and a tremendous amount of groping and asking and wishing about what portraiture and video can and can't do to clarify even a little the fact of living and dying simultaneously all the time.