Ordinarily, when an artist arranges for a series of portraits and one of the models dies, he or she might consider it a bad omen. But for Susie J. Lee, death was part of the process—and perhaps the ultimate point—to her Still Lives video series. That work comprises 13 half-hour videos made of residents at Washington Care Seattle, a Rainier Valley nursing home. All the videos are on permanent display, open to the public, but only one segment—Exposure, featuring a woman named Annie—will be screened in in her first solo museum show at the Frye, which opens this Saturday.
OF BREATH AND RAIN Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., 622-9250, fryemuseum.org. Free.11 a.m.â€“7 p.m. Thurs., 11 a.m.â€“5 p.m. Tues.â€“Wed. & Fri.â€“Sun. Ends April 15.
Lee, who came to Seattle a dozen years ago with no plans on a career in the arts, says of her senior-aged subjects, "It's not hard for them to be still" for 30 minutes. Some fell asleep during the sessions, and Lee let the camera continue to run. "These aren't actors. There was never a second take," she explains. She didn't ask them to perform or specifically do anything; rather, she sought just to chronicle the passage of time, in a discrete unit, for those who know their time is running out. There's a drama of sorts in waiting for death, Lee acknowledges. And there's a reminder of what lies ahead for us, too. "It's almost a preview," she says. "There's kind of a poignancy. One [subject] slides down"—owing to the effect of a stroke—"and you want to reach out and help."
Yet Still Lives isn't meant to be morbid, and Lee is animated as she discusses the installation being set up at the Frye. The large vertical video monitor isn't yet active, the benches aren't in place, and she's busily directing the build-out of a second larger work in the next gallery. Thinking back to the four months she spent in late 2010 at Washington Care, Lee says the best part of the project was "me getting to know the residents . . . most of them are widows and widowers." (A teenage assistant also helped break the ice.) Working with her sitters meant respecting their limited energy, with a certain amount of deference and delay. "It was on their timeline, not my timeline," says Lee—appropriate, since her art has much to do with temporality and duration.
"There's always a narrative structure," she says of the videos. "Even when you think there's nothing happening, there's something happening." That something can be described as entropy or aging or simply "that idea of decay." No matter how still her subjects (or we museum visitors), our cells are constantly and inexorably shedding those precious telomeres. The body's clock is ever-ticking, as the onetime medical student Lee is aware. Of the inevitable process of aging, she says, "It's not always pretty. No one wants to see old people."
Raised in North Dakota, educated at Yale, Lee came to the Northwest only because "my ex got a job at Microsoft." After a brief stint in med school, she began studying ceramics at the UW, where she earned her MFA. Another one of her Still Lives videos is part of Tacoma Art Museum's Northwest Biennial (through May 20), and she'll debut a piece, Contact, at the Lawrimore Project in Pioneer Square, opening March 1 during the First Thursday art walk.
Time and its progression link Lee's two pieces at the Frye, since her reconstructed Rain Shower—"version 2.0," she calls it—is a recreation of a 2007 installation at the old Lawrimore space in the ID. All the original LEDs and related electronics were gone, so the grids of some 1,200 overhead lights had to be completely rebuilt, the software reprogrammed. The old Shower is but a memory, but the new Shower contains audio snippets of the first iteration—recordings from Lawrimore in which people talk about loss—along with piano and percussion. Five years later at the Frye, Lee explains, the LEDs will cast down "little droplets of light, kind of like raindrops . . . like a rain shower is remembering someone."