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No Laughing Matter 

by Carrie Scozzaro & r & & r & "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog.


Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it." -- E. B. White





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & espite E.B. White's witticism, the humor of Tim Lee's video displays needs to be dissected. Because Lee uses humor to get at greater truths -- and because he does so in such a conceptually compressed manner -- analysis seems likely to provide some insights.





To get inside the mind of Tim Lee, start with the obvious. A native of Seoul, South Korea, and resident of Vancouver, Canada, Lee's biculturalism provides a preliminary framework. In his installation, "The Jerk, Carl Reiner, 1979," Lee parodies Steve Martin's comedy about a white man who believes he's black.





One photograph from this 2004 series shows Lee upside down, with his eyes crossed in reference to the Opti-grab invention that Martin's character rides first to fame, then to failure. If the reference to his own eyes -- a staple of racial stereotyping against Asians -- is incidental, the use of an upside-down image is still essential to Lee's lexicon.





In "Party for Your Right To Fight, Public Enemy, 1988," Lee transposes imagery several ways, including a large mirror bearing the above title not only upside down but backwards. The title borrows from the rap group, whose It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back was a socio-cultural tour de force in the late '80s. Lee is shown upside-down on two video screens -- the ultimate Modernist tool -- rapping lyrics: "For the original Black Asiatic man/Cream of the earth/And was here first." The title reappears in another installation called "The Move," from the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right to Party," with its similar racial parody motif as The Jerk.





Lee references Public Enemy in other installations, such as "Fear of a Black Planet," as well as show-tune giants George and Ira Gershwin, early rock 'n' roll, and even the comic genius of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Central to all of Lee's visual arrangements is the use of video installation and still photography (not unlike fellow Vancouver artist Ken Lum, who also works with mirrors and mirror-images).





But what's Lee saying? Is he aligning himself with Public Enemy? Is he sympathizing with their socio-political struggles or their use of language to effect change? Who's holding back whom? Certainly he's making fun of the all-white Beasties, who were venerated and vilified at the same time. It's that pairing of opposites -- turning things upside down, taking them out of context and putting them back together -- that both unifies (and fragments) Lee's work.





Consider the range of delightfully esoteric influences on Lee's multi-faceted messages. For example, Lee mentions his interest in early-20th-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who regarded language as both an aid and an impediment to understanding -- a conjurer's trick that jumbles social interactions. In a similar way, Lee uses language as both a trick and a translation device in "The Move," which recontextualizes three distinct racial identities -- white, black and Asian.





Lee achieves a comparable effect in "Upside-Down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1914," in which the artist Lee poses as Houdini, aka Erik Weisz. It's an illusion of an illusion that, as a photograph, exists as yet another illusion through the process of double negatives, then simultaneously asserts its reality through the "truth" of the documentary process.





In the Houdini installation, Lee is shown reading a book by Robert Smithson, a '60s Minimalist sculptor and '70s earthworks artist. (Remember "Spiral Jetty"?) Lee deconstructs the artistic process, somewhat in the manner of conceptual filmmaker Bruce Nauman, whose "Failing To Levitate in the Studio" Lee sends up (both seriously and humorously). Where Nauman lies flat in "Failing," Lee actually seems to levitate in his video display -- yet his diptych is "split" into two nearly congruous half-images in the same way that a magician might saw someone in half. Lee turns "failure" upside down, building on the "success" of Nauman's groundbreaking conceptual work while at the same time parodying it: He appears to be actually and "successfully" levitating, if only through the truth/lie of the camera.





If Lee appears to be having fun with his audience, remember that looks are deceiving. With his humorous references to Steve Martin, the Marx Brothers and other bastions of North American pop culture, Lee revels in asserting the absurd. But his work -- with its densely layered meaning contemplating such weighty issues as language, race and culture -- is no laughing matter.





Perhaps, as Mel Brooks once said, "Humor is just another defense against the universe."





Tim Lee will speak at SFCC on Tuesday, March 13, at 11:30 am; on Tuesday, March 13, at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave., at 7 pm; and at EWU's Art Auditorium on Wednesday, March 14, at noon. Free. Call 533-3035.

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