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For seminal feminist artist and Detroit-native Suzy Lake, a solo show of her recent work at the University of Michigan Stamps Gallery represents a homecoming of sorts. Lake was born and raised in Detroit and studied at Wayne State University before emigrating to Montreal in the late 1960s as a self-proclaimed “draft-dodger.” In subsequent years, the work she began in Detroit unfolded into an influential career as one of the pioneering female artists in Canada to incorporate performance, video, and photography to explore the politics of gender, the body, and identity into her political and personal art.

It is fitting, then, that one of the bodies of Lake’s work on display at the Stamps Gallery—newly under the direction of curator and writer Srimoyee Mitra, who also came to Michigan from Canada (and prior to that, Mumbai)—deals directly with her Detroit roots, and features the artist literally tracing her family’s history in the city. Performing an Archive (2014/2016) is, as it sounds, a series of photographs and research that documents all the residences held by members of Lake’s family, going back generations in Detroit to the late 1890s, and the artist’s efforts to find and reconnect with them in their present-day state. 

“I wanted to do something to celebrate Detroit getting on its feet,” said Lake, in a brief interview with CultureSource before the show’s opening that betrayed a trace of a Canadian accent. “Being outside Detroit, people were doing a lot of documentary work, but everyone was doing the ruin porn. And that’s not what Detroit was for me, even when I was growing up, even though the 1960s were probably Detroit’s lowest time. And so I chose to use my ancestors, who came here right after the Civil War, and traced their houses and where they lived.”

SL4"Extended Breathing Against the Branches" (2009/2010), digital chromogenic transparency, light box.

Lake’s research required digging up historical maps of the city since some of the addresses she found in her family records featured street names that had long since been changed. Working from turn-of-the-century maps, Lake was able to transcribe these addresses to present-day locations and document them in a series of photographs, many of which the artist appears in, carrying a camera and wearing a cotton housedress with an ambiguously vintage air. The wide shots were set up by Lake and shot with a “borrowed finger” as the artist explored the frame and took closer first-person images of her own. Sometimes, she is looking at a vacant lot, a piece of fence, or an alleyway. In one, she uses a vantage point from the roof of Gratiot Central in the Eastern Market to pinpoint the place where a relative’s house once stood. In a few, she is talking to neighbors, many of whom were interested in what, exactly, she was up to. 

“Every time I would get to a property where my family lived, everybody [the neighbors] would come out, nervous that I was doing surveillance or something,” said Lake, “because I was very quick to get out, set up the shot, take the shot, and leave. But when they found out that I had a relative who lived there in the 1800s or early 1900s, they told me all these stories!”

SL2Lake's Detroit map, images, and annotations.

Lake’s images surround a map she assembled, peppered with Post-it Notes designating the locations she researched and archived for the project. 

SL3"Extended Breathing on the DIA Steps" (2012/2014), digital chromogenic print.There are also a couple of local locations in the second body of work on display, selections from Extended Breathing (2008-2010) and Extended Breathing in Public Places (2008-2009). In this series, the artist is working with the familiar material of her own body, which is the subject of extraordinary time-lapse photographs that feature Lake attempting to stand as perfectly still as possible for an hour in various places, public and private. Obviously, complete stillness is not possible, but often Lake’s feet remain static and thus perfectly focused, while the rest of her body and especially her torso blur slightly over the course of the hour due to her natural sway and the movement of her breathing. The artist characterizes these works as an examination of the aging process, a sense of testing the limits of a body that has carried her through a fascinating life and career, and an exercise in vulnerability—particularly in the act of standing still for such a prolonged period of time in places like the woods, or even on the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Any animate background elements, like cars or passersby, are reduced to ghostly whispers around Lake’s standing figure—although in the background of a shot taken adjacent to the site for the World Trade Center Memorial, a group of tourists with suitcases must have stood watching the construction for quite some time in order to appear so clearly behind Lake on the sidewalk. 

All of this makes for an interesting look at newer works by a storied and mature artist, and proves the notion that Detroit is a place that stays with you, even when it’s been a long time since you called it home. Whether performing an archive, or standing still, Lake’s work adds to the canon of stories that give Detroit its dynamism. 

All images courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.

Suzy Lake is on view at the Stamps Gallery through February 25th. 

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