Art

Conceptual Photography Pioneer Suzy Lake Revisits Her Detroit Roots

Though born and raised in Detroit, Lake left the city in 1969, at the very beginnings of a long and experimental art career.

Suzy Lake, “Extended Breathing on the DIA Steps” (2012/2014), digital chromogenic print (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The city of Detroit has witnessed a great deal of change in a relatively short period of time, and whether consciously or not, the inhabitants of the city have changed along with it. This is never so evident as when one encounters a native Detroiter who has been away from the city for a long time; these folks can sometimes serve as a kind of time capsule, reminiscing about a version of Detroit that slips increasingly out of focus, for better and for worse.

Though born and raised in Detroit, interdisciplinary feminist artist Suzy Lake left the city in 1969, at the very beginnings of a long and experimental art career, to emigrate to neighboring Canada.

“I was an activist in Detroit in the mid-60s,” said Lake, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “It was also a time when it was clear, as an artist, I would need to leave Detroit to continue an art career. It did coincide with my husband getting his draft notice, so we left for Montreal.” There, Lake became a trailblazer in feminist performance art, making numerous works involving and reflecting on body, gender, and identity issues.

Performing an Archive, installation view

It seems fitting that as Lake returns to Metro Detroit, for an exhibition at the University of Michigan Stamps Gallery, she has literally revisited her history with the city. Performing an Archive (2014/2016) documents Lake’s meticulous efforts to research, visit, and photograph all of her Detroit-area ancestral homes, which date back to her family’s arrival in the city, just following the Civil War.

“In the ’50s, I was the only one in my family to collect old family documents as my ancestors passed away,” said Lake. “I did assemble this to begin a genealogical chart, but forwarded all of it to my father by the mid ’80s. A few years ago, I inherited his research, which contained the original addresses from old census records.” However, Lake’s work was not so straightforward, as the Detroit address system and street names had changed in 1921. During a 2014 residency in the area, Lake used resources at the Burton Hall Detroit Public Library to find the correct locations of the actual properties. The old real estate maps also indicated the small size of the homes and density of neighborhoods that in many cases have long since gone to seed.

Performing an Archive, installation view

As in much of her work, Lake appears in these images, wearing a white housedress of ambiguous midcentury vintage, and carrying a camera. The images flank a large version of the historic map Lake used to pinpoint the location of her family homes — one of which was built in 1890 by one of her ancestors and still stands, almost unchanged.

There is almost no emotional affect to the work; Lake is as faithful as a historian, even when her handwritten notes include highly subjective details. “If you stand on this roof, you can just about see where my grandfather’s house once stood,” Lake’s notes report, accompanying a picture from a vantage point atop the Gratiot Central Meat Market.

“Throughout the research to find my locations and hear histories from residents, I soon felt like I was on a road rally to really learn more about Detroit’s social history than I ever expected,” said Lake. “It was exciting, and I was really learning! How could I bring my audience along on this adventure of discovery? I felt if the artist was in the photo, it might begin to create empathy and identification. I felt that through the little text in the montages ‘from my rooftop…’ the audience may understand the proximity and discovery.”

Suzy Lake, “Extended Breathing Against the Branches” (2009/2010), digital chromogenic transparency, light box

In addition to Performing an Archive, the Stamps Gallery has selections from Lake’s Extended Breathing (2008-2010) and Extended Breathing in Public Places (2008-2009), in which Lake takes long-exposure photographs of herself attempting to stand perfectly still, but for breathing, for an hour. In one, she stands fixed on the steps of the Detroit Art Institute. Around her are the ghostly suggestions of a work crew that spent the hour repairing the marble steps; in the foreground is the red specter of a car that has stopped to pick up a passenger; and Lake herself is in imperfect focus, as it is naturally impossible to stand perfectly still for such an extended period of time. And yet, there is a kind of resonance between woman and building, both standing in the frame as if to say, things come and go around the Motor City, but that which is deeply rooted can still be found.

Lake’s location map, which required re-mapping onto Detroit’s modernized address and street systems

Suzy Lake continues at the Stamps Gallery (201 S. Division Street, Ann Arbor MI 48104) through February 25.

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