Born in 1975 in Seoul, Korea / Lives in Vancouver, Canada
Jens Hoffmann (JH): The work you are preparing for the 12th Istanbul Biennial seems to bring together a number of subjects that you have examined in your work of the last decade. How did you arrive at the idea of presenting a video of yourself playing the Turkish national anthem on an electric guitar?
Tim Lee (TL): It seemed unusual enough to make sense. Unusual, of course, in that I’m neither a Turkish citizen nor a guitar player. All of which is part of the point. I got interested in the idea that both the identity of a country to which I don’t belong and the playing of an instrument with which I don’t have much experience could be understood as similarly learned processes. In effect, I would be socializing myself with content that I was foreign to. The resulting dissonances—of misconstrued identity coupled with a formal amateurism, along with a reference to a specific historical moment in mass culture (my performance is modeled after Jimi Hendrix performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock)—contributes to an overall absurdity that characterizes much of my work.
JH: The two points you mention that interest me the most are absurdity and amateurism. Do you perceive them as ways of undermining social conventions?
TL: Absurdity and amateurism are different ways of upending mastery. My interest in mastery is in how it helps assert a certain standard; how these standards contribute to a conventional understanding of an artistic genre; and how these conventions, in turn, become recognized as norms that tell a larger story. As I am often reminded, norms should always be overturned. If a norm operates within a system, and those systems contribute to an orthodoxy, it’s easy to see how those systems can be ideological. And if my work re-creates a canonical moment within that system, the irrationality of my approach is a way of upending a traditional understanding of a moment and gleaning a different type of knowledge from it.
JH: What different form of knowledge do you find? From an absurdist point of view, it could mean that these canonical moments are ultimately meaningless.
TL: When I decide to re-create a moment, it becomes a way for me to question its autonomy, which I suppose is an absurdist impulse. If my work often has a structural quality it’s because I usually employ an array of simple formal strategies (like doubling, cropping, flipping, and editing) that allow me to replicate the harder-won achievements of other artists. This, coupled with the generally straightforward and deadpan nature of my performances, is what effects a formal dissonance that renders the source unfamiliar and strange, and, because of my presence in the work, might lead toward a different way of thinking associated with race and nationality, empire and cultural drift, and so on. In this way, the distortion of a moment’s formal autonomy is a means of interrogating a social history that might not have been available before.