Curated by Srimoyee Mitra
Suzy Lake is a pioneer of the feminist art movement. Lake made her mark as one of the first artists in Canada to combine performance, video, and photography in order to examine the politics of gender, the body, and identity. Her critique of the male gaze and constructions of femininity have had a lasting impact on the discourse and narratives of performance photography. Working as early as 1968 – 1969, Lake influenced many of her contemporaries including renowned artists such as Cindy Sherman, Martha Wilson, and Mary Beth Edelson to name a few. Lake’s hyphenated identity as an American-Canadian woman artist working in performance photography meant that for decades her contributions remained in the periphery of the art world. It is only in the last decade that her work is being fully recognized and acknowledged through exhibitions such as 2005 Venice Biennale, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (LA MOCA and tour, 2007 – 2008), Global Feminisms (2007), at the Brooklyn Museum, and her major retrospective, Introducing Suzy Lake (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2014).
Lake was born and raised in Detroit. She grew up on the eastside of the city, on Washtenaw Avenue, near Gratiot Avenue and 7 Mile Road. Her great-grandparents immigrated to the area from Germany and were tradesmen by profession. Her father, Robert Marx was a roofer and sheet metal worker, whose metal shop was located at Mack and Van Dyke Avenues, which used to be the heart of Germantown. Her mother Helen Marx was a housewife who stayed home to look after the family. Lake attended Wayne State University (1966−1968) where she took her first art classes and was politically active in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Along with fellow students, she participated in community actions and events that addressed socio-political inequities and the lack of social services accessible to black families in Detroit. In 1968, Lake was part of a large wave of Americans who moved to Canada due to their opposition to the Vietnam War. She ended up in Montréal where in 1971 she was a founding member of Véhicule Art Inc, one of the first artist-run galleries in Canada. In her newly adopted home, she started created seminal works exploring role playing and staging performances for the camera to examine representations of the body and femininity in mass media. She completed her MFA at Concordia University in 1977 and moved to Toronto, where she taught at the University of Guelph from 1988 to 2004.
The exhibition Suzy Lake brings together two major bodies of work from the last decade in which she encounters various sites of personal and ancestral significance. Performing an Archive (2013−2014) emerged from Lake’s desire to pay homage to her family history and the city of Detroit, which played a critical role in her formation as an artist and citizen. In this series, the artist (re-) visited 30 locations across Detroit where her family members lived and worked between 1880 and 1925. Lake performs in each of these photographs dressed in what appears to be a 1950s-era nurse uniform. She bears witness to the cycle of Detroit’s urban transformation as she returns to these spaces. Her photographs resist the simplistic and oversaturated representation of the city’s decline and revitalization. Rather, by inserting her body within these cityscapes, four decades after she left her hometown, she builds complex and ambivalent narratives that mark the passage of time and the evolution of place. She portrays her herself with her back to the audience, as if she is photographing the scene in front of her. While mimicking her real-life role as the researcher and photographer, in most of these images she denies the viewer access to her full frontal body. The stories that link Lake to these sites are missing. Similarly, we have fragmented and limited knowledge of the urban histories in Detroit. For example, Lake’s Great Grandmother’s house, 594 Sixth Street, Anna Hansmann-Marx, 1900, was demolished to make way for the Jefferies freeway, which cuts across the city. Similarly, stories of urban transformations were erased, forgotten and remain embedded in the soil. In Performing an Archive, Lake draws parallels between the cycles of life-death-birth of generations of family members with the cycles of urban decline and rejuvenation in Detroit. These performance photographs emanate an agency that pays tribute to the embodied knowledge and collective memories resonant within the built environment of the city.
With Extended Breathing, Lake deepens her exploration of the body and memory by shifting her focus inward to explore issues of aging and mortality. Shot in various known and unknown public locations, this work required her to stand still and simply breathe for an hour. Lake’s blurred figure in these photographs is the result of the long exposures and the impossibility of remaining still for that long. The movement of her chest with every breath, and the gentle sway of her torso were recorded as traces, blurring her figure in the photograph. Meanwhile, her feet remained firmly grounded, which is reflected by its crisp depiction in the image. By setting up a long exposure Lake pushed the parameters of the analogue photographic image to rich painterly proportions. What started as a test of endurance became a meditative and contemplative experience as she stood with her feet firmly planted on the ground, looking back at the members of the public. In each of these images, her solo figure amidst different urban and rural settings is brimming with a quiet resilience and urgency to privilege ways of knowing that are experiential, intuitive, and transformative. Altogether, Suzy Lake, the exhibition builds powerful and multi-layered narratives that map her personal, ancestral histories and memories onto past and present-day cityscapes in Detroit and beyond. Her experiments in self-portraiture and performance blur the boundaries between the body and self, public and private, and personal and political.
 Michelle Jacques, “Born in Detroit,” Introducing Suzy Lake, 2014
 Daniel Baird, “Self-Inventions: The Photography of Suzy Lake”, Border Crossings, Issue 119, 2011