Suzy Lake in Conversation with Bill Clarke: Performing an Archive

October 13, 2015 | Brent

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On Monday October 26th ground-breaking artist, performer and photographer Suzy Lake will discuss her five-decade long career as well as her new book "Performing an Archive" with Canadian art writer and critic Bill Clarke. The program begins at 7 PM and takes place at the Hinton Learning Theatre on the third floor of Toronto Reference Library.

               Artist Files

In 2014, the Art Gallery of Ontario mounted a major retrospective of her work, Introducing Suzy Lake which occupied the fourth floor of the galley from November to March the next year. Extraordinarily prolific, the exhibition and the accompanying book featured some of her best known work: "Are You Talking to Me?" a set of distorted self portraits of the artist reciting Travis Bickle's speech from Taxi Driver; and Imitations of Myself in which she eliminates her face with white greasepaint and literally draws it back on with makeup.

There are decades of self-portraits trying on various personas available through mass media: as a young woman mimicking the unnatural poses of fashion magazines in her street clothes, as rock goddess Suzy Spice and as an regally imposing fashionista.

         Suzy Lake Performing an Archive        Introducing Suzy Lake 

Most of Lake's photography doubles as a documentation of a performance. The depicted subject is active not passive. Moreover the woman who is in front of the camera is also the one who is (literally) calling the shots. This leads to all sorts of conceptual twists.

Take for example her Extended Breathing series.

Two of the photographs depict the artist in front of iconic art images from her hometown: on the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Industry fresco cycle by Diego Rivera.

The photographs' ultra-long exposures typically leave her lower body in focus but the rest of her is a ghostly blur. At first glance the photographs seem like a self-deprecating meditation on the artist’s own legacy and mortality. There are similar photographs set on city streets around the world and in her own backyard.

And yet as the title of the series indicates it’s the act of extended breathing—of consciously positioning herself—that’s making her visible to the camera’s eye. Ironically what's making her a ghost in the photograph is the fact that she's alive.

Here's a clip from Annette Mangaard's documentary Suzy Lake: Playing with Time.


Lake received renewed exposure in the United States as a featured artist in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. One of her former students, Cindy Sherman, has always generously acknowledged her as an influence.

         Wack! Art and the feminist revolution       Pictures

Come see the artist talk about her new work "Performing an Archive" which draws on civic history and her own family story, to bear witness to the development ..and decline...of her hometown Detroit.