Suzy Lake is always working. She makes things and she makes things happen. This is more than a description of her work ethic, although she is quick to proudly reference the values of her Prussian heritage and her working-class upbringing in Detroit. Her practice is as physically laborious as it is conceptually demanding. To speak of her “always working” is intended as an overarching statement that captures everything embodied in performing work. To work is to think, to feel, to make, to take time; it is to be present and accountable and engaged. Above all, for Lake, to work is to act and be fully implicated in the world.
Suzy Lake works and this is her ethical proposition: “I make things. It is who I am.”
Her words carry urgency when she states: “I make work because I can’t not make work. It is how I am able to come to terms with the world.” This declaration has been hard fought and fiercely earned over nearly five decades; it carries within it the awareness and responsibility of being an artist in society. Lake’s social consciousness is rooted in her predisposition to open up an examination of the power dynamics at play within an individual and between the individual and society. The seductive lyricism of Choreographed Puppets (1976 – 1977), for instance, holds the violence of the unrelenting question “Who pulls the strings?” in suspended tension. There can be no definitive answer; the engagement with the question is what matters. Since the late 1990s, Lake’s full, magnified figure has been performing subtle acts that address tender issues with dignity, such as the act of sweeping in Re-Reading Recovery (1994 – 1999).
Lake’s photographs engage with the real and messy negotiations of the self as it navigates the matrix of internal and external forces and works to withstand genuine and very human contradictions. Lake’s direct action is the creative act of one individual confronting history and humanity by inserting the figure’s subjectivity and experiences into the public arena. From her early makeup series addressing constructions of identity, such as A Genuine Simulation of… (1973 – 1974), to recent endurance performances in public spaces laden with history, politics and culture, including Extended Breathing (2011 – 2014), Lake liberates the female image to transform representation into experience, to bestow authority in subjectivity. Lake’s very public introspection is a political act that opens up the world to challenge conventions, and imagines it as bigger and more inclusive.
— Georgiana Uhlyarik
Excerpted from “Introduction,” in Suzy Lake: Scotiabank Photography Award (Toronto–Göttingen: Scotiabank Photography Award-Steidl)
The Scotiabank Photography Award is the largest peer-reviewed photographic art award in Canada, recognizing an established artist working in the medium of photography. This survey of more than 50 objects, made between 1976 and 2014, brings focus to Lake’s artistic process and methodologies, examining her practice of experimentation and unwavering efforts through the years to push the boundaries of the photographic medium. The accompanying book presents a coherent overview of Lake’s career, renowned internationally for her work on self-representation, female identity, and the aging body. Both serve as prestigious acknowledgements of her outstanding contribution to the field.
Presented by Scotiabank, organized and presented in partnership with the Ryerson Image Centre