Sean Marc Lee / 李子仁
Sean Marc Lee’s anagram name is LASER MENACE, which wouldn’t you say is super apropos for a photographer. I once put my name through an anagram generator and it spat out WELL EYE GONE and just before I was due for LASIK correction too! Fortunately, fate isn’t always written in one’s name and this writer still has two well eyes to ogle at the gorgeous collection on display starting from 3 Dec 2010, at K&K gallery.
Lee’s solo exhibition, comprised of 130 photographs, is called CHI SEEN, and when I first saw the title, I wondered if Lee, being Chinese (get it? CHI SEEN=CHINESE), was making a point about one of the many minority races in America that are increasingly less so, but still being invisibilized. Perhaps, I thought, Lee is using photography as a tool to raise the status of the Chinese in America. Also, might CHI not in fact allude to the invisible life force believed by the Chinese to literally animate us, and might CHI SEEN, then, not refer to captured manifestations of a Chinese way of seeing, or even its opposite: of being seen?
The grim moment of semiotic overkill soon passed. True, there’s a lot of ethnography in these pictures—not just about the Chinese in America (we’re taken on a magic carpet ride to Taiwan and Japan as well)—in that it reveals specific facets of a culture that not only conform to stereotype but that also go beyond cliché: a surprising obsession with technologized visuality is revealed here, in the form of its camera-toting subjects and its myriad television sets. But Lee’s work resists and in fact rises above any kind of discourse that seeks to distill art into subject matter. Take the photo of two pairs of legs meeting, sole to sole, over a sofa, watched over by a silent television set, the red light of its “standby” mode still blinking, like some kind of comment on the current standing of the owners of these legs vis-à-vis each other. Or the portrait of the father(among many revealing portraits of the father)meeting the camera’s gaze head on, slice of fatty pork dangling from mouth. There’s more than a little humor and tenderness in these shots, which don’t seem as much composed, Lee’s film background and many of these shots’ amazing compositions and sense of drama notwithstanding, as they feel of the moment. If this seems a contradiction of his method—Lee has explained that he prefers to shoot people he is close to because “well I can nearly ask them to do anything and see them the most naturally. >:) hehe.”—it can only be attributed to Lee’s gift for locating that revealing essence in an unexpected situation, set up or not.
As for the mystery of the show’s title, I soon received my answer in an Email the next day. “Chi Seen is in Cantonese which is what I speak.” (This writer, being of a different dialect group than the photographer, does not understand Cantonese.) “If one were to translate it literally “Chi” means sticky, and “Seen” means string, but it’s a slang term used to connote one’s mind as being all wound up/sticky like string. However, it’s used as a slang of a slang of the original meaning, kind of like an interjection when someone tells you something and you are more or less saying “whaaat?” or “ridiculous” although it’s not necessarily negative! I know, language is confusing!”
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