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Slick and subversive

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Kerry Ann Lee’s art began as a way to 'question the world.' She is interested in public art and institutional art and the differences between them.

Her work ranges widely across multiple mediums, reflecting an increasingly apparent trend. Michelle Duff asks her about recent developments in her art practice and the busy start to her year.

Kerry Ann Lee, Dream Emblem I, Framed Digital Lambda Print, 52 x 53cm

As a teenager stomping around Wellington in the 90s, teenager Kerry Ann Lee couldn’t care less what the glossy mags said. Rejecting celebrity snaps, fashion spreads and vacuous personality quizzes, she decided to create her own magazine – one that reflected the world she wanted to live in.

For her first self-publication she borrowed a family friend’s photocopier, creating a “zine” (an abbreviation of fanzine, or magazine) with a small print run but a lot of heart. Help, My Snowman’s Burning never made it big-time, but that wasn’t the point. 'It was about connecting to other people, to create an alternative to mainstream publishing and get across ideas I had about social and political topics. I’d do it without any anticipation of who was going to read it, but just to question the world,' says Lee.

Installation view K A Lee and T Barlow. Photo John Lake

Today, Lee still uses a cut and paste aesthetic, but the medium and scope of her work has changed. Her piece at The New Dowse takes up an entire floor-to-ceiling space. Created for the Suburban Dreams exhibition, curated by Sian Van Dyk, Lee’s I Sold My Heart to the Junkman is a three-dimensional collage depicting a suburban teenager’s bedroom. A denim jacket, a skateboard, and a teddy bear dangle alongside a dartboard, a Walkman and a toasted sandwich. Lee says, the work is 'around the idea of teenage suburbia, and what that could be.' The images hang at different heights, their movement and the light on the photographic prints giving the strange impression that the objects are real – even though you know that’s impossible.

'I like cutting things out as well as putting them together, and the objects are reflecting different things in this kind of a dream space,' explains Lee.

Growing up as a third-generation Chinese New Zealander in Hataitai, Lee remembers there being a lot of 'stuff' in their house. 'All the Cantonese New Zealand families I knew just kept a lot of stuff. My parents and those of a lot of my Cantonese friends were just really reluctant to throw stuff out. I think because when you keep things it’s about settling, almost like a validation that your family is here and you’ve built this life for yourself.'

Kerry Ann Lee, Distant resonance, 2018, (still) digital video. Image courtesy of the artist. Featuring lines from the poem Looking over Sian at night, 1954, by Rewi Alley and images of objects from Te Papa’s collection

'In quite a lot of the discussions I give, I talk about how material objects connect you to places and where you come from. I think the random stuff people have in their lives is really interesting.'

Lee, whose work has featured in galleries nationwide – including solo show Knowledge on a Beam of Starlight at Te Papa Tongarewa – and as far afield as Taipei, Frankfurt and the Ukraine – also works as a graphic designer from her Wellington studio. She has also taught, as a senior lecturer in graphic design at Otago Polytechnic School of Design.

Her visual artwork canvasses collage, sculpture, installation, video, and collaborative live workshops, drawing on her Chinese and New Zealand heritage, her love of punk-rock culture and her commercial design knowledge to create pieces that are at once slick and subversive. She says in her artist statement: 'I enjoy site-specific research and the challenge of amalgamating a range of seemingly disparate elements into a unified work, to capture visual tension and unexpected harmonies of a place or situation.'

Lee still produces zines, a genre which has seen an artistic revival in recent years. Popular in the 1970s, zines were born from an anarchist, punk ethos – the desire of the marginalised to tell their own story. Distinguished by small print runs, zines encompass a variety of alternative topics including feminist theory, politics, fan fiction, and poetry. In New Zealand, Lee is one of a group of female artists who are writing zines and comics, to offer a different narrative from the dominant, male, Pakeha-dominated discourse.

Some of her work is included in the upcoming publication Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics, alongside artists like Sarah Laing, Jessica 'Coco' Hansell, and Susan Te Kahurangi King. The book’s description reads: 'It may be a surprise to find so many comics by women cartoonists, since conventional wisdom would have us believe that the comics scene is a boys’ club…although women’s comics haven’t been represented much in New Zealand history books, they have been found in zines and magazines, tumblrs, twitter feeds, shoe boxes, art galleries, painted on old tea trays and brochures, magneted to fridges, tattooed on forearms.'

For Lee, the zine is the perfect medium. 'I actually trained as a designer, as an illustrator, and it broadened into a visual art practice. Zine-making is interesting because it combines quite a lot of art and design and writing, and I’ve been doing it now for 20 years. It’s a great framework for storytelling.'

Kerry Ann Lee, Dream Emblem I, Framed Digital Lambda Print, 52 x 53cm

At the core of Lee’s work is a desire to question the mainstream. For the public art event TEZA last year, Lee and fellow artist Kim Lowe created a zine called Alternating Currents. The artists interviewed people in New Brighton, Christchurch, producing a publication representing diverse views from the community, including voices that often go unheard. They then held workshops to discuss how migrants are depicted in the media, and how they can create an independent voice.

As well as self-publishing hard-copy zines, she has taken the DIY ethos online, creating a collaborative storytelling and self-publishing platform, The Porirua People’s Library. And in association with her current show at Te Papa, Lee has held public sessions on zine-making. From grandmothers to businessmen and young children, the variety of people who have come through and wanted to record a slice of their life is quite inspiring, she says.

'I like the eccentricities and candidness that people share through their writing, that doesn’t necessarily belong to any in-house style. There’s a nice freedom with it, people feel they can say what they want with no fear of censorship.'

Lee's current installation Return to Skyland has been developed in response to the exhibition, Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality at Te Papa. The installation features Distant resonance, a video work by that uses images of Chinese objects from Te Papa’s collection.

Inside ‘Terracotta Warriors’

Toi Art, Te Papa

Until 22 April


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