Q&A with Susie Lee

Of Breath and Rain is on view at the Frye Art Museum from Feb. 18–April 15

New media artist Susie J. Lee holds degrees in molecular biophysics and science education, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Washington. This background emphasizes the keen mind and senses with which she approaches the world. Her spare works focus on life, love, loss and memory using abstract methods that allow room for interpretation.

In 2007, the unconventional gallery Lawrimore Project presented Lee’s installation Rain Shower, which evoked rain with preprogrammed light and sound patterns. Of Breath and Rain, Lee’s first solo museum show, presents an updated iteration of Rain Shower as well as a video portrait titled Still Lives: Exposure. City Arts sat down with Lee to talk about the upcoming exhibition. Rachel Shimp

At Rain Shower, visitors triggered a motion sensor when they entered Lawrimore’s large, dark warehouse space, activating a sequence of appearing and disappearing lights, like a cloud cover moving in or breaking. You could hear a faint rumbling of thunder, and voices. How will this experience be different?
The Frye isn’t going to be pitch dark, so the patterns will feel more subtle. I’m also sensitive to how technology interfaces with people. Museum audiences move through a space differently than in a gallery, in different numbers, so the motion sensor doesn’t make sense.

Software designer Dan Heidel and I have collaborated to create 32 ceiling panels that talk to each other, so that the showers will have more organic light patterns that will move through the space and change in intensity and variation. The sounds will also change with the light patterns and will include voice, a line of piano, tapping sounds and rolling thunder. 

Will the effects loop after a certain amount of time?
Each shower pattern ranges from three to five minutes, with crescendos and decrescendos of raindrops and sounds following spaces of silence and emptiness that still seems to fill the room. If you linger for half an hour or so, you will start to get a sense of the rhythm and pacing as the waves of light pass through, even if no pattern is exactly the same as another.

Tell me about the video portrait Exposure, which shows an elderly woman napping.
It’s part of a series of 13 portraits made with residents at the Washington Care Center. The basis for the compositions is Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings, and they are each an unfolding in real time; half an hour of film was half an hour in each person’s life. There is no talking, but a space for reflecting and just being.