It is comfortable to think that we are a species apart from the animal world. Deep in your heart, you know better. Daniel Lee’s retrospective “Animal Instinct” at SAMA presents digital manipulations by the Chinese-born photographer that meld human with beast to form chimeras, hybrids that seem to have appeared from the realm of myth, or last night’s broken sleep.
Born in Chunking, China, in 1945, Lee was raised in Taiwan, where he received his BFA in painting at the College of Chinese Culture. He worked as an art director in New York through the late 1970s after studying film and photography at the Philadelphia College of Art (now part of the University of the Arts). Lee’s first forays into fine art photography in the 1980s produced brilliant painterly explorations of still life and landscape that he made during trips back home to Taiwan, but recognition in the U.S. escaped him until his seminal collection, “Manimals,” was presented in 1993 at OK Harris gallery in Soho, New York. Work from this and other series are now on view at Lee’s SAMA show. Through a laborious process in Photoshop, Lee bends portraits of himself and friends into shapes that follow the contours of animals. In one portrait, a woman’s nose is sharp as a rooster’s beak; in another, a man’s skull is pulled into the elongated box of an ox. Other forms portray the tiger, goat, monkey and other animals in a collection that depicts the 12 beasts of the Chinese zodiac. In other studies, Lee takes his hybrids into circus scenes, and memorably, the underlife of New York and Chinese scenester bars. When most animal-like, the portraits are amusing. But when Lee alters his subjects only slightly away from the human, the results are unsettling, playing on the cusp of terror.
This too-close-for-comfort zone is known as “the uncanny,” a place where unwarranted similarities pop up in startling ways. Taken from the Old English word ken, meaning knowledge, or cognizance, the uncanny enters when the assumptions that unconsciously guide our lives are suddenly swept away during a moment of riveting attention. It can happen anytime, but is never welcome. For example, during a job interview, the expression on the woman asking you probing questions might suddenly remind you of the face in your dead great-grandmother’s wedding photograph, taken a century ago. The uncanny resemblance between the two accentuates a sense of being out of place. You feel lost, stumble with your response, and lose the job, as well. The uncanny is dangerous.
In literature, the uncanny is a realm of confusion, inhabited by creatures that hover between the human and the other. They might be autonomata, human-like robots, or the minotaur, the half-human, half-bull monster of Greek myth. They are the nephilim, the spawn of angels and women, and they are the undead, vampires and zombies, as well. In 1970, Japanese robotics scientist Masahiro Mori discovered that attempts to make robots that looked lifelike elicited an unexpected impression of discomfort instead of trust. His studies revealed through tests of responses to a variety of imagery what is now known as “the uncanny valley,” the statistical realm between two comfort zones. One side is inhabited by rough approximations of the human, like industrial robots. Test subjects responded positively to these, and not surprisingly, to images of healthy humans, as well. But in the middle is an indeterminate zone that elicited discomfort and fear. Here are life-like robots, wax figures, and, looking much the same, corpses.
After World War II, science fiction joined the movies in Japanese fantasies of monsters from outer space, reeking with the inhuman threat of radiation. Later, during the McCarthy period of the late 1950s, the first zombie invasions filled screens at American drive-ins. Today, during another period of distrust in government, the zombies have returned in countless film attacks. Daniel Lee’s little hybrids join them in a teasing smirk. Is this coincidence, or perhaps the readings of a cultural barometer? It’s hard to know. What’s more clear is that we imagine death sometimes as a threat from afar and at other times as a fundamental change within ourselves. That it could be, like Halloween, both cyclic and inevitable seems largely to escape us. •
Animal Instinct: The Photographs of Daniel Lee
10am-9pm Tue, Fri, Sat, 10am-5pm Wed-Thur
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W Jones
On view until Feb 19, 2012