REFLECTION: The Making of Meaning in Evan Lee's "Fugazi"

Aynaz Parkas | November 14, 2019

At massive scale, the two photomurals that comprise Evan Lee's Fugazi (2019) engage viewers in a conversation. They are not passive images sitting on the walls waiting to be interpreted. Rather, they are actively in dialogue with viewers, winking at them. As critics Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright say, "Visual culture is not simply about images. It is also about practices we engage in relative to seeing, and about the ways that the world is visually organized in relationship to power."These ideas apply to Lee's work in terms of how the images ask to be viewed and the impossibility of seeing them independent of discourse.

Lee's work is presented on two facing walls separated by a glass window at the Teck Gallery. It is located in SFU's Harbourfront Center, in a public gathering space and lounge area where students are often found studying, chatting with friends or eating their lunches. In order to see the whole piece, you need to stand far away. Facing the window overlooking Burrard Inlet and North Vancouver's coastal mountains, what you see appears to be enlarged, close-up images of diamonds. Each image is cropped such that the cut of the gemstones align with the horizon, becoming a landscape like the one visible from the window. As you move closer to the images, they start to lose their form as a whole and become, instead, distorted bands of colour.

Evan Lee, Fugazi. Installation view, Teck Gallery, 2019. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Without knowing the title, I would read the images as a comment on how capitalist culture magnifies the value of tiny gemstones. Invoking the ideas of Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall has observed that objects do not have inherent value. Instead, objects take on meaning within discourse, and discourse produces knowledge. In fact, the relationship between power and knowledge is the key in construction of value,2 which in this case can be in the image or in its referents. This relationship between power and knowledge is also in dialogue with Antonio Gramsci's definition of hegemony, which are dominant ideologies often presented as common sense, producing an almost invisible form of power.3 These ideas are at play in Fugazi because the image only pretends to be a diamond, whereas in reality the images are of cubic zirconia. Diamonds do not inherently carry a certain value; however, we project value onto them, invoking ideas about beauty and wealth. Therefore, through discourse, diamonds become valuable, giving more power to people who can have them.

In Lee's Fugazi, the title plays a vital role in an interpretation of the image. "Fugazi," a slang I recall from the movie Donnie Brasco (1997), signifies fakes, specifically cubic zirconia as a counterfeit gemstone which stands in for diamonds. The diamond itself indexes the colonial practices of mining and resource extraction, while the cubic zirconia refers to resource production (cubic zirconia are often synthetically produced). In relation to resource extraction, Lee's work evokes the history of colonization in Canada. More specifically, the work points to the relationship SFU has with the mining operations, a poignant fact when considering that the Teck Gallery is itself named after a mining company. With this in mind, Lee's work might be interpreted as institutional critique. In addition, the production of cubic zirconia attempts to make gemstones of a certain aesthetic accessible for more people, speaking in part, against the pretentious aspects of power and wealth. Unfortunately, thus far, cubic zirconia has failed at interrupting the value of diamonds. I read Lee's utilization of cubic zirconia, instead of diamonds, as a tactic to invoke more layers of conversation around value, beauty and social responsibilities. 

In conclusion, Fugazi is drawing a line between three vertices of a triangle: object value, land and visual culture. In doing so, Lee uses three methods: formal manipulation by enlarging the photo, a concern for the context and location of the work's presentation, and the use of a smart title. From my perspective, the work challenges me and other viewers to reconsider what we see, what associations we bring with us and the meanings we make.

Evan Lee, Fugazi. Installation view, Teck Gallery, 2019. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Aynaz Parkas is an SFU Student in her third year of the School for the Contemporary Arts' Visual Arts program.


For information about Evan Lee's exhibition Fugazi, click here.

BACK TO 2019

[1] Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture / Marita Sturken, New York University; Lisa Cartwright, University of California at San Diego, Third ed. (2018), 22.
[2] Stuart Hall, and Open University. Representation : Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices / Edited by Stuart Hall. (1997), 41-51.
[3] Claudette Lauzon “Viewers Make Meaning,” CA 210: Artworks, Theories, Contexts. (Class lecture, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, September 18, 2018).