Fugazi Economy

Evan Lee | May 12, 2020

This text was originally intended for a public presentation to coincide with the closing of my exhibition, Fugazi, at Teck Gallery. Due the Covid-19 pandemic, the talk instead takes the form of a text.

Fugazi has been a year-long, site-specific adaptation of pre-existing work of the same name. In 2017, I produced a series of printed works on paper with images of cubic zirconia, also known as fake diamonds, made using a scanner. In the initial Fugazi prints, the images of the crystalline forms are grossly enlarged for effect, to the point of abstraction. In the Teck Gallery installation, this effect is further exaggerated: images of a 25mm object is made to fill two 3.6 x 6.0m walls. This economical use of an image highlights a concern that I have been working through since the early days of my practice: how to use very little to create an image that is rich.

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

On first glance, Fugazi prompts consideration of the liminal and unexpected possibilities of lens-based representation. It is a visual work comprised of multicolour abstract forms. However, I am only minimally interested in captured light as an aesthetic phenomenon.[1] In the process of conceiving and producing Fugazi, I became cognizant of a less obvious but equally important theme that I had not really acknowledged in the past: many of the ideas for my work are the result of my obsession with economy. In other, less flattering, words, perhaps I am cheap.

By calling myself "economical" or "cheap," I’m referring to the latent anxiety and ambivalence I often feel about the value of things, particularly in the context of how art is produced and consumed. Fugazi, being a representation of fake objects of great value, makes for a good opportunity to reflect on this.

A related proposition can be found in Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cents (2001). As is typical of Gursky’s large-format photographs, it’s spectacular and impressive, but the picture has a particular irony: the subject is a dollar store in Los Angeles. This common type of retailer sells mass-produced, low-quality, disposable products which are usually uniformly priced at one dollar each. The rub is that 99 Cents sold for $2,300,000 USD in a 2006 auction, setting a record as the world’s most expensive photograph. I explored this photograph and the dollar store in an essay on the still life genre for the exhibition Triumphant Carrot: The Persistence of Still Life at the Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver, BC) in 2010. In this text, I revisit some of its ideas in order to contextualize the theme of economy in Fugazi.

I find it remarkable that Gursky’s depiction of a dollar store interior — contrary to my own experience — appears so organized. This is consistent with the photographer’s aesthetic, whether his subject is shipping containers, architecture or a crowd at a concert. In 99 Cents the goods are arranged and presented with Borg-like omniscience, consistency and order, such that one could probably count up all of the stock and calculate its total value. It could be a photographic ledger. In 2016, Gursky also photographed items in an Amazon warehouse. Although both of these photographs demonstrate Gursky’s mastery in offering up spectacle as a subject for critique, they fall short of being effectively critical. Any subversive intent is negated by both the expense needed to make the work and the outsized commodification of the artwork that is produced.

With this context of hyper-expensive and oversized photography in the background, I began making art. After studying drawing and painting, I began working with photography, encouraged by how quickly the medium could give form to an idea. However, photography like Gursky’s usually requires sizeable resources for specialized equipment and travel, and privileged access to exotic or restricted locations, as well as coordinated logistical solutions such as traffic controls, permits and personnel. This is in addition to the cost of film, processing, scanning, editing, printing, mounting, and framing. Contemporary art photography is a very technical and expensive undertaking, and there is a huge market for it at the top of the art world. Considering that the works can be reproduced and made into editions, they are potentially lucrative for anyone with the means to buy into the commodity circulation of these images.

Meanwhile, I found myself struggling to afford even a proper camera. I saved up for a very long time to buy a decent one, which didn’t leave much for other expenses. Likely as a result of these circumstances, I was drawn to finding very simple things around me to photograph. In contrast to complex depictions of capitalist spectacle, like Gursky’s, I am in pursuit of the economical, where less can be more, or where a picture of nothing can be full.

Evan Lee, Bottles, 1999, c-print; Evan Lee, Four Oranges, 1999, c-print; Evan Lee, Removed Vanity, 2002, c-print; Evan Lee, Weeds, 1999, c-print.

But it isn’t just a matter of hunting for the next seemingly austere or uncanny subject. I am also interested in exploring how to make something out of nothing, by exploiting the many intangible, non-material and so-called free aspects of photography such as light, time and colour. Thus, I see photography as a kind of alchemy — not necessarily in the sense of, say, darkroom magic — but in the sense that critically significant photography can be produced not only economically, but also accessibly. In this way, my early, straight-up photographs like Spilled Confetti (2001) and Stars and Glitter (2002) were made with a small handful of cheap craft materials, creating images that read as vast and infinite. They are representations of ordinary objects that deliver moments of fantasy, however brief. But even so, the idea that being creative is only limited by the imagination remains in conflict with the idea that art is expensive to make and highly profitable, but only for a privileged few.

Evan Lee, Lighted Bush, 2001, c-print; Evan Lee, Stars and Glitter, 2002, transmounted c-print; Evan Lee, Spilled Confetti, 2001, transmounted c-print; Evan Lee, Spilled Confetti (detail), 2001, transmounted c-print; Evan Lee, excerpts from the Stain series (three images), 2003, digital c-prints.

There are many examples of artists who took on these questions of value, particularly those working in the field of institutional critique from the 1960s through the 80s, such as Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers. Somewhat later, in 1994, the K Foundation (former members of the music group The KLF, who had taken their pop music earnings and evolved into post-conceptual artists / pranksters), subverted the Turner Prize by awarding £40,000 to the year’s “worst” artist, an amount double that of the Turner Prize winnings. Although it was implied that the winner was to be chosen by public vote (the public was encouraged to visit the Tate’s Turner Prize shortlist exhibition and then send in their vote for the “worst” artist to the K-Foundation), it was in fact rigged all along: the winner of the Turner Prize would also win the K-Foundation prize, thereby negating the value of the former, and also suggesting that the nature of art valuation in the form of judgment and prizes is meaningless.

The K Foundation, echoing Broodthaers’s gold ingots in his Financial Section (1970 – 1971), also exhibited actual sums of cash as artworks. For instance, Nailed to a Wall (1993) was comprised of £1,000,000 in bank notes but had a reserve price of £500,000. The catalogue entry for the artwork stated the following:

Over the years the face value will be eroded by inflation, while the artistic value will rise and rise. The precise point at which the artistic value will overtake the face value is unknown. Deconstruct the work now and you double your money. Hang it on a wall and watch the face value erode, the market value fluctuate and the artistic value soar. The choice is yours.[2]

This call for consumers of art to make a choice also applies to artistic producers. Even though I was working in a different form, and in a different time and context, I was interested in similar questions. Starting around 2005, I experimented with workarounds to make high-resolution images cheaply, without the use of a camera (neither film nor digital). I thought that taking an experimental, DIY approach could be a counterpoint to methods of contemporary photography. I discovered that an ordinary scanner can make high-resolution images and capture them in unconventional ways. This is important: not only was I able to find different ways to make an image, I could actually make different kinds of images, different from the ones I was seeing. And as a Chinese Canadian artist with a contrarian bent, I was already accustomed to seeing, and working, through a different so-called lens. There was no reason why the value of art and its production should be any different.

Evan Lee, excerpts from the Ginseng Root Studies series (four images), 2005, giclee prints; Evan Lee, excerpts from the Box Study series (three images), 2002, c-prints. 

When I was growing up, I would go shopping with my parents in Chinatown, where, walking past the medicine shops, they liked to tell me how rare and expensive ginseng root was. They would show me the crazy prices in the displays, and also point out how the ginseng looked like people, and that the ones that looked most human were the most expensive. I often thought about this in my early work, when I was exploring inanimate objects as stand-ins for actual people. Among my last conventional photographs was the Box Studies series (2001 – 2003), which documents discarded, weathered produce boxes found in alleyways. My first large series to employ the scanner was Ginseng Root Studies (2005).

My parents were right; medicinal ginseng roots were prohibitively expensive. I was able to get around this by buying them fresh, in bulk, at Chinese and Korean supermarkets, and then drying them in my studio over several weeks. It was exciting to wait, not knowing exactly how they would turn out, as the process causes them to shrivel and deform. Many of them turned out looking like twigs, but others ended up being just right for my purposes.

I created the resulting images in the following way: in a darkened room, I placed the roots on the scanner’s glass. As the scanner head slowly moved across the platform, taking up to 20 minutes, the objects were bathed in a soft light, accompanied by a mechanical hum. I like to believe that scanning transformed the objects and brought them to life, as though the scanner was a science fiction contraption. In working through a project like this, I realized that patience and experimental creativity were resources I was rich in. It was possible to hack and upend existing processes for new and unexpected results. I began looking for other ways to use the scanner to make pictures, and I started to look for other objects that would similarly come to life when captured in this way.

During this time I frequented dollar stores, on the lookout for things I could scan, but also buy cheaply and in bulk. With A Pile of Flies (2006), I worked with fishing flies. These are objects that, through a combination of basic materials, techniques and artistry, successfully imitate the form of live bait. In capturing images of them with the same technique I was using with the ginseng, I felt I was re-animating them, simulating life for a second time.

I noticed that many items at the dollar store reminded me of the objects that one would find in a historical still life painting. Although separated by centuries, these everyday objects were superficially the same: real and decorative food, candles, balls of string, glassware, and various household and personal care items. Historically, the depiction of objects in still life paintings was a way to display not only the skill of the painter, but also the wealth of the patron (as demonstrated by the portrayed possessions). Then, the value of a grape, a glass bead, a magnifier, or a watch was very different from today’s dollar-store equivalent, which probably only cost pennies to produce.

Evan Lee, Dollar Store Still Life with Spools of Thread ($2), 2006, giclee print; Evan Lee, Dollar Store Still Life with Artificial Flowers and Insects ($9), 2006, giclee print; Evan Lee, Dollar Store Still Life with Decorative Fruit and Feathers ($8), 2006, giclee print; Evan Lee, Dollar Store Still Life with Stones, Shells, Fish and Comb ($5), 2006, giclee print; Evan Lee, Dollar Store Still Life with Clock and Candle ($3), 2006, giclee print.

Moreover, still life paintings, which often depict rotting fruit and meat, or flies on a bowl of fruit, are meditations on the fleeting passage of time. In contrast, dollar store plastic grapes will linger in landfills forever. In producing the works in my Dollar Store Still Life series, I included plastic grapes, dyed feathers, decorative stones, plastic flowers, a sewing kit, and a can of sardines, among other one-dollar objects, which I then scanned. Each work’s title carries the series name as well as a list of the objects and the total cost, in Canadian dollars, of the contents depicted, including the supports and backgrounds.

In 2017, the Capture Photography Festival approached me to revisit Dollar Store Still Life as a billboard project. During the festival, several public billboards normally sold for advertising were donated for the display of an artist’s project. My still life project fit under the festival’s theme that year, Inorganic Solutions.

The dollar store is a mirror of demographic and economic changes occurring both globally and locally. In North America, dollar stores came into being as China began manufacturing goods at an unprecedented scale for export, while western domestic consumption and reliance on cheaper overseas manufacturing increased. This also had the effect of reinforcing the stereotype of undesirable and inferior goods from Asia, which had existed at least since Japanese manufacturing for export after World War II (or imported automobiles in the 1970s). The slogan “Buy American,” which originated as the title of a 1933 U.S. Congressional Act, is commonly used, with racist undertones, up to the present day. Yet, in recent years, the dollar-store industry has proliferated in North America, while the luxury sector has flourished in Asia.

This resulted in further unexpected economic and demographic shifts occurring locally in the decade or so between the making of the Dollar Store Still Life series and my billboard commission. For example, condominium development had replaced several of the old dollar stores I knew in Vancouver’s working-class neighbourhoods, while bigger chains had absorbed many others. And, in many North American cities, Asian chain stores such as Oomomo Japan Living (formerly Daiso) and Miniso are selling Asian-made goods targeted at, among others, Asian Canadian and Asian American customers. Shopping at the dollar store now has an air of being exotic and fun.

Evan Lee, Hyakkin Capture Billboard #1. Installation documentation, 2017. Photo: Evan Lee; Evan Lee, Hyakkin Capture Billboard #2. Installation documentation, 2017. Photo: Capture / Nurzhan Kabdrakhman; Evan Lee, Hyakkin Capture Billboard #3. Installation documentation, 2017. Photo: Capture / Ric Lam / Roaming the Planet; Evan Lee, Hyakkin Still Life #1, 2017, archival pigment print; Evan Lee, Hyakkin Still Life #2, 2017, archival pigment print; Evan Lee, Hyakkin Still Life #3, 2017, archival pigment print; Evan Lee, Hyakkin Still Life #6, 2017, archival pigment print; Evan Lee, Hyakkin Still Life #7, 2017, archival pigment print; Evan Lee, Ichiban. Installation documentation, 2016. Photo: Chris Rollett.

In response to these economic and cultural shifts, I created a new series entitled Hyakkin Still Life (2017) for the billboards. In Japanese, “hyakkin” means “100-Yen Store.” Although the pricing concept is structurally similar to dollar stores, the two-dollar-equivalent goods are generally perceived to be of good value decent quality, rather than shoddy. I remained interested in constructing still life images that referenced historical paintings, but in the context of billboards-as-advertisements, I exclusively used objects from hyakkins in Vancouver. Moreover, many of the objects were stand-ins, surrogates and imitations of symbols from cultures of the east or the west. For example, candy hamburgers and paper fans sit alongside wigs and imitation pearls.

I was already working along similar lines with Ichiban (2016), in which I experimented with using instant ramen noodles to create abstract sculptures. Instant ramen, invented in 1958, is an inexpensive and unsubstantial substitute for the traditional nourishing noodles in broth. Nutritionally insignificant beyond empty calories, instant ramen is literally a void-filler that can be manipulated and formed into objects. Although fragile, this highly refined basic wheat starch is a quasi-artistic material that seems to last a very, very long time. My experimental sculptures consider the artificial nature of instant food, and reflect on ephemeral forms and temporality in the artworks themselves. Instant ramen has the reputation of being a cheap and unhealthy food for students and low-income people in the west. Yet, it is also a staple for many cultures and considered a modern food solution. In Japan, instant ramen is considered the greatest invention of the twentieth century (according to the Fuji Research Institute, a financial industry think-tank) and even has several museums devoted to it.

* * *

The version of Fugazi installed at Teck Gallery has been in the making for a long time. When I first began working with a scanner, thinking about cheap dollar store solutions to my picture-making, I also had the idea of scanning something from the opposite extreme, something much more expensive. I imagined that a flawless diamond could act as a lens that would uniquely display effects of light reflecting within and through the gemstone. The problem was a matter of access: how could I get ahold of something so valuable? Moreover, not any diamond would do — it needed to be bright, and it needed to be big! It didn’t seem likely to happen, and I shelved the idea, telling myself something so ostentatious would be at odds with the trajectory of my practice.

And still, popular music and movies celebrated diamonds throughout this time, and I kept feeling their pull. Then, in 2007, artist Damian Hirst made and exhibited For the Love of God, a platinum cast of a human skull that is encrusted with diamonds. The sculpture cost £14,000,000 to produce and reportedly sold for £50,000,000, not without controversy. Here again, the debate surrounding the cost / value of the art overshadowed the work itself, which may well have been Hirst’s point. But, can an artist who is so closely identified with the manipulation of the art market be in a position to make such a critique? Meanwhile, Vancouver artist Khan Lee produced Hearts and Arrows, a 2013 performance, captured in video, in which the artist cuts a block of ice into a traditional diamond gem shape during the early dawn of a day. This piece resonates with me; I cannot help but read it as being about substitutes, light and lenses. As the sun rises in the video, I register a feeling of magic when the sun’s rays illuminate the scene, shooting through the cut ice.

Prompted by this work, as well as my own interest in the value of fakes — be they ginseng, still life images or noodles — I turned to fake diamonds as a subject. Along with moissanite, cubic zirconia is a synthetic gemstone that is similar in appearance to diamonds, but that is considerably cheaper in price. However, cubic zirconia is superior to diamonds in some ways. Optically, it has a higher dispersion value and is naturally colourless, qualities that lend diamonds their high value.[3] In response to this, true diamond proponents say that diamonds are inherently valuable because of their unique imperfections. This provocative argument, and the notion of using fakes to create something potentially spectacular, complicated my project in an interesting way.

Evan Lee, excerpts from the Fugazi series (three images), 2015, scanner capture, giclee prinst.

I found an online wholesaler of cubic zirconia where I bought 10mm specimens. This size was large enough to scan, yet still relatively small.[4] My first works made with this material took the form of large prints on paper. In these images, the gemstones refracted the scanner light into colourful but broken geometric facets. For printing, these were excessively enlarged, to the limits of the original captured image. Taking cues from both the colour and geometry depicted, I created and added new forms in the backgrounds. I called this series Fugazi, after the fictional mafia term for fake diamonds.[5] As digitally created images, Fugazi (2016) is infinitely reproducible, but I chose to make each print unique.

The kaleidoscopic effect of the finished Fugazi prints recalls stained glass, and I imagined the possibility of presenting them even larger. The Teck Gallery project was an opportunity to push at this idea. The gallery features a very particular architectural layout. In creating two hemispherical images to occupy the large facing walls of the gallery, the installation references sunrises and sunsets, echoing the landscapes visible from the enormous pane of windows that separates the walls.

However, the crux of Fugazi’s meaning — concerns around economy and value — involves the resolution of a technical challenge. In order for the work to be successful at such a large scale, I would need a source image with enough resolution. This was a question of resources. The biggest cubic zirconia I could get measured 25mm, and by my calculations, I would have to enlarge it by 24,500%.[6]

Enlarging an image to such an extent goes against every conventional rule of photography. An image will fall apart as its constituent grains, or pixels, are pushed farther apart; it becomes more and more dilute. However, this characterization is subjective. I believe that when an image is stretched past its technical limits, it opens up the possibility of something new. Visually, it helped that Fugazi was already verging on abstraction. Further, the exhibition at Teck Gallery, despite being image-based, was intended as the presentation of an experience, rather than as the viewing of art objects per se.

From the beginning and out of necessity, I sought to make art with limited means. Even now, I get a little bit anxious when the ink runs low or when I near the end of a tube of paint. But I have learned that I can always throw a little more thinner into the mix. (That is, if I haven’t already had the foresight of stocking up.) As I write this, with my family in self-isolation during a pandemic with low-level panic growing over the food supply, I take comfort in knowing that adding a little more water to my soup pot to stretch it out won’t make a big difference. Not only will we not go to bed hungry, it still tastes just fine.

In our present time of restraint, which follows a period of excess that was documented symbolically and literally by oversized and overpriced photographs, perhaps it’s timely to reflect on and reiterate that making a giant artwork out of a fake diamond was never meant to be about swagger. Rather, it was about how to be economical in the sense of how to make do with less, leading to questions of value, and pushing at the dichotomy between real and fake. As this crisis continues, and the future of art is increasingly uncertain, I wonder if perhaps this is the moment for which I have been preparing.

Evan Lee is a Vancouver based artist. He received his MFA from the University of British Columbia. Exhibitions include Libby Leshgold Gallery; Winnipeg Art Gallery; Richmond Art Gallery; Kamloops Art Gallery; Vancouver Art Gallery; Contemporary Art Gallery; Presentation House Gallery; Contact Photography Festival; Le Mois de la Photo à Montreal; Liu Hai Su Museum; and Confederation Centre. He was shortlisted for the Sobey Art Prize in 2014 and his work is represented by Monte Clark Gallery.

For more information on Evan Lee's Fugazi exhibition, click here

[1] My photographic series Stain (2003) depicts the effects of engine oil mixing with rainwater on the road. When this work is exhibited, the discussion tends to centre on the colourful abstraction on the surface, which overshadows the ontological and environmental questions that I intend to provoke.

[2] “The K Foundation Art Award,” KLF Online, www.klf.de/home/k-foundation-art-award (accessed May 11, 2020).

[3] The refractive index for cubic zirconia is a close second to that of diamond (2.15 – 2.18 vs. 2.42) and its luster is vitreous. The dispersion value of cubic zirconia is very high at 0.058 – 0.066, exceeding that of diamond (0.044).

[4] For comparison, a 10mm diamond is approximately equivalent to 3.87 carats. Kim Kardashian’s 15 carat engagement ring is valued at between $2,000,000 – 3,000,000 USD. Meghan Markle’s engagement stone weighs 6 carats and is valued at $350,000 USD.

[5] “Fugazi” is used as a slang description for fake diamonds in films such as Donnie Brasco (1997) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). There is no evidence of its historical use by actual mafia, so the origin of term itself is considered to be fake.

[6] An equivalent 25mm diamond is off any chart I can find, but I calculate it at approximately 40 carats.