Daily Bytes

Living in an Immaterial World: Mike Lee’s Digital Mirror at UMOCA

Mike Lee, an Artist in Residence at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, describes himself as a product of two world cultures, having split his childhood between rural Japan and Utah. His work bridges these two separate geographical and cultural regions with reference to an elusive third: the young culture of the Internet realm. In Digital Mirror: Selfie Consciousness, Japanese and American symbols from separate times and places come together with the help of vintage electronics and neon illumination. Lee references images and stories from feudal Japan and the ancient Shinto religion, but also states that he “draws inspiration from amassing information, both visual and non-visual, through obsessive Internet searches.” The result is a complex exhibit that, in many ways, looks like a physical representation of a bustling Internet forum, but is also a reflection of Lee’s personal history and identity.

The title of the exhibition comes from a central Shinto myth about Amaterasu- ōmikami, the Sun Goddess. According to legend, when the Sun Goddess’s brother destroys her loom and kills one of her attendants, she retreats into a dark cave, and only reemerges when other concerned gods place a mirror — Yata-no-Kagami — at the cave entrance. Catching sight of her own entrancing image, she’s lured outside and provides warmth and light to the world once more. Japanese emperors are considered direct descendants of Amaterasu-ōmikami, and her mirror is one of the primary symbols of Imperial Japan.

Elements of the story, darkness and light especially, are repeated in several sections of Lee’s exhibit. In a far corner of the gallery, a wooden cabinet’s doors are slightly open, revealing to the viewer a mirror suspended in the dark space. Other objects feature inaccessible compartments and partially opened doors, referencing the idea of the obstructed cave. A small repainted TV stand, with a makeshift shrine on top, has a closed box on a lower shelf and two partially opened doors. These dark, closed elements of the show are contrasted with others that are bright, hot, and open.

The three 2-D works along one wall, “Allegories of Caves, Resurrections, and the True Light” sequence, are black felt cutouts on boards and each depict a similar scene: a central figure sits in the middle of indistinguishable shapes while rays extend up from the head. Each of the pieces feature strips of bright LEDs running up their sides. The power cords from the LED strips are attached to a central power strip on the gallery floor. Heat comes off the LED strips and from the spotlights that shine on the sculptural element in the middle of the gallery space. Together, the brightness and heat in the gallery at large reflect the resolution of the Shinto story, when the sun goddess is reflected in the mirror and emerges from the darkness.

Several pieces, including the colorful sculptural element in the center of the gallery, feature human and animal faces or masks that relate to questions of identity posed by Lee’s artist statement. The center sculpture is a human form in Japanese garb, standing upright. Propped up by the figure is a paper parasol and five square flags. The figure is wearing masks on multiple sides of its head; among them are a white cat, monkey, samurai with horns, and a big-eyed female that looks plucked from a manga illustration. On one of the flags, stickers with two outlines of human faces look at each other. Additionally, in another section of the gallery, two grimacing heads, which are reminiscent of namakubi (severed heads that samurai would take from the warriors they defeated), are painted onto a folding screen.

Masks and faces reflect Lee’s interest in not only his personal, mixed identity, but also how, as he says, “the Internet… is an artificially created form of consciousness comprised of all of us at once, yet none of us individually at one time.” The many faces in the exhibit are like the multiple avatars and identities that users adopt when they get online. They also reflect how far-removed cultural influences can shape our identities now more than ever because we are exposed to and share so much in a digitally connected age.

Over the past decades, the Internet has connected people, ideas, and images. Disparate pieces of information and foreign concepts appear side by side. Lee shows the hybridity of his own background, but also of a wider phenomenon of how digital borrowing and the combination of symbols form a kind of digital-age aesthetic. Memes, emojis, jargon, and weird Internet traditions are somehow congealing into their own just-recognizable, patched-together culture in which millions and millions of people interact virtually every day. More of Lee’s works in the show are altered pieces of outdated technology, like a printer and boxy Macintosh Plus, which reference one of the most important historical points of East-West connection: when Japanese technological products and media (e.g. SEGA video games) became common household features in the United States. These already-obsolete machines are also nostalgic pieces of history for the generations that came of age at the same time that computer games, Internet- service providers, browsers, and user-driven content were developing, but also show just how rapidly everything in the world of technology is shifting.

Digital Mirror: Selfie Consciousness isn’t just a nostalgic waltz through the past constructed to entertain Generations X and Y. Lee, interested in conspiracy theories and political issues alike, sees the development of a digital consciousness or amalgamate identity as something that will be a vital issue in the future. Lee states, “Thinking of the Internet as a fledgling [artificial intelligence], the issue of net neutrality becomes more than just an issue of socialist utility vs. capitalist service. Companies that have had key roles in the development of the Internet… become involved in this battle for ownership, possibly affecting the future of consciousness.” Because technology and the Internet are developing so quickly and have become such a profound component of who we are, understanding how the future of the Internet will impact the world is difficult to conceive. Lee puts some of these wide-scale issues into a discursive public space.

In Lee’s exhibit, he shows that the digital world mirrors our own and expands the possibility for us to adopt intercultural combinations of symbols, images, and language. The expansion of our identities and even consciousness will be at the heart of the Internet’s continued development and impact on our lives. Lee wraps up his musings about the contemporary world by posing a question: “What will we discover about ourselves in the digital mirror we have so carefully constructed, what glory will we lure out of the cave?” With contemporary artists taking on these types of questions, we can hope that we’ll come up with answers in time to shape the future of our increasingly vital digital world.


Mike Lee: Digital Mirror: Selfie Consciousness is at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art through December 17.


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