What advice would you give a stranger? What are your hopes and dreams? Those are the kind of questions art lab participants will ask each other during Wing Young Huie’s art lab here at the Walker next Thursday, March 26th. These same people will be asking those questions of complete strangers and take their picture too!
Huie is an award winning photographer who not only has a reputation here in the twin cities, but nationally. His series of Lake Street photographs have been hailed as a truly extraordinary public art project. And that’s because he truly believes in people and has faith that they will always do the right thing.
I talked to him about his work and what we can expect next Thursday during his art lab that takes on some of the themes in the Elizabeth Peyton show Live Forever.
What drew you to photography and why did you choose this medium over say painting?
I grew up wanting to be a writer, ended up majoring in print journalism at the University of Minnesota. Worked at Minnesota Daily as a general assignment reporter. Two stories of which I’m particularly proud, a two-parter on “Loneliness” and an in-depth report on the phone numbers scrawled on campus bathroom walls.
But when I was a sophomore, age 20, I bought a camera and was hooked. My father was my first subject. I was twenty, living at home, experimenting with my new Minolta SLR camera, when I made the first exposures of my dad in the kitchen. It was strange and exhilarating to look at someone so familiar so intently, and see something new.
Now, some thirty years and hundreds of thousands of exposures later, I’m still trying to look at the world anew.
You’ve done a number of public art projects. Ones that require intense participation on the part of your subjects. Why do you do them?
I didn’t know anything about public art when I decided to display my Frogtown photographs outdoors in an empty lot on University and Dale. It just seemed to make sense to put it in a place that was accessible for anyone. It went well, so I expanded the idea with Lake Street.I’m doing another large-scale project on University Avenue, made by possible by the Joyce Foundation, produced and further funded by Public Art St. Paul. In spring 2010 hundreds of photos will be installed and projected at night along University Avenue.
I read an article in the Star Tribune from 2000 that quoted Vince Leo, head of the MCAD media department, as saying, “Wing has a tremendous faith in human beings; I don’t know how else to say it.” Is this what moves you to document people that maybe the rest of us would never see? And, with everything that has happened in the last few years around the world and here in the US, are you still optimistic about people being able to make the right decisions?
I’m not sure if it’s faith. I also don’t think it’s particularly useful for the artist to understand the why of things. Who really knows why we do what we do? No sense to lay yourself out on the couch. The real question is how to keep doing it. I think it’s hard to be creative for a long time. It’s easy to make excuses. I know them all.
I’m not even sure if I’m well-suited for this kind of work. I’m really kind of a private person but yet I’ve interacted with thousands of people. It’s intrusive what I do. I guess I’m curious, persistent, and believe that what I do has value. I’m interested in how things are, not how they should be. I don’t think I know what the right decisions are. I mean, I’m not an activist. I want to show you, not tell you. And what I show is open to interpretation.
It’s been nearly 10 years since the Lake Street project was completed. How has that street changed? Or has it? Do you think your project made an impact on people who, both participated and who just happened to see them while walking by or riding the bus?
During the Lake Street exhibit we put comment books in the various coffee shops along Lake Street. Here is what an anonymous person wrote:
“Where art is not afraid to look into the eyes of us, regular poor folks just living our lives, this art comes down from the pretentious, self-concious and exclusive upper-class realm and becomes community art, art with a purpose, humane. These are the pictures you’ll never see in Nike ads or car ads or perfume ads.
These are the majority of Americans picking up their broken identities and trying to scrape together a living, a culture, an identity, a life. Most of the images we see are of advertisements, trying to sell us a euphoria and prestige we could never achieve. We look around us and are disappointed, we struggle but don’t measure up. These photos show us, real and valuable just as we are. They are sad because they aren’t the perfect images of others we’re used to seeing. They are empowering for the same reason. Thanks, for these images and a chance to respond. Peace.”
Tell us what people can expect at next Thursday’s art lab? What do you want participants to take away from it?
For the Art Lab you can expect to get outside of your own bubble and photograph someone you don’t know. I try not to have expectations, but I can tell you that in my private life I am plagued by the usual misperceptions and annoyances of my fellow human beings, but when I’m encountering the world with my camera I’m better able to put aside those qualities that make me insular, and in that sense I am a better person as a photographer.