Extended Breathing in the Garden 2008–10
In Extended Breathing in the Garden, Lake stands erect in her own backyard after sunset. She photographed the scene with a one-hour exposure time, and, while the background remains crisp, her own figure is blurred, save for her lower legs and feet, which remain in sharp focus. The result resembles photographs from the latter part of the nineteenth century, when camera technology was unable to easily record movement. Lake presented the work in a colour transparency fixed into a lightbox. This photo-performance is part of Lake’s Extended Breathing series, 2008–14, eleven images in which she challenged herself to stand still in one place for an hour, her only movement the essential act of breathing.
In other images in the Extended Breathing series, Lake took photographs outside her home at various times of day or night. Both the title and the concept suggest a meditative state, one that in reality was not always achieved; as Lake has said, “While I’m standing there for one hour, I’m making the image in my mind’s eye, but what I’m thinking about is not predictable. Sometimes I’m in a meditative state, sometimes I’m responding to my body, sometimes to a memory.”
The Extended Breathing series also explores elements of duration, movement, and perception at many different locations. Lake broadened the project to public sites of personal and historical interest—such as London’s Trafalgar Square, New York’s World Trade Center, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. In her photograph of Trafalgar Square, the traces of pedestrians and sitters have become spectral or have disappeared while Lake’s relative stillness gives her appearance a monumental quality that likens her to the background elements in the photograph.
Two Extended Breathing photographs taken at the Detroit Institute of Arts bring together the personal and the political. One was taken on the steps of the museum in 2012, when the museum was undergoing an existential crisis: with the city declaring bankruptcy, creditors attempted to claim the art in the collection. The other was taken in a grand hall in the museum in 2013 in front of a large-scale fresco from the early 1930s that depicts people at work in one of the city’s factories, by Diego Rivera (1886–1957). The photograph therefore points not only to Lake’s childhood in mid-century Detroit but also to the balance achieved at that earlier time by labour unions, business owners, and governmental regulators—an order that, once upset during the 1970s, would lead to the city’s economic failure. These works, seemingly simple, weave together multiple histories.
As in works such as Choreographed Puppets, 1976–77, the blur is a notable feature in the Extended Breathing series. It appeared again in the series Performing Haute Couture, 2014, produced for Lake’s retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Introducing Suzy Lake, in which Lake stands still in her elegant Comme des Garçons pearl-grey suit, but raises her arm slowly, causing the image to blur markedly on the sleeve on that side. As the work of a female artist in her sixties, these images explore endurance and the stoic presence of women in the wider social and political space. She is no longer transforming, as she was in Suzy Lake as Gary William Smith, 1973–74, or struggling against control, as in Choreographed Puppets or in ImPositions #1, 1977.
Extended Breathing in the Garden represents a quiet moment at day’s end at a private residence. Although it situates Lake at a specific time and place in her life, she is still very much a part of the world around her.