New York

Tim Lee

Cohan and Leslie

“Party for Your Right to Fight”—a mocking inversion of the hedonistic Beastie Boys rallying cry “Fight for Your Right to Party”—is the title of a key track on Public Enemy’s peerless 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. In his two-channel video Party for Your Right to Fight, Public Enemy, 1988 (all works 2006), Korean-born, Vancouver-based artist Tim Lee enacts his own, doubled inversion: On each of the two monitors, we see the artist, shot in close-up and spinning like a record on twin decks while reciting the song’s lyrics. The two channels are out of sync, and, adding to the sense of disorientation, the images are inverted—Lee is upside down. The direct reference to Bruce Nauman’s video installation Anthro-Socio, 1992, is intentionally transparent: Each and every work in this, Lee’s second solo outing at Cohan and Leslie, mashes up the oeuvre of the influential elder artist with that of the influential (though now sadly diluted) hip-hop collective.

Lee’s enterprise is somewhat boys-clubby: Both Nauman and Public Enemy have been identified with a certain brutality of address that, while it doesn’t explicitly exclude women, certainly exudes a certain machismo. But the aim here is clearly something more than unreconstructed hero-worship. The artist’s muddying of “Party for Your Right to Fight”’s political argument in It Takes a Nation of Millions, attained through the clamorous juxtaposition of the two slightly out-of-sync recitations, unquestionably achieves the philosophical “flattening” mentioned in the press release, but does it accomplish anything in pointing up the correspondence between Nauman’s visual/verbal investigation and the rappers’ revolutionary rage? Why pair these two particular creative forces at this particular moment?

If Lee’s point is simply that the radicalisms represented by Public Enemy (musical and political) and Nauman (aesthetic and conceptual) have softened, gained acceptance, or been sidelined since each was at the height of its power, It Takes a Nation of Millions may be judged a success, but the achievement would seem decidedly muted. The same criticism might be leveled at Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy, 1990, in which the titular vinyl disc has been cut into a gyroscope-like object and suspended within a hermetic Plexiglas vitrine, and Untitled I, 1966, a double canvas on which the motto TOO BLACK TOO STRONG (a Malcolm X quote heard at the start of Public Enemy’s single “Bring the Noise”) is painted in Reinhardtian black-on-black. While appealingly neat, do these punning combinations add up to much more than the sum of their parts?

More engaging—though perhaps simply because there’s more for the viewer to “do”—is Retrospective, Public Enemy, 1988–91, an hour-long, two-channel video loop in which the artist attempts to reproduce various drum patterns sampled on Public Enemy records by playing them himself on a regulation kit. The latter work seems most in keeping with Lee’s more unequivocally successful previous efforts, in which physical comedy and deadpan cultural analyses often find a strange equivalence, and through which cultural forebears from Robert Smithson (as in Upside-down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913, 2004) to Iggy Pop (Untitled [James Osterberg, 1970], 2004) move and mingle like guests at an impossibly diverse party. Maybe the kind of homage he pays to such titans—consciously confused, disrespectful of hierarchy, strategically exploitative, always ironic—is the only kind that is possible now, and the influence that they still exercise can only be felt through a process of symbiotic juxtaposition, even, or perhaps especially, when the figures he brings together seem diametrically opposed.

Michael Wilson