The multimedia artist has a Tetris crown to reclaim, pies to bake,
and a new solo show.
March 2, 2002, is a day that will live in, well, if not in infamy, then at least in private disrepute in the mind of D.C. artist Kristofer Lee. Because it was on that date that two Quebecers, Nicolas Legare of Gatineau and Robert Wong of Pierrefonds, toppled him from his perch as all-time New Tetris champion, Nintendo 64 platform, Marathon setting. For 13 months, Lee’s record of 4,321 lines had reigned triumphant at twingalaxies.com, the Web’s “Official Electronic Games Scoreboard.” But Legare bested Lee by 830 lines, and Wong beat his countryman by a whopping 788 lines, posting a jaw-dropping score of 5,939 lines.
Lee could have guarded his Tetris record by playing hardball with the newcomers, but he considered it unsporting. “According to Twin Galaxies’ regulations, you could challenge whoever beats you and say, ‘You have to do that again,’” he explains. “And they have to get up to 90 percent [of their earlier score] or their score is void. I didn’t challenge them, though. I’ll just beat them. That’s what I figure.”
Lee, who’s been playing Tetris for years, started out like most other players: rotating his pieces in a single direction—three rights making a left or vice versa. But when he set his sights on upper-echelon play, he knew he would have to refine his style.
“You don’t have time to turn it four times. Really, you have time to turn it twice in either direction,” he says. “You have to have absolute concentration. At what I consider world-class playing level, the blocks come down at such speed that you really don’t have time to think or blink, so I devised this way of shifting my eyes sideways.”
Here he stops to demonstrate his “microshift” technique, darting his eyes to the right and bringing them back to the center, without ever actually shutting his eyelids. “I shift my eyes over and it just kind
of refreshes them,” he says. “It doesn’t stop me from seeing.
“I’ve played hours upon hours at the slow speed at the beginning of the game, but you don’t get a lot of time to practice at the end of the game,” he adds. “There’s a little code that’ll let you play at 10-times speed right from the beginning of the game. And if you think of it like a boxer in a swimming pool or an Olympic runner running twice as far as he has to, that’s essentially what it is.”
But Lee hasn’t had a lot of time to maintain his Tetris chops lately: The 2000 graduate of the Corcoran College of Art and Design has been too busy preparing for his first solo show, “Atopia,” which opened recently
in the project space at 14th Street NW’s Fusebox.
Indeed, Lee has been so preoccupied with his solo show that he’s pushed some other interests aside, too. It’s been a while, for example, since he’s entered a contest. Or, for that matter, gone in search of the perfect pie crust.
Lee gives no hint as to what his next project will be, but there’s little doubt that he will embark upon it with all due care. “I approach all my creative ventures with an equal amount of preliminary preparation,” he says, “whether it be research or practice or just tweaking recipes.”
Although his mother altered the spelling of his first name, Lee was indeed named for Christopher Lee, the Hammer horror star whose favorite role was The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle. But the May Day-ing libertines of Summerisle probably wouldn’t recognize the inhabitants of New Golgotha, the imaginary locale in which Lee the artist places the figures that people his panels and sculpture.
At Fusebox, nine translucent white acrylic planes act as voidlike grounds for the graphite outlines of Lee’s characters, who are all slender, female, and mostly nude, although headdresses, knee-high boots, and long gloves are de rigueur, identifying them as members of a highly regimented society. In the center of the room are five more figures rendered in cast polyurethane resin, each roughly 13 to 16 inches tall.
A voice-over plays in the background: “Compounding output for the greater good of a context not currently recognized by pragmatic modular models designed to exploit the self-stabilizing properties inherent in a complex system; thereby we multiply within the established parameters, using methods chosen of free will or, if you must, no free will, making more babies, more navel oranges, more imaginative requests of our weary companions helping them by helping ourselves make decisive action based on beliefs bound to individual perspective, bound to culture, bound to environment, bound to genetic algorithms, neural networks, and cellular automata all inextricably linked to the Original Input.”
The women and girls are all young, because the 25-year-old artist says he doesn’t feel comfortable representing people whose ages he hasn’t experienced firsthand. They sit on ledges or stand near one another, staring into the undefined distance. They don’t gesture or openly acknowledge one another’s presence, but are linked by stance, fixity of gaze, and, Lee notes, proximity. He likens the situation to the link felt between two people physically near one another but separately reading.
In the past, Lee’s work more explicitly dealt with the stories of New Golgotha. But in “Atopia,” he says, “mythology is just a means to an aesthetic end, really, to give us a set of characters that obviously have something in common from panel to panel and sculpture to sculpture. I mean, they obviously belong in the same place. And I happened to develop that place…probably further than I needed to.” The example he gives is of a novelist providing each character with a detailed back story, much of which never makes it to the page.
Atopia: A Construction of Compound Social Indifference, the text Lee has written to accompany his show, was inspired in part by scientific journals and popular articles addressing, among other subjects, the future of human evolution, as well as by Sartre’s Nausea, The Seventh Seal, and Sophie’s Choice. Lee’s words can be numbing on the page, but when heard in the deliberate, deadpan reading that accompanies the Fusebox show, his convoluted, fragmentary, sometimes pagelong sentences take shape phrase by phrase, making a shifting conceptual frame for the visual pieces.
Although Lee notes that “the text is more aggressive than the work,” he hopes that the two will buffer each other in the gallery. “I think the work helps to neutralize the text and vice versa. Really, I feel if you read the book from beginning to end or listen to the audio from beginning to end, you should come out feeling pretty much medium.”
Lee is interested in the oft-overlooked emotional middle ground. He finds beauty and meaning in all the tiny social awkwardnesses and felicities that constitute the bulk of one’s life. “I don’t want people to be left unbelievably blown away,” he says. “I have much smaller ambitions for my viewers.”
Larger ambitions, however, do sometimes get the better of Lee. A couple of years ago, lured by online banner ads proclaiming a $1,000 poetry prize to be awarded by the Owings Mills, Md.-based International Library of Poetry, Lee entered a poem titled “Looming Towers of Good Guys & Bad Guys.” He didn’t land a windfall, but his entry, like countless others, was deemed worthy of inclusion in an anthology called Chasing the Dawn, put out by Watermark Press, ILP’s vanity-publishing arm. Even so, he can’t lay his hands on a copy to show me, and the ILP hasn’t seen fit to publish his poem on its Web site.
“I don’t enter very many contests,” he says, “but I do appreciate them, I guess because it allows a wide range of people to deposit their particular talents or ideas or wishful fantasies into the global bank account of human accomplishment and effort….I don’t consider myself particularly competitive, but I like to play the game.”
“I mean, I hate to say it, ’cause it sounds really cheesy, but I do have kind of a passion for baking—and for baked goods,” says Lee about another of his own particular talents. “There’s just something about the way the amylase in your mouth breaks down the flour and the complex carbohydrates and leaves you with that unduplicatable kind of sugar, you know…” Lee trails off. Positive mouthfeel? “Yeah, it’s so good,” he murmurs.
“I’m a real baker,” he says. “Actually, lately I haven’t been baking many pies, but I’m doing bread and cookies.” He’s working on what he says will be “my only family heirloom, which’ll be a set of recipes. I’m trying to develop each one just right. My pies are good; my pie crusts are good. And I just did peanut-butter cookies, which are excellent…. Three-quarters of the way through baking, the top surface bulges over and starts to make this beautiful cracking surface. It’s just gorgeous.”
“What I do,” Lee says of his culinary endeavors, “is, I mull over the Internet and my mom’s recipes and just my own intuition about what I think’ll go well in what proportions. And then I look and I seek commonalities. It’s really almost formulaic. I go through, like, two dozen recipes, siphon it down, siphon it down, see what’s the same, see what kind of ingredients have to be there, what kind of ingredients people are just throwing in because their grandmothers threw them in. And then I find those kind of ingredients that people say, ‘Yeah…my grandfather threw that in. My grandfather, Kris Lee, threw this special thing into this.’ And at the same time I want real basic recipes.”
Right now, Lee is most excited about a pistachio-cheese pie—”almost like a cheese custard with kind of a pistachio flair”—that he wants to enter in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. It’s “a grand tradition…I truly enjoy in some metaphysical/cathartic way,” says the ever-competitive artist.
“I probably have no real chance of winning.”CP
“Kristofer Lee: Atopia,” is on view at Fusebox, 1412 14th St. NW, to July 14. For more information, call (202) 299-9220.