Daniel Lee is a contemporary photographic artist based in New York. Originally trained in painting, Lee spent years as an art director before turning to photography and digital imaging. With a deep interest in evolution, science and technology, Lee has always been fascinated by the relationship between humans and animals. His meticulously crafted portraits of hybrid beings are at once mesmerizing and disturbing. Looking into the faces of his creatures, our perception of human and animal sentience vacillates between recognition and uncertainty, emotion and empathy. Lee’s artwork has been published widely and exhibited around the world, including Ars Electronica and the 2003 Venice Biennale. I recently held an online interview with Lee in his New York studio.
I am fascinated by the post-human body in your work. Can you speak about your interest in morphing and anthropomorphism?
Many people take my work as something to do with the post-human or future, but actually, it has evolved naturally and without too much thinking from the beginning. It’s like getting into a stream, carrying me from stage to stage, moving along, until today, I am still working on the same subject.
From the very beginning, I was not really trying to predict anything. I was really just trying to adopt a basic philosophy of seeing the relationship between humans and animals. I started thinking about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Millions of years ago, we were related to the animals we know today. I also grew up in Taiwan, where people believe that humans and animals are subject to reincarnation.
Since the Renaissance, artists have always tried to predict the future. I see artists are in the best position to imagine our future, better than any other profession, because we have the freedom and the fantasy. Even though it will not necessarily happen the way we imagine it.
There is a great opportunity to express art as an imagination. From that point of view. I believe humans and animals have a great relationship. We are so close, and then I also believe the future will not always be like it is today.
In my work, I took a small step to predict the future, and what we would do with our fellow animals. Modern technology allows humans to do many things, like changing DNA and body organ transplants. There is greed…humans need to live longer.
Your series ‘Harvest’ explores an unsettling future of genetic engineering and body organ transplantion. Can you talk about your interest in scientific advancement and human evolution?
I think a lot of scientists and labs are already doing these types of experiments. In the USA right now, the Government has banned so many genetically modified foods from human consumption. Whether in open or in secret, we are not far from the stage where we will see something happen, where we will be able to raise animals to grow organs, like hearts, eyes, livers…the things humans might need. In other words, I think we are close to rewriting DNA, perhaps to a point where animals carry our organs so people can have transplants.
At the same time, I believe these animals would also be more human. A scientist once told me that between human and pigs, we have almost 95% identical sequencing in DNA. If they are raised with our organs, they will be humanised, and they will have our look, and follow with our emotions. You can imagine they will have a certain kind of feeling, and sorrow.
I have a general interest in articles on science. There’s something in our relationship to other animals, to new technology, and what we do with our lives. I have been reading about cryogenics, a technology used in the USA and in other countries, which is intended to preserve humans after they die, until future technology is available to bring them back to life. Scientists have been able to bring back mice through this technology, if they have died within a few hours. Some even say Walt Disney preserved his body through cryogenics.
To do cryogenic treatment for a body can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if you can give up your body and only preserve the head you can pay half as much. This made me think of the wealthy and the poor. There will be many poor people who, if they cannot wait for another hundred years, may need to connect temporarily to an animal body. This goes back to my first thinking there will be many hybrid bodies.
Your images contain strong social commentaries on human behaviour. In the past you’ve referred to the importance of the figures in your images appearing more human than animal and have spoken of “human greed”. How is your work informed by morality and human nature?
That’s not my intention, but many people see that under the surface of my work. When I was young, I grew up in a Catholic family. I learned nothing, but grew up under guilt. I was always thinking I was guilty. I was doing, thinking, feeling things – everything I was not supposed to do, to think, to feel.
As humans, we are still carrying our animal instincts. I believe that. Because if you believe in human evolution, we have 2.4 million years of history. For most of our past, we were living exactly like animals. That I believe. And then eventually, we stand up, we dress up, we start to work under human morals. Everything was just happening yesterday. So if we watch over this long, long, long history, I believe many of these animal instincts are still carried within us. This is how I created some work in the series ‘Nightlife’ and ‘Jungles’.
Your series ‘Manimals’ is based on Chinese astrology and the belief that people take on traits of the animal in the year they were born. How is your past and present work informed by Chinese culture, mythology, and Buddhist philosophy?
Growing up in Taiwan, I saw people around me who really believed in their birth signs, how it related to their lives and their fortunes. I know a lot of well-educated Chinese people who still pray to Buddha to protect them, and especially in years relating to their zodiac sign. I don’t personally see that much relation, but when you live in this kind of society, it becomes a part of culture. It’s hard for you to come out one hundred percent from this kind of mythology.
In America there is a big Chinese community. Each year in New York, the mayor will say something special to acknowledge Chinese New Year. It’s a big thing you know, some people go to the temple to buy a peaceful year, which is hard to believe, especially when all these rituals are a throwback to China.
Chinese astrology and Buddhism, these things are like part of my life. I’m not a Buddhist, but I adopt a lot of the philosophy. When I first got my computer, the first thing that came to mind was to make these ‘Manimals’. I thought it was a great idea to create a portrait based on Chinese astrology, and if you look at the portrait you see the animal coming through them.
Sometimes I feel it’s more about Western people, how they see my work. It’s like a category, and they try and fit me into that slot. For an artist to give a show is for a person to have a party. We have a party, and when people come to your party they want to see what’s cooking. And when they come to see what’s cooking, as a Chinese-American artist, they expect to taste something Chinese. Even if I can cook something else, like the best Northern Italian food, there would be some disappointment. It’s about expectation.
What are you working on in the future?
At the very beginning, I was trying to do future humans. In fact, I was thinking of doing the future of humans at the time I was working on ‘Harvest’, but I dropped this and completed the future of animals instead. When I think about the end, I always end up in a dark spot. That’s why I always put this aside.
I have also been working on circus. I believe if you want to find a spot where human and animals are working so close, and where man is trying to do what animal can do the best, and animals are doing what humans are doing. Yeah, I think circus is the only place where you can see these humans and animals perfectly blended into each other. I have been working on this project since last year and it is almost finished.