Interview with Bing Lee, Co-Founder, Godzilla

Posted September 10, 2010 by Anonymous
Alexandra Chang, Director of Public Programs and Research Manager, A/P/A Institute, NYU
Interview Date: 
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Person Interviewed: 
Bing Lee, Co-Founder, Godzilla
Place of Interview: 
New York, NY


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Bing Lee on March 10, 2009. The interview took place in New York City, New York, and was conducted by Alexandra Chang. This interview was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.


Screenshot of Bing Lee

ALEXANDRA CHANG: Okay. So I thought we might be able to begin before the beginning. 

BING LEE: Before the beginning, okay. 

CHANG: Because you were in Epoxy [Art] Group before then. 

LEE: Yes. 

CHANG: And maybe how that might have influenced you to then create another art group? 

LEE: Another group, yeah. 

CHANG: …because you’d been part of collectives before. 

LEE: Okay. Well, actually, before Epoxy, I co-founded another group in Hong Kong, right before I came to the United States. That’s called Visual Arts Society. That is in the seventies. And the beginning is a group of twelve members, all artists. And we graduated from Hong Kong University, studio art program. And then we tried to get into the Hong Kong Biennial, but we all got rejected. Because in those days, more or less, it’s like Chinese painting is— a Chinese painting is ink on paper or oil painting is[?] oil painting [inaudible]. And a group of young artists in those days, they don’t necessarily [like?] being categorized in either group. So we all got rejected and we start the group. And so what we did is we don’t have any idea to found a group, we just want to make a voice and show our work. So what we did is we put our easels on the sidewalk in front of the museum. So after that, of course, during the opening, all the media [was?] kind of surprised and unexpected this, another group showing on the sidewalk. And through[?] all the attention and all the media and the write-up and all that, and then we decided to form the group. And then I learned from that. And that means if you join together, we can have a voice. As individuals, our voice may be, you know— Well, we can still have the voice, but it’s not as loud as a group and not as loud as if we repeat that voice over and over again. And that is in the early seventies. 

And then right after I co-founded the group, I came to the States, in the seventies. I went to Ohio and go on for further studies in fine art. And then after that, I went to Syracuse University for grad school. And ’79, I came to New York. And that is the place I dreamed of being an artist. And I need to try at least once, and see whether I can make it as a fine artist in New York. And when I arrived in New York, some of my friends already have a gallery. And in those days, the East Village is not really started yet. Some galleries on Mott Street. They called Mott Street Art Society or Gallery Society, something like that; I don’t recall the exact name. But on Mott Street, right now it’s called NoLita. There’s a whole block of galleries there. And then a friend of mine started a gallery there. He’s also from Hong Kong, too. And then that is in the early eighties. 

CHANG: So at that time, were there people from China, Hong Kong that you knew that were hanging out there? Or where you hanging out with lots of different types of people? 

LEE: I hang out with different types of people because I’m new here, so I want to start networking. So I hang out with artists in the Lower East Side, and I met an artist, Allen Daugherty. And he’s doing the hand-made[?] slides projected on the wall, in SoHo. So there’s another group to get together and do that. And you know, his announcement, he just Xeroxed it and put it on the street. But at that time, we don’t have that much money. And so the large format, he can’t afford to have a large format. So he used like legal size, and four legal size put together to make one big poster. And then at that time, I’m doing like a similar thing. I put up posters, but it’s a cut-out image. But big cut-out image, because I live in— At that time, I find a recycle place. See, they dump a lot of paper in the street, they can’t use it. So I just grabbed that and use that for that purpose. And then I met a whole bunch of people during those days. And also I met some other Chinese or Chinese American artists from Taiwan and from Hong Kong. And from Taiwan, it’s different— the artist from Taiwan is a little bit different from the artist from Hong Kong at that time. They came here a little bit earlier; they came here [in the] sixties. And they already finished college; they came here as artists. And most of the Hong Kong artists, we came here as a student. So it’s a little bit different. So after we graduate, we all landed, you know, and came to New York City, and then we met. But a little bit different because the Taiwanese artists, it’s like they’re more mature; they already know exactly what they want. And for us, it’s like [we] just got out from college and we need to find out what is really our direction, what we’re going to do. Maybe we— we’re a little bit younger. And so at that time, it’s the early eighties. And we sit down and talk[?]

CHANG: So you were hanging out with a lot of different people? 

LEE: A lot of different people. 

CHANG: But where there distinct kind of cliques? I mean, was it kind of like the Hong Kong artists like to hang out together, the Taiwanese— or was there an intermix at that time? 

LEE: I don’t know how to explain it. I’m the one that hops from one group to the other. So I don’t— At that time, I’m not just hanging out with one group because it’s all different. And I hang out with a group from the Midwest; we all graduate together and come to New York. And they already found a gallery— A lot of my schoolmates from Ohio, they did not go to grad school. So they’re two years ahead of me. So in that case, they already have the network. So through them, I start the network. And then some Taiwanese artists are already here, for already maybe fifteen years ahead of me and other artists from Hong Kong. So you know, I hang out a little bit with them because— I’m not that close at that time to the Taiwanese artists because of my language problem, because my Mandarin is so poor at that time. And so I hang out at parties, blah-blah-blah, but we can not have a kind of discussion in depth about art, about politics, about life and all that. I can just barely communicate with them, like daily life, you know, a social conversation, and that’s about it. But hang out with the Hong Kong group, you find something in common. And something in common is we all need to work here or there to support our living, and also to support our art life, too. So we sit down. And of course, you know, Chinese, we sit down, we always eat. And food, like lunch and dinner and all that. And then we feel like maybe it’s about time to work together. So after, a couple gatherings, about maybe two months or something like that, we start talking. And then we start talking, what’s the mission of the group? Number one is we want to work on some projects oriented—instead of individual artists, have a group show or something like that, we all don’t want to have that kind of very structural, and we only want to get together. And we have some idea we just work on one project after the other. And we don’t want to set up a 501(c)(3), or not even a charity group. So we’re just a grassroots organization and art group. And that is the Epoxy. The meaning of epoxy is that [it’s] a glue that uses two different kind of chemicals, A and B, and we mix together and then it will be a very strong binding agent. So we used that as symbolic meaning of the group, because we not— All the projects, it doesn’t show the character of our work. We just work together as a collaborative project. We just share different roles[?]. And sometimes these projects act like a conductor, and some of them is more of[?] their work, and some of them is more research, you know, doing research. It’s different. So it started in the eighties, early; I think it’s ’81. And then defunct[?] late eighties. I think it’s ’87, ’88 that it was defunct. And so at that time— Well, that group, you know, before the Godzilla. And that group, through the Epoxy, and I know Basement. Because Basement offered Epoxy a show. Which is the second show of the Epoxy. The first show is on Mott Street, it’s a small gallery on Mott Street. That’s before East Village. And then through Basement— And then I start the network of Asian Americans. At that time, I don’t have that term in mind as what Asian American is about. To me, it’s a Chinese American or just an artist, because I know that I carry multi identities. But I come to New York; I want to put artist just on the top of the [inaudible], you know. I don’t find it necessary to do something that suggests that I’m from Hong Kong or I was born in China and— I have no intention to do that. If I have that kind of taste or touch or Asian-ness, that is naturally in it. And we never tried to— at least to me, I never tried to emphasize that. Because I grew up in Hong Kong; it’s already a British colony, so I already have that kind of training. I grew up in that environment, so—

And after we defunct[?] the group Epoxy— And at that time, it’s the late eighties or mid-eighties. You know, mid-eighties, I work at Asian American Art Center. So I do programs, I write grants, I start programs. I meet a lot of artists through Asian American Art Center because all those exhibitions, all these art programs. And then through that, I met a lot of Asian American artists. Some of them are younger, some of them older, some of them’s old-timers, and some of them just arrived and all that. And through that—I met Margo. 

CHANG: So you met her there. 

LEE: No actually, I briefly met Margo at the Basement Workshop and that gallery on Catherine Street. That’s when Epoxy had a show. And that show in Basement is the first time, draws some attention of, you know, Epoxy. And then some in-crowd[?] people know who Epoxy is, you know. And I remember that’s the first time I met Lucy Lippard. And she came to the show and she wrote a review on that show. And then we talked. And then I realized that she already keeps an eye on the work I put up in the street; she already knows that. That is a kind of surprise to me, that some critic, writer, art historian, they’re keeping an eye on what’s going on. At that time perhaps, I don’t know [if?] she recognized me as—or realized I’m the[?] Asian artist, or just a street artist. So that kind of identity is maybe what she keeps an eye on, is that it’s all the street art. So maybe I was in that category, instead of Asian American artist. That, I’ve been thinking about all that long. And through Asian American Art Center and through my job, I met Ken, Ken Chu. And Margo, I met at, briefly, Basement first. And then of course, a lot of projects. Margo [was?] involved in Asian American Art Center. Margo was AIR there. And Ken Chu was AIR there. And as a matter of fact, I met Ken before that. 

CHANG: Oh, how did you meet him? 

LEE: Okay. I met Ken— I met Ken through film projects. When I first came to New York after I graduated from Syracuse, I’m still not sure that I want to be a filmmaker or I want to be a visual artist. I made film at SU. So I made two short films. And then when I got to New York, I got involved in some independent production, film production. So I worked on sometimes the scenery, sometimes props, sometimes production design. And there’s one project I was the production design, and I need some other assistant, like costume design and scenic and props and all that. And Ken just arrived from California, San Francisco— I think it’s San Francisco. And actually, to find— Ken has not worked directly with me first. Ken is doing costume design for—

CHANG: Films. 

LEE: Yes. My wife is the costume designer in that production. And Ken is working with my wife. And then we met and Ken would like to do some scenic and props and more visual art oriented. So he says, “Well, can I work on that?” And I said, “Oh, sure,” you know. So that’s how we met. And then after that, we become friends. And I work at Asian American Art Center and I asked Ken to see, “Do you want to be a AIR there? So if you want, you can apply and all that. [inaudible],” blah-blah-blah, “And the whole selection process. You’re absolutely qualified to apply for that.” So indeed, he applied and he got that year. So he was AIR there. And then we start more in depth talking about identity things. And he got involved in a couple— I think Margo curated a show. Yeah. And then Ken had a show there, a group show and then got involved. And so—

CHANG: So that’s how you met. 

LEE: That’s how— that’s pre-Godzilla. So we all met. I met Margo—

CHANG: When was that year, approximate, do you know? 

LEE: The Epoxy show, I think it’s ’84. ’84 or ’85. I can go through the archive. If you want some documents, maybe I’ll give you some copies of that show, the Epoxy show and all that. That’s pre-Godzilla. And after that, of course, Ken left. That AIR program is just one year. And then—

CHANG: But you stayed in touch, or—?

LEE: Yeah. 

CHANG: There was the Tuesday lunch club or—?

LEE: He’s involved in the lunch club. And the Tuesday lunch club, to start with, it’s me and Ik-Joong Kang. Because Ik-Joong’s studio and my studio is under one commercial building. Actually, his is across the street of mine, but the same management. So we met. 

CHANG: And you were already downtown at the time? 

LEE: Yeah, I was in TriBeCa. And the studio is in TriBeCa, too. And I met Ik-Joong also through Asian American Art Center, too. Ik-Joong just graduated. And after he graduated, he got a show in SoHo, in the Basement, doing the three-by-three little paintings. And then he got a show at the Broadway Windows. And then I spot[?] the show and I asked him, say, “Do you want a show at the Asian American Art Center? We can work something out.” That’s how we met. And then he had a show. I think that show is called Uptown Downtown show. So that’s the show, we want to have the show outside Chinatown, outside downtown. So it’s kind of collaborate with DCA[?]. So it’s a group of artists showing at the[?] Uptown Gallery[caps?], and another group of artists showing at[?] Downtown[caps?]. So it’s kind of like—

CHANG: An exchange. 

LEE: Yeah, yeah, a kind of exchange, geographically and all that. And so that’s how I met Ik-Joong. And then I found out his studio is [laughs] across the street of mine. So we all lunch in Chinatown. Or sometimes [inaudible], sometimes— we love to eat and we try to find all these little restaurants. And then later, Byron[?] came, joined in, and Ken Chu joined in. It’s very loose; it’s like everybody loves to eat, this group. 

CHANG: Where did you like to go? Was there a particular restaurant? 

LEE: Oh, okay, yeah. To start with, why is it Tuesday? 

CHANG: Yeah, why is it Tuesday? [laughs] 

LEE: Why it’s Tuesday, okay. Yeah. Because me and Ik-Joong know about that, why is it Tuesday. [they laugh] 

CHANG: Are you going to tell me? 

LEE: Yeah, I’m going to tell you. Why is it Tuesday? It’s first, we hang out in one particular Chinese restaurant, a very good Chinese restaurant and very affordable. [laughs] 

CHANG: What is it called? 

LEE: It’s the Tai Tung[?]. Tai Tung. It’s on Canal Street. Unfortunately, they closed down and turned into a bakery, a store. Why Tuesday is, okay, the chef of that little Chinese restaurant, actually, he was a big chef from Hong Kong. Yeah. And he immigrated to New York. He can’t be a big chef, so [laughs] he’s a chef in the basement, in a little Chinese restaurant. But the way he makes the lamb stew is the best. So both Ik-Joong and me say, “Oh, this is the best lamb stew.” And I love to eat, so we exchange our knowledge of[?] food [chuckles] with Ik-Joong. I said, “You know, this ingredient is a must for lamb stew, [the] Chinese traditional way. Nobody in Chinatown at that time knew that ingredient. They never put it in there.” Actually, that is sugarcane. Nobody puts sugarcane in the lamb stew. This is a must. 

CHANG: Oh, okay. 

LEE: Yeah. So that’s the lamb stew. And they make the best fish balls. So they make it fresh. Tuesday is the day they make it. [Chang gasps, laughs] That’s why Tuesday. Maybe Monday, Wednesday, we go somewhere else; but Tuesday, we know that they have the fresh fish balls. [laughs] So Tuesday, we hang out there. [laughs] That’s why it’s Tuesday. 

CHANG: That’s so awesome. [laughs] 

LEE: Yeah. And Ik-Joong knows that. The fish balls, the lamb stew, and then they have a very good squid with all this mustard green, pickle and all that. And you know, that’s why it’s called Tuesday. And we hang out. And then sometimes Wednesday we meet, Thursday we meet; and then Tuesday, we definitely, we definitely. However, you know, after a few years, the chef— they make it, they make money, they’re more— and they’re not making the fish balls anymore, and we’re kind of disappointed, [Chang chuckles] so we keep looking for different places to start. 

CHANG: Oh, I see. 

LEE: But we maintained that Tuesday is kind of like a gathering. And then it went on for many years, the Tuesday—

CHANG: Oh, how many years? And these were all artists that were part of it? 

LEE: Yeah. I think it’s late— Me and Ik-Joong is like late eighties. And as a matter of fact, Ik-Joong, like he’s more serious about documenting the whole thing. 

CHANG: Really? 

LEE: About all the Chinese restaurants. Ik-Joong writes down and takes notes. [laughs] Yes. 

CHANG: Of the places you went and how good it was, or who was there at the time? 

LEE: Yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh. 


LEE: Yeah. You know, and all that. And even from his pocket, he made a little guidebook. [laughs] 

CHANG: That’s great. 

LEE: Yeah. And that restaurant that we hang out on Tuesday, later became very popular. And the French tourist guidebook has the name of that. A lot of tourists hang out there, too. And so that is Tuesday. And then— 

CHANG: So did you guys talk about possibly something to do with Godzilla at that point? 

LEE: No, no. 

CHANG: Or it was more a connection? 

LEE: But we sit down, of course we talk about art, we talk about shows, we talk about what we’re doing. And then about…

CHANG: Just career stuff? 

LEE: …like projects, yeah, and all that. Sometimes personal. And so it’s a nice gathering, and regularly. And every time it’s different and a different group. People just came in early and some people want to leave early, just drop off maybe five dollars or something like that. It’s very affordable in those days. 

CHANG: So how did that become, then that you and Margo and Ken met up? 

LEE: Okay. At that time—I think it’s 1989, yeah—I took a leave of absence from Asian American Art Center. I went back to Hong Kong for another film production. And then when I got back, Ken and Margo, we talked about— Because at that time, like up to ’89— And I think 1990, we met to seriously talk about that, because the whole new world order is changing after ’89 —the Chinese student movement, and the Berlin Wall is— you know. And I don’t know about is it the timing? We never talked about it. Perhaps the timing, like we felt something happening, and we need to maybe get together and to redefine our identity or our role or what we can do to work together and get together and maybe work on something to prepare for the new decade that’s the nineties. And then we sit down and talk and see what— and say, “Hm, let’s get to form a group.” Of course, we have different vision. So we met a few times and we’re talking more and more seriously about that. 

CHANG: So what were you concerned about specifically? That at that time that you were talking about, that you wanted to see in the group? 

LEE: At that time, when the three of us sit down, I feel the need to network. And for me, that Asian American, that term is still kind of fussy. Because I’m not sure what it means. Is it a political term? Or is it a cultural— you know, we’re linked together? Or just geographic, being grouped together? And we need to— for me, I think, at that time, I need to find out or define it. And how to define it, instead of— I think the best way is to meet with the people so we can understand what is in common, what’s the difference, and why we group together and all that, instead of— Yeah, we can go to the library, you know, and check out some books, but it’s not the same as like the lunch group, we talk. And we eat together, we talk together, and we share in the same time, a period of time, and then we talk for conversation, for the food we eat, for the shows we go to, you know, together. And I think that it’s the right time to really need to get together[?] and understand each other, different ethnic groups, and see what’s in common, what’s the difference. And Margo and Ken have a different vision about the group, but it’s great, you know? So three of us is like a different— Margo is more like, I don’t know, [inaudible, car alarm]. 

CHANG: Should I stop this for a minute, just so we can get— [file stops and re-starts] 

LEE: So continue to—

CHANG: Yeah. 

LEE: Yeah, the three of us get together. I think it’s the networking that is— I think it’s about time. I think the timing is right. You know, so that means[?] serious talk about it, and we started. And we invite a few people to join in. And that’s the first group to join together, it’s thirteen of us. 

CHANG: Who are the thirteen, do you remember? 

LEE: Okay. Eugenie, Eugenie Tsai; Baron Kim[?], Alan Huang[?], Helen Ogee[?], [two inaudible names], Janet Lin[sp?]. Did I miss anybody? 

CHANG: That’s seven. And then three, it’s you, Margo and Ken. 

LEE: Yeah, that’s ten. And then it’s Chuck Yuen; and Colin, Colin Lee. And who else is—? One or two is not in the picture. 

CHANG: Oh. Well, I guess maybe Yong Soon Min. Is she in the beginning? Not yet. 

LEE: Yao Su Ming[?] is not yet. Lao Mai Ling[?] was another one not in the picture. And then we have meetings here and there. There’s no—it’s like a nomad; we don’t have a specific— [car alarm; file stops and re-starts] It’s like—

CHANG: Oh, sorry. 

LEE: Back to—

CHANG: Okay. So I guess what I’m interested in now is just for— I mean, you were concerned with the networking, and you were talking about being Asian American at the time, what that meant. But for you, was there a concern about visibility, as well? Because I know some of the other people were concerned about that. 

LEE: Yes. Yes. And I think to join the group is twofold. One is network, the Asian American artists, so we can understand each other a little better. Because maybe personally, I know something more Jamaican[?] than, you know, ancient India[?] because so far away, you know, from me. But Jamaica, maybe I know the music and all that. Maybe in that case, it’s closer. But through the network, you know, we share a lot of thoughts, and through conversation, through meeting, maybe we can understand a little bit more. And through projects, exhibitions, something like that, for some program. And then we need that. I think I feel the need to network the Asian American, you know, first. And then secondly, I think that we also need to promote it to outside, network to the outside, so that we understand ourselves first and find something in common, and then we can have that preparation to the outside, to the Western— I hate to use the mainstream, that word. But in my mind, that’s what is the mission for that, like networking within, and then outreach to the outside. 

CHANG: So for the outreach, I mean, were you presenting, giving platforms like panels or showing slides or things to other people? Or was it different? What did you do for networking to the outside? 

LEE: You know, it’s about the timing. At that time, it’s a good timing for me because I left Asian American Art Center, ’89. And when I joined Godzilla, at the same time, I started a new job at the School of Visual Arts. So that is the perfect timing for me for networking and to outreach to the other—First, I think it’s perfect for me to do the outreach because it’s education, it’s an institution; it’s easier for me to do that. So I can carry that fact and then[?] to SVA. And at that time it’s the early nineties, right? And in Asia, the economies are booming. So a lot of Asian students, foreign students come over to the United States to study, to go on their further studies. And if they want to study fine art, they know exactly where to go. So New York is the spot they want to come over. And then through that, and then I can outreach to the Asian countries, to. And SVA, when they hired me, they can see that my job, besides the teaching, actually my main role is an outreach program. Yeah. So I promote the program, I promote SVA, I promote that. And I’m like an ambassador to Asia, to talk with other institutions… in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and later China and India. So that is— you know, I think the timing is right for Godzilla at that time, so to do the networking. 

CHANG: Oh, that’s interesting. And I wanted to ask you about that— Because it says Asian American Arts Network, but I mean, there were a lot of artists that weren’t specifically born here— So how did you all talk about what defines Asian American? I mean, do you have to be born there? Were there certain sets of rules? Or was it like anyone that wanted to join, even if you weren’t Asian at all, could you join, or—? 

LEE: At that time, very loose. We don’t really define, you know, what exactly, how Asian. Are you an immigrant or are you born here? Are you .5 generation? Even .5, you know, there’s—they can be young and all that. But we’re very loose. We don’t definitely have a definition to label it. Because at that time, personally, I need to find out, too because I don’t have the definition and I’m not sure how can I set up the rule, if we don’t— [laughs] You know? 

CHANG: Yeah. 

LEE: So— And—

CHANG: And you were mentioning that you weren’t 501(c)(3) for Epoxy nor for Godzilla. Why did you choose that, too? 

LEE: Because— one main reason is we don’t want that to be too structural. We don’t want to end up being administrators. We want to just share our experience. We just want to get together and group together. And other thing is we don’t necessarily have definitely how many programs we need, and we don’t have a goal for the budget. And we don’t want to carry that kind of a burden, because the bottom line is we consider ourselves, the top priority is we are artists first. And so we just group that, either Epoxy or Godzilla, we try to do something extra, but the bottom line is we know we are artists. So we don’t want to become administrators. So that is why. And we don’t even have a permanent address. And I think from day one till we’re defunct, Godzilla still uses my P.O. box. 

CHANG: Oh, it’s your P.O. Box. 

LEE: That’s my P.O. Box. [Chang laughs] I talked to the post office, “Can I add a name to that?” They said, “Fine, as long as, you know, you receive it.” Because we don’t want to open another— [chuckles] The budget’s tight. We work on a shoestring. And that’s about it. And then we just started as a group; registered the name and opened an account, and that’s it. 

CHANG: But you did have slideslams and you did have presentations. 

LEE: Yeah. 

CHANG: How did you go about doing that? And can you tell me a little bit, what it was like? 

LEE: First, it was just sharing. And I think this is a very Asian mentality of art; it’s more about sharing. So in the beginning, we just asked members to submit three slides, and we just showed them to each other. And through them, maybe we can get something to talk about and to understand a little bit. The most important thing is we share that evening. We share our passion, we share our experience. And I think that is the most fun part to be in the group. And not just artists. And then later, we invite a curator, too. That’s how we met Alice Yang. And I know her briefly, but through Epoxy, we become friends. And then through Epoxy— Not Epoxy, sorry, through Godzilla— actually, through Godzilla— I know her briefly, I think, at New Museum at that time. But I don’t know her that well. And I think Margo was there, too in that time. Yeah, briefly. And so through Godzilla, I know her more. And then we invite a curator to come over and give us a talk, a presentation. And then I know her more. And then she dropped by to my studio, and then she wrote a couple of review articles about my work and all that. And we started a friendship through Godzilla. And I think that served the purpose of networking. And then I find out that her loft is just one block from my loft. But before that, we never knew that. And after that, we bump into each other very often. [Chang laughs] I don’t know, it’s kind of great, you know? So that is about the group in the beginning, before we have the exhibition, before we have the Curio Shop and— 

CHANG: So what exactly brought you all together to think, “Oh, you know, we should be doing an exhibition?” I mean, you had people come to present their work and that sort of thing? 

LEE: Yeah. Jeu Hang Tu[?]. Jeu Hang Tu is early Godzilla, too. But he’s not the first we called[?] steering committee, you know. 

CHANG: Okay. 

LEE: But he joined very early. 

CHANG: And Mel Chin too also— 

LEE: Mel Chin is—

CHANG: he did a presentation? 

LEE: Yeah, Mel Chin at that time, I think it’s the second project or major work we did is Mel Chin’s project. He got the NEA, got rejected, and we kind of support him. At that time, we already have—

CHANG: What was the issue, then, that he got rejected by the NEA? 

LEE: He got rejected— He got approved, and then at that time, on top, there’s another committee on top of NEA and got rejected. It’s because Mel’s project is a kind of scientific process to use a certain kind of plant to plant in the field to absorb the heavy metals. And then so the question is, this is not art, this is science. So he got rejected and Godzilla supported that. And then Mel Chin started a dialog talking about why this is art. So anyway, he got it back. Yeah, so—

CHANG: So that at the time there was also the letter to the Whitney, right? The whole idea…

LEE: Yeah, mm-hm. 

CHANG: …about quality of art. 

LEE: Yeah. And this is— we have the newsletter and all that. And I think it’s very powerful that you have a newsletter, you have some writing, that kind of documentation of what’s going on. And people take it more seriously if you have that. And so even though Godzilla is a very loose grassroots organization, the newsletter is one important agent that makes Godzilla strong, to make that voice loud, because we have that newsletter. And that can outreach to different groups, and much faster than some other way to outreach to other groups. Of course, at that time, Google is not there yet, internet is not popular yet, even email is not that popular. A fax machine is the fastest we can get. 

CHANG: Right. 

LEE: But right now, we forget about the fax machine exists. But anyway, the newsletter, I would say, put Godzilla on the map. 

CHANG: And so I was wondering, because it seems that although it’s a very loose group because people are coming in and out, and the decisions are made together, but there seemed to be some sort of structure because there were those committees that did work on these things. So there was some sort of organization…

LEE: Yeah. 

CHANG: …more than other groups seemed to have. 

LEE: Yeah. Yeah. Because I think that even though it’s a grassroots artist group, but in one way, you’re absolutely correct, is we’re very structural. Whenever a project— each project, we have a different subcommittee to run it. Because the Godzilla group, we have so many different professionals in the group. We have a writer, we have a historian, we have a curator and artists, and they have experience to do a lot. We have a graphic designer. And so we work together, we just share that professional ability, responsibility; we just share that. And in some sense, it’s very structural. 

CHANG: That’s something interesting, as well is that there are many groups that come together for visibility, but mostly emerging artists; but Godzilla seemed to have many people that were already mid-career or very established in the different fields, whether they were a critic or a curator or something. 

LEE: Yeah. Yeah, because at that time, there’s not that many groups— [horns; he laughs] 

CHANG: Should we just stop? 

LEE: [laughs] Should we stop? [file stops and re-starts] I think it’s about timing again. Because before that, there’s not that many groups. A lot of Asian American artists maybe perhaps are not in New York City, and they don’t have that opportunity to join any group and to have that luxury. And so the timing is right. And I find out that when I work for the School of Visual Arts and sometimes I need to go to Asia, [horns] and a lot of times, I visit a lot of other universities and art colleges [inaudible]. And I went to conferences and all that for higher education, annual conference. And a lot of people already heard about Godzilla. 

CHANG: How did they hear about Godzilla? 

LEE: I have no idea. Just word of mouth, one by one, because there’s no such group before. Maybe we have like organization, like to run the program, but there’s no group that wants to hear your voice or they want to hear more about, you know— It’s the kind of education of that time. It’s not just about a program. They’re not really necessary to say, Oh, I want to join Godzilla; I want to be in a show. They just want to join Godzilla, they want to join together. And as far as I’d say a couple years after Godzilla, after the Curio Shop and all that, I did a presentation in Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. And a few young art students asked me questions about Godzilla. And I’m totally stunned by that, you know? And I say, “How do you hear about that?” They say, “Oh, you know, my other—”Probably a schoolmate graduated a few years, a couple years [before?], and then they keep in touch and they heard about Godzilla in New York and all that. So that networking went fast. 

CHANG: Yeah. 

LEE: So— That surprised me, too. When I worked for School of Visual Arts and just traveling, I talked to a lot of Asian American students and Asian students, foreign students alike, and they all, want to know more about that. 

CHANG: Did they see the newsletter maybe, or—? 

LEE: Yeah, maybe they saw the newsletter and they heard about that because—maybe the show, and the people come to New York and talk about that. 

CHANG: So what about the exhibitions, though? How did they come about? Because you were doing all these different things, but then it’s like now it’s time to do a show. Why did that happen? 

LEE: Yeah. At that time, we tried to—I think we worked on the newsletter first, and then the next program is exhibition. And then we talked about the first one is the Curio Shop, and we approached artist’s space and they say, yes, it’s good timing to do that, and then we worked on that. It’s like, again, this is basically no budget. [laughs] Very little budget, but we worked it out. So— 

CHANG: I mean, was it important that it was an open call type of situation? 

LEE: Yeah. I think it’s good that it’s not curatorial exhibition, it’s an open call. And then people invite people to come [inaudible] piece, too. Like Mel Chin made a piece and Martin[?] made a piece. 

CHANG: Did you help ask? 

LEE: Yeah, I helped ask. Because, I don’t know, networking is— I do that. I know Mel Chin is [going to?] have something perfect for the show, and I know Martin has a piece, the Bruce Lee. I saw that during the studio visit. I said, “Wow, that’s great.” And then I remember that. And it’s a perfect piece. And I asked him, he said, “Oh, of course.” He wanted to join. 

CHANG: But there were people that weren’t part of Godzilla that were in the show? Or was it— 

LEE: I don’t remember. So many people just joined in, just— newly joined and then participated in the show. Because I did not participate in the installation or curatorial or— Some people were working on the catalog, brochure. I just kept networking and asked people to join. I asked other people to join. And other members, Godzilla members, [inaudible] is the[?] original member, and he’s doing motion graphics. But he wanted to be an artist at that time, too. So he[?] said, “Hey, I got something.” I said, “Wow, this is cool.” And so—

CHANG: So I was wondering, at this time— Because Margo had mentioned how she was working on different exhibitions and that sort of thing and sort of going a little bit away from some of the things, not being as active with Godzilla. Did you find that there was another wave of a new generation coming up at that time? Did you feel that there was that wave, and when that might have been? And maybe what you were doing that cross-sectioned in between as well. Because it wasn’t just Godzilla you were doing, you were doing teaching. 

LEE: Right. I think that at that time, for me, it’s absolutely right. You’re absolutely right that I changed jobs from being an art administrator, working at Asian American Art Center, and now become like education. And in that case, I met a lot of younger generation. So they want to know more about what’s going on. The artists before them. Because when they graduate, they want to find out what is the possibility? What is [the?] other thing that some artists, Asian American artists, and what we did, blah-blah-blah. So I think at that time, after I joined SVA, after I joined Godzilla, and I moved the outreach, the other younger generation, I met a whole bunch of younger generation. And they’re thinking maybe a little bit different, but still we are on the same boat. We still have a lot of things to work on. It just is the beginning. And they asked a lot of questions that I can not answer because we just start at that time. And so— As a matter of fact, just on the side, now it’s 2009, okay? Last year, another young, younger artist group, mainly from Hong Kong, they want to join a group, they want to start a group, and they approach me and see what is it like to join a group? What should we do? Should we start like a 501(c)(3), or just as a charity group? Or just like a grassroots, no structure? But their mission is different. Their thinking is different. Because right now what they’re thinking is more globalized than what we think about, like American, Asian American. They’re thinking about Asian American, how to relate it back to Hong Kong or Chinese American or Hong Kong American; how this group related to Hong Kong and here. But they don’t use— We have several gatherings and talk about that, and we share the kind of experience and exchange conversations about what we feel like— [end of DVD one of two] 

CHANG: Okay. 

LEE: So back to the younger group? 

CHANG: Yes. 

LEE: You know, the younger group, their thinking is a little bit different. They’re thinking about here and there; how, as a group, as a bridge to connect with the two—geographically, culturally and artistically. And another thing is different. They use the city as the identity. So they use New York and they use Hong Kong. And we talked about that. They said, like instead of American and Chinese, they used New York and Hong Kong. And then we started talking about something in common [between] New York and Hong Kong. So what’s something in common in the younger generation is New York is in American soil; of course, it’s American, but not theAmerican. It’s so different from other cities in America. Hong Kong is right now part of China, but it’s not that Chinese. So that’s something in common. So they’re thinking about that. The group is using these two cities as the base. So most of the members of the group, either— They’re all[?] from Hong Kong and they went to school here, college here, and after [they] graduate, some of them settle down in New York. And some of them went back [laughs] to Hong Kong. So that is the link. 

CHANG: Maybe— did that happen in Godzilla too, that there were artists that came in and, was it international in that way, that artists would be in New York and then go back to China? 

LEE: I don’t know who moved back The timing is not, you know, at that time. But in the 2000s start, and the timing is different. It’s different. At that time, the timing is not right. And I’ve got all the data about how many foreign students want to stay in the States. At that time, it’s, of Chinese students, a lot of people, a lot of foreign students stay after [inaudible] training, they want to get a job and stay here. And only single digit going back. But now it’s different. Now it’s a lot of graduates, they went back to their home country. 

CHANG: So I wanted to ask you about, as an artist, being part of the group, in your own artwork— Because Epoxy was different than Godzilla, in that Epoxy you were all working together for a project. 

LEE: For a project, yeah. 

CHANG: But in Godzilla, you weren’t collaborating, it was different. But how did it affect your work yourself? Or was it something separate for you? 

LEE: I think that it’s like— When I work, I never think about how that affected me, even after that. I need somebody to look at it from outside to tell me, because for me, I can’t tell. But for Epoxy, it’s different. Epoxy, because we worked together— Sometimes it’s one member’s idea and the other project’s another member’s idea. Then we work together, and then we play a different role. It’s not my work. So we just work on that project. So it’s different. And then for Godzilla, the program, the exhibition is more or less, even though no specific curator, but it’s a curatorial thematic show. There’s a theme there. Say Curio Shop, that is a theme there. So for me, I did not make a piece for that show, Curio Shop, I just picked one of my works that I think is appropriate for the show. So it’s more or less some curator curates a show with that theme. And then [if] the both of us think it’s appropriate, then I participate. And some other shows, I did not participate because I don’t have the work that I can be part of it. So that it my personal…

CHANG: Choice. 

LEE: …choice. And that’s how I work, because I can never— highly unlikely I can make a piece for a show. Except for that ’89 Tiananmen show that I made a piece. So that is different because that is a totally—

CHANG: [inaudible] 

LEE: It’s deep from my heart and totally passionate about, you know, what I believe and all that. It’s different. So I can put aside a lot of things; I just work on that and make certain[?] to address that issue. And that’s different. There’s probably one or two shows that I can do that. Yeah. Otherwise I just work, and if people think that it’s appropriate, then I will submit. 

CHANG: So what was the Curio Shop show about? 

LEE: First, we talked about the sideshow and all that. We’re talking about Coney Island, we’re talking about all that kind of thing. And to me, I think it’s like being labeled, being stereotyped, and anti-stereotype. So I think that idea— I’m not sure who brought it up first during the meeting. But I think it’s good that we can use—like a sideshow, a curio shop—and then we can make it ourselves, we can do it ourselves and then see what happens. And I think it’s great. And I said, “Oh, wow, this is a great idea.” And a lot of times, I think the whole world will be easier and not— people will be less angry if we can say something, make fun of ourselves, or if we can accept that kind of humor, dark humor and all that kind of stuff. We can present it ourselves. 

CHANG: Right. 

LEE: And that means to me, it’s like a vaccine that if we have that, we can open up the dialog with others. I think that is a great idea for the Curio Shop. You know, I made all those— I have an opium pipe, [chuckles] two opium pipes. That’s not for a show that I make it, but— And then I find out that there’s a Curio Shop show, and then I want to make more accessories for the two pipes. And I asked Alan[sp?] to help me to make some of the little pots, too because he used grass. So I said, “Hey, Alan, you know, I got two pipes. It’s good for the Curio Shop. And can you make something with glass as an accessory?” So I[?] said, “Hey, yeah. Good,” you know. So I think that is— personally, that’s how I feel for the show. 

CHANG: And how was it accepted? Did it have good reviews or—?

LEE: I don’t see any major review of that. And like right now, you can see a lot of reviews and write-ups. At that time, it maybe is still to early and maybe—

CHANG: Yeah. 

LEE: That is not in a thing[?].

CHANG: And did you participate in any other shows? I mean, like Urban Encounters? 

LEE: Urban Encounters, no. Because as I mentioned before, that I can’t…make a piece of work for that. If I can’t find anything, then I can’t— I don’t have that. But Curio Shop, I made all those little obscure objects. [laughs] You know, just besides the drawing or besides my diary. So I made a lot of those little objects. 

CHANG: And so were you there at the end of— I guess the Canal Street project, where…

LEE: Yes. The Why[?] Asia. 

CHANG: Yeah, Why Asia? kind of when it dissolved, like theoretically, Godzilla ended? 

LEE: Yeah. And again, that is 2000; as I remember, that is the year 2000. And— 

CHANG: I think it was 2001. 

LEE: 2001 is the show. 

CHANG: Yeah. 

LEE: But 2000, we already like, properly[?]—

CHANG: Were you talking about possibilities

LEE: I don’t know. It’s like it’s getting too big. And so we don’t really know what was going— Because it’s too big and too loose. And I think Ken came up with the idea maybe it’s about time to dissolve it and hand it to the next generation. And then in general say, Well, maybe this is a good public art project, and use Why Asia is [inaudible name]’s book title. I think it’s perfect for that. And it’s on Canal Street in TriBeCa. Actually, it’s about[?] TriBeCa, all the banners[?]. And two artists in one banner or something like that, yeah. So—

CHANG: What were your thoughts? Did you think it was time for—

LEE: I think it’s time, I think it was time. And I think it’s the time to let other younger generation, other group, to continue. And all those original members, they moved to the other areas. Some of them— they don’t have that much time to get involved. And a lot of original members, more focused on their work and their other career. Like Ken is working at other organizations, and Margo’s more writing and more teaching. I’m more involved in the higher education, too. So everybody is a little bit different after ten years. 

CHANG: Did you feel that the goals that you came in with, that you had accomplished those goals? 

LEE: Yeah. I think that Godzilla definitely fulfilled the goal and the mission. And to me, there’s one Zen story. It’s like I don’t know that— The story’s about, okay, the boat. There’s a boat to carry you from one side of the river, to cross the river to the other side. Once you get to the other side, you’re not going to carry the boat. So you either leave the boat over there for the next people to use the boat to cross the river. And if you keep your oar there to the other side, you still carry that boat. And that boat is no longer a vehicle; that boat will become a burden. So I think Godzilla, in the year 2001, the boat is already on the other side. So I think it’s about time to let other people to use the boat. And we’re going to grab the boat and carry it on our shoulders. So I think it always happens that way. And if we see it that way, it’s the happy ending of— [laughs] or the beginning, another beginning. So—

CHANG: So now looking back, are there legacies of Godzilla that have affected you yourself personally, that you still feel right now? 

LEE: Yes. Of course, it still affected me about all those collectives, like artist groups, no matter how structured it is or how grassroots it is. And as I mentioned before, now another generation of young artists from Hong Kong, they’re thinking about the same things, but differently. Because different timing. And the whole world order is different. So I’m still thinking about whatever I can share with other people, other artists that I—I will definitely share that Godzilla experience with the younger generation, just like I look at Basement Workshop and Asian American Art Center, and they are the role models before me. And I take that seriously, that in the history, they provide so many— It’s like an incubator for a lot of Asian American artists or art groups. So that affected me, too. That, and then the Epoxy, and then the Godzilla. And then totally opened up my vision to see a bigger picture, through that experience. 

CHANG: Great. 

LEE: Yeah. 

CHANG: Those are actually all my questions, but I wanted to leave this open a little to you to, if there was something that I might not have asked that you think is important just for people to know about Godzilla or your experience in Godzilla. 

LEE: Yeah, I think the next— For me personally, I think the next step is about education. Education is—It’s not just in the institution, it’s the community. And they need to be educated about, for example, Chinatown. And they don’t know the Godzilla exists. And how we can approach to the audience, a bigger audience, instead of just like artist groups. So I think that needs to— a lot of work still ahead of us, within the community. And another thing is, even in a lot of institutions, like maybe colleges, I think we need to get together and to make sure that [there is] a lot of more art history, more Asian studies, Asian American studies in college, so the younger generation—not just Asian Americans, for Americans, for others—to more understand before they graduate. So a lot of educators, when they work on the curriculum, we should talk about that, about curriculum and why art history is a requirement, but study of Asian art is just an elective. It’s not included, it’s not a requirement. You know, I mean, you can— it’s elective. So I think we should bring more awareness about that. The education needs to— I think that we have to focus on that. And there’s a lot of work ahead of us, that’s what I’m trying to say. Because it is a part of that[?]. And send a message out. And right now we’re just so many people. And a lot of art historians, scholars, and curators, writers, critics, they already have a lens[?] and focus on Asian or Asian American art, so— But I think education is like the next thing that we need to focus on. That’s—

CHANG: Okay, great. Well, thank you Bing. 

LEE: Thanks. 


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