Artist Interview: Mike Lee

Mike Lee, UMOCA’s most recent A-I-R Space artist, spent his childhood in both rural Japan and Utah, splitting his national identity into a cultural and spiritual dichotomy. This split led Lee to attempt to reconcile this dichotomy, drawing inspiration from amassing information, both visual and non-visual, through obsessive internet searches. In 2015, he graduated with his BFA from Brigham Young University. His exhibition at UMOCA, Digital Mirror: Selfie Consciousness, explored Lee’s interest in artificial intelligence, Japanese culture, and the inevitable battle that will decide the fate of consciousness—will it be a unified digital world in the future? Perhaps it will become Google Earth? Lee examines how the digital world reflects our physical world and how it allows us to see ourselves digitally as well as we can see physically. Using elements of pop-culture, proto-renaissance Christian images, Japanese mythology, and videogame aesthetics, Digital Mirror: Selfie Consciousness asks its viewers to examine the way they view themselves and the world around them.

Lee used the fundamental mythology of Shintoism in his exhibition, with the mirror—Yata-no-Kagami—as the central focus of his work. In Japanese mythology, Amaterasu-ōmikami—the goddess of the sun—hides in a cave after her brother destroys her loom and kills one of her attendants. The other sympathetic gods realize they need her sunlight and devise a plan to coax her from the cave. “Yata-no-Kagami is basically a divine mirror that was used to show Amaterasu-omikami her own beauty to lure her out of hiding and spread light to the world,” says Lee. “I’ve been quite caught up in this story, which is one of the oldest known in Japan.” For Lee, the mirror can refer to front facing cameras, digital reflections on social media, or even the reflection of an old computer screen.

Although the internet is one way of spreading knowledge, or light, to the world—for instance, Lee mentions how Facebook is currently planning on bringing internet to places where internet is unavailable—artificial intelligence is something much more mysterious. “Artificial intelligence might already be in existence,” says Lee. “The social consciousness that used to be a vague zeitgeist is now taking form through the internet. There is concrete, albeit mostly digital, evidence of this consciousness—most recently proven by fake news spreading across Facebook during the elections.” Lee’s work ponders the questions of digital consciousness—are these trending videos and memes simply thoughts passing through a mass digital consciousness? “Tweets become synapses firing,” says Lee.

When it comes to developing his work, Lee emphasizes the need for thorough research. “[There are] periods of almost no production filled with research, writing, think-tanking,” he says, “followed by periods of production focused solely on creating work.” Lee compares his productivity to that of two sine waves: one wave being innovation and the other production. “Usually the sweet spot is where the two sine waves intersect, but it’s impossible to stay in that zone forever,” he says. “Whenever I am feeling like I’m getting down on one or the other, I just shift my focus.” The relationship between himself and Digital Mirror: Selfie Consciousness is no less strained. Lee describes it as “an elaborately designed dinner where I don’t meet most of the guests or receive feedback about the food. Instead, it’s carefully preserved, like the fruitcake under glass on my altar piece, Pachinko Lottery.”

As a UMOCA Artist-In-Residence, Lee had the ability to work in a studio space, participate in workshops with national artists and art professionals, and showcase his work at the museum in the A-I-R Space. Lee says of his experience at UMOCA, “The studio spaces are great. The visiting artists are great. The opportunities I have had through the A-I-R program have been great. Honestly, it helped me a lot during the year I had after I graduated with my BFA. At times, it felt like the A-I-R program was the only thing keeping my artistic credibility viable—and that includes my artwork.” Lee says he would recommend the A-I-R program “to more established artists who find value in having a space and are seeking to show in a museum setting.” Lee also has advice for future artists: “Study, study, study,” he says. “Academia has been getting a lot of bad rep recently, especially in the art world. That doesn’t mean that study is not important.” Lee emphasizes that the opportunity to study with peers and professionals in your field is priceless, and worth far more than the actual degree. “Be smart, make art,” he says.

Working as an artist can be difficult—but also rewarding. Lee hopes that, during his exhibition, his viewers took the time to Google the David Bowie quote placed on the wall of his exhibition or watched Bowie’s interview on BBC. “Seeing the potential the internet has to radically altar social and individual consciousness will hopefully lead to more unification through diversification,” says Lee. “With the interconnectivity of the internet, the capital-driven companies will eventually be overtaken by those with more of a social/democratic cause.” Lee has a goal to change how we collectively view ourselves, the world around us, and the objects we create—including the internet and artificial intelligence. His ambition will only continue to grow as he ventures further into academia. He plans on studying in an MFA program and will begin applying this year to various schools around N.Y.C. and L.A. “If those don’t work out this time around,” he says, “I’ll be heading toward more residencies and establishing my studio practice.”

You can view Lee’s work at or learn more here.