Nikki S. Lee

Focus on the Photographer

Nikki S. Lee as Cultural Chameleon

Nikki S. Lee offers a valuable critique of our social need to identify and be identified in a particular way. Similar to photographer Cindy Sherman‘s examination of cliched feminity, Lee inserts herself into her work as well. Her twist is, as a Korean, to become seamlessly integrated into the setting and style of non-Korean cultural identities.

Indicting Stereotypes

Sometimes criticized for cultural appropriation, it seems helpful to to contextualize Nikki S. Lee’s work through the words of “Karma Chameleon Revisited” by D. Robert Okada and Z. Samual Podolski (The Harvard Crimson, September 28, 2001):

Lee is not stereotyping and marginalizing her subjects, but rather indicting those stereotypes, exhibiting the fluency with which we can shed and assume any of them we like. She doesn’t objectify the person, she objectifies the ideas we all have about minority identities. She shows her audience the extent to which they stereotype – and marginalize – themselves. In this way, Lee achieves two biting critiques in one fell swoop-cutting at both the stereotyped and the stereotyper. We identify others and ourselves in purely visual terms. If Nikki Lee’s “Projects” seems at first ridiculous, then, that’s the whole point. They are ridiculous, and so are we.

Seeing the Unseen as It’s Defined

To reveal that which is unseen by our culturally defined minds requires a new point of view. and often, we don’t like to see the hurtful ways we’ve been programmed to compartmentalize the world. This is where the criticism of Lee’s work rests, in the method of the reveal as much as the reveal itself. To that point, the passage above brought to mind theorist Linda Hutcheon’s thoughts on postmodernism:

The postmodern, as I have been defining it, is not a degeneration into “hyperreality” but a questioning of what reality can mean and how we can come to know it. It is not that representation now dominates or effaces the referent, but rather that it now self-consciously acknowledges its existence as representation – that is, as interpreting (indeed as creating) its referent, not as offering direct and immediate access to it. 

The mechanism of postmodern degeneration into hyperreality is interesting. In one sense, Nikki Lee’ s work is the ultimate hyperreality, demonstrating the ways in which we visually put ourselves forth into society.

By using visual signs, we signify which group we belong to. The group (members who both embrace or impose) then collectively determine what that visual language is, deriving meaning from body posturing, clothing and hair style.

At the end of the day, one must ask, who are we when we aren’t pretzeling ourselves to fit a mold? Has our true self been erased by representation over time or has individual identity always been based on social construct? Can one access a “true self” any longer? 

Hyperreality is Real

Considering the work of Hutcheon and Lee, hyperreality in and of itself is a reality, if not as a representation of the real, then as a very real representation.

Visual identity is under Lee’s scrutiny, her postmodern photography examining what tools we use to represent ourselves and interpret others. She shoots holes through  meanings we think we can derive just by looking, yet we simultaneously see that those meanings are not meaningless because we assign power to them.

Nikki S. Lee insinuates herself into an Hispanic city neighborhood scene.

The Hispanic Project #18 Lee, Nikki S. 1998 © Nikki S. Lee

The Ever Moving Target

Society would have us believe that identity is fixed within a particular race or ethnicity, but as Nikki Lee goes culture surfing, she demonstrates how maliable and yet influential visual cues can be.

Perhaps Lee best passes in yuppie, tourist, punk, and elderly groups since race and ethnicity are not their sole defining factors, yet, when she inserts herself into Hispanic and other ethnic settings, the lines of distiction are de-doxified most.

We can see that she is slightly different, and yet there is an uncanny comfort level in the scene for both Lee and those who surround her. She has become, and has been accepted as, one of “them.”

As we observe Lee in these settings, we must ask ourselves, “What makes her different and what makes her the same? Does she, or do we, decide? Is there so much destinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when the ‘us’ becomes ‘them?’”

Nikki S. Lee stands outside a department store with afriend, a Tiffany's bag and a leashed poodle.

The Yuppie Project #4 Lee, Nikki S. 1998

Do We Know Lee? Does Lee?

In an October 1, 2006 New York Times article, “Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee,” Carol Kino says of Lee:

Even after a long face-to-face conversation, it’s hard to say for certain what Nikki S. Lee is really like.

This could be read several ways: Either Lee’s art is so relavent that she unmistakably proves we never really know a person, even when we think we do, she’s crazy good at constant deception, or she’s multiple people living in a single body. The following NYTimes passage says Lee doeesn’t even think the real Lee is anything but fake:

Titled “A K A Nikki S. Lee,” the film purports to be a documentary about the real Nikki, a rather plain, serious young woman who is in turn making her own documentary about her alter ego, Nikki Two, the effervescent exhibitionist who appears in the photographs. Yet as the true Ms. Lee explained in an interview in her East Village apartment, “Nikki One is supposed to be real Nikki, and Nikki Two is supposed to be fake Nikki. But they are both fake Nikki.”

Fight Club schizophrenia anyone? I’m just saying. Still, I’m with Lee. Are any of our thoughts truly our own? What I learned about my own stereotypical impressions through Lee’s work anger me. Unrecognized and unfounded assumptions and fears live in us all, but would they if somebody hadn’t put them there to begin with? 

Identity along the Time Space Continuum

The article goes on to say that “Ms. Lee also played fast and loose with the dates, just as she did with the camera date-stamps on her ‘Projects’ photos.”

I had wondered, when I saw the Lesbian Project, if it really spanned over the course of 6 months. This adds a whole new dimention to Lee’s art, playing with our assumptions about time and about long vs. short relationships.

Right on, Nikki. You’ve opened my eyes to many questions and zero answers.

What do you see?

Nikki S. Lee portays cuddling lesbians in various apartment settings.

The Lesbian Project, Nikki S. Lee, 1997