Nikki S. Lee, Part 14, 2002
29 7/8 x 23 3/4 inches, c-print on aluminum
Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
Nikki S. Lee: Parts
For the past several years, Nikki S. Lee has been engaged in a series of elaborate photographic projects that meld social studies, performance, and self-portraiture. These conceptually based projects, while distinct in their individual artistic goals, relate closely to one another in their exploration of the dynamics and nuances of human relationships, as well as the complexity and mutability of human identity. Lee casts herself as the primary player in her docudramas, and in so doing, exhibits an astonishing ability to blur the boundaries that separate art and life.
Projects , Lee's first series, brought the artist widespread acclaim. Begun in 1997 when Lee was a graduate student at New York University, the five-year-long series documented the artist's infiltration into various subcultures and social and ethnic groups in an exploration of how other people could affect her identity and her relationship to society.(1) To “fit in” as a member of these clannish communities was no small accomplishment—Lee studied every group in order to learn about their codes of behavior and living habits, and then transformed herself, both physically and mentally, to become like them. Over the course of Projects , of which there are fourteen subseries, Lee seamlessly metamorphosed from skate punk to yuppie to stripper to Japanese schoolgirl to hip-hop B-girl, among several other “types.” The shape-shifting artist appeared in every fictional document in a snapshot taken by a friend or another member of the group.(2) Lee's adroitness at self-transformation was uncanny, but not completely surprising; as a recent immigrant from rural Korea, she changed her name from Seung Hee Lee to Nikki (the new moniker inspired by the then-popular fashion model Niki Taylor) and had to adapt to a new, Western, urban lifestyle.(3)
Lee's follow-up to Projects is Parts , which the artist began in 2001 and just recently completed. As in the previous series, Lee appears in every photograph. However, Parts differs significantly from Projects in its specific focus on the relationship between a man and woman, rather than on the dynamics that occur within a group. In the broadest terms, one might say that the earlier series relates to Lee's experience as an immigrant, while the later one relates to her experience as a single woman. In both bodies of work, Lee's appearance changes from photograph to photograph, but in Parts the alteration is less drastic, even stirring the suspicion that one of the characters could indeed be the real Nikki S. Lee.
The greatest distinction between the two bodies of work is their format: while both resemble casual, everyday snapshots that have been enlarged (in truth, they are carefully staged), in Parts , a significant portion of each photograph has been physically sliced off. What remains are “parts” of an incomplete composition as well as “parts” of an unidentified man's body—his hand, the top of his head, the side of his arm—that poignantly allude to a mysterious, truncated relationship. Although Lee denies that these are necessarily break-up pictures, it is difficult not to interpret them as signifiers of loss or, at the very least, of emotional import. Indeed, sentimentality was at the core of the artist's intent with Parts —she deliberately sought to inject an emotional sincerity to set-up photography, a genre frequently criticized as ironic and cold. With their absent lovers and unresolved narratives, Lee's Parts are anything but distant and didactic. Rather, these images commemorate seemingly ordinary moments in everyday lives, and suggest the vast range of feelings and emotions that people in a relationship have at one time or another: boredom, happiness, frustration, security, wonder, playfulness, diffidence, and all the variations between.
The absence of the male figure serves an important role in Parts ; viewers must envision who he was and imagine why he was ripped from the picture, looking closely to the female figure and her surroundings for clues. This presence of absence within the photograph cements the viewer's investment in creating a narrative. Ultimately, of course, the success of the photograph's narrative potential depends on Lee—the actress and director—and her ability to convince viewers that what they are viewing is true.(4) Lee does this by presenting moments that are private and “real” in their very ordinariness. In a way, Lee's Parts could be seen as the Generation X-style follow-up to Nan Goldin's seminal work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency , a photographic diary that chronicled the artist's and her friends' struggle with love and intimacy.(5) Lee shows us her world (albeit entirely fabricated) from the inside, just as Goldin did hers. But Goldin's view was shatteringly intimate, turning viewers into voyeurs; Lee's view is more guarded, tinged by the thin veneer of distance that comes with a 21st-century reticence and a knowledge of photographic conceit. Yet Lee deftly balances these opposing elements to create images that appeal to viewers' emotions and personal experiences but that also play to their subconscious familiarity with cinematic and mass media tropes (in this sense, Lee is most certainly linked to Cindy Sherman).(6)
While Parts raises the issue of assigning identity to a person based on a (fictional) romantic connection with another person, the series also explores how identity is forever shifting and oftentimes purely invented. The camera, especially how Lee has used it throughout her career, is unsurpassed in its capacity for shaping personas and assumptions about the subjects it records. And while viewers have come to question the veracity of photographs, the snapshot, in particular—with its lowly designation as the everyday person's record of everyday moments—is still expected to chronicle the “truth.” Lee pounces on this assumption, and although not all the Parts photographs are snapshots, they exude a similar unexpectedness and intimacy of feeling.
Lee presents viewers with exactly the right kind and amount of information required to seduce them into completing the narratives in her photographs. For example, in Part 18 , a groggy but contented-looking Lee stands with her scissored companion on an apartment fire escape against the backdrop of a city bathed in the glow of late morning light. Together, their coffee cups, boxer shorts, and her tousled hair suggest a story that viewers can almost smell, feel, and taste. But what happened to the couple? Why has the man been removed? It is up to the viewer to create the rest of the story using the clues that Lee carefully provided. Maybe Lee's character found someone else?—her sexy pose on the balcony may have indicated a need that wasn't being fulfilled. Or maybe the male character found someone to replace her—her sexy pose on the balcony may have indicated an attempt on her part to keep him. And what about the couple in the backseat of the taxi cab in Part 14 ? Are they returning from a trip? Are they on their way home and about to break up? Is she accompanying him to the airport to send him off forever? Who knows? In any case, it does not matter what the “true” story is since one does not exist; the important thing is that viewers are empowered to complete the missing “parts,” to construct a story about a relationship through the presence of a single individual. Without the benefit of the social context of existing communities that the Projects series provided, in the Parts series viewers are left to rely on nuances—body language, facial expressions, props, costuming, color, lighting, cropping—and, the most important element of all, their own imagination.
1. According to the artist, “People don't live in an isolated way. Their identities are affected by who they're with and that holds my curiosity.” Nikki S. Lee, quoted in Jessica Kewin, “In the Cut,” WWD , 6 November 2003. Lee also suggests that her work explores an Asian notion of identity in which definitions of the self are constructed in relation to the larger community—a sensibility that is much different from the American ideal of individualism. For a fascinating discussion of the construction of identity in American autobiography, see Laura Browder, Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
2. At the initiation of each project, the artist alerted the group that she was an artist working on a project so no duplicity was involved. However, Lee's ability to blend in was so successful in “The Senior Project” that some of the elderly women in the group believed she suffered from dementia.
3. Lee learned firsthand the camera's potential for presenting numerous truths while working as an apprentice to noted fashion photographer David LaChapelle. Just like the chameleon-esque couture models whose personas undergo radical transformations from advertisement to advertisement and magazine to magazine, so too does Nikki S. Lee in her conceptual photographic works. But instead of flogging the latest fashion trends, Lee is touting things that are nearly impossible to capture, much less buy: fixed identity and truth.
4. As in Projects , Lee does not take the photographs herself. A friend, her sister, and her gallery dealer are among those who physically clicked the camera's shutter. This strategy charges the highly determined photographs with an element of chance, permitting for those visual incidents that cultural and literary critic Roland Barthes so prized to work their inexplicable magic. (See, for instance, Roland Barthes, tr. Richard Howard, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography [New York: Hill and Wang, 1981].) Also, it is Lee's directorial and editorial eye that turns what would otherwise be just a performance into a specifically photographic project.
5. Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency , a slideshow of 690 color images set to music, was first shown in 1979 in New York. The artist has subsequently made multiple revisions.
6. Lee is related to Sherman not only in her use of cinematic strategies, but also, most obviously, in using herself as the primary character in her photographs. Both have altered their appearances in order to explore and confront the multiple identities that women occupy.
Born in South Korea in 1970, Nikki S. Lee moved to New York in 1994, where she currently lives and works. She received her AAS degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1996 and her MA in photography at New York University in 1999. Her work has been included in numerous museum exhibitions internationally. Recently she has had solo exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.