Nikki S. Lee’s Projects, created between 1977 and 2001, involved first studying and then inserting herself into a variety of American subcultures by meeting its members, joining them in activities, and becoming part of their daily lives. Her works in Classless Society come from The Yuppie Project and The Ohio Project. Each project involves Lee’s social mimicry, which entails wardrobe adjustment, at times hair coloring, and undertaking other forms of adaptation. She neither hides nor makes a point of the fact that she is making art; during a related Senior Project, some of the elderly women she associated with were apparently convinced Lee was in fact an older lady, sadly suffering from the delusion that she was still a thirty-year-old artist.
The Yuppie Project and The Ohio Project both clearly reveal class habits and stereotypes. Lee, however, is less concerned with social analysis than with the fact that individual and group identities are often harder to sort out than most Americans assume. Born and raised in South Korea, she says she perceives identity as a function of the group around her, people whose attitudes, interests, and behaviors shape her own. As she has observed, “We all have many different personas, and I want people to think about the range that they occupy. There is the persona you present to a schoolteacher or to your parents or to a new boyfriend. Each is affected by the context and each shows a gap between inside and outside.”
From the exhibition: Classless Society (September 7, 2013 – March 9, 2014)
Korean artist Nikki S. Lee produced her Project series from 1997 to 2001. In this series, she inserted herself into various American subcultures, changing her body, clothing, makeup, gestures, and skin tone to fit into a particular group. “That’s the underlying concept,” Lee states. “Other people make me a certain kind of person. It’s about inner relationships and how those really address the idea of identity.”
In The Ohio Project (7), set in a trailer park, Lee transforms herself into a member of that neighborhood’s social group by changing her physical appearance. In this photograph, Lee foregrounds signifiers of stereotypical conservative, poor whiteness (e.g., a Confederate flag and a shotgun) and invites questions about her own belonging as a Korean American female artist in this community.
–Ali Milazzo ‘18
From the exhibition: When and Where I Enter (October 20, 2018 – January 6, 2019)