Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs and Malloy Curator
Tang Teaching Museum
Between 1997 and 2001 Nikki S. Lee created the Project series, in which she assumed the outward aesthetic and some of the observable behavioral mannerisms of a subculture, ethnicity, or demographic from within the United States. She first researches a group, then immerses herself in it for several months before asking another person to take snapshots of her within the group. Lee reportedly neither hid nor made a point of the fact that she was making art. Although someone else snapped each picture, Lee managed what moments were photographed, and made the final decision about which images were included in the series. Project presents the viewer with provocative questions around identity and selfhood, performance, and appropriation; and the opportunity to grapple with these questions is challenging and vital.
Lee’s work is often discussed as an exploration of the nature of identity and how it relates to social behavior, as well as a questioning of stereotypes. By appropriating the visual language and behaviors of various ethnic or cultural groups, Lee moved in and out of different selves, creating a fluidity that asks us to question the Western tendency toward essentializing identity. Born and raised in South Korea, she notes that she perceives identity not so much as a fixed and unchanging monolith, but as a function of the groups around her, whose attitudes, interests, and behaviors shape her own. She observes, “We all have many different personas and I want people to think about the range that they occupy. [ … ] Each is affected by the context and each shows a gap between inside and outside. Each is a personal performance.”(1) In Project, Lee performs social mimicry, adjusts her wardrobe, and otherwise styles and adapts herself. However, in doing so, does she reduce communities (formed around race, ethnicity, gender, age, geography, etc.) to a set of stereotypes? Does Project call into question representations of how identities are embodied, or is it a visual appropriation that caricatures them? Does the expression of a fluid selfhood—the complication of Lee’s identity through this project—come at any expense of oversimplifying others?
Visual markers of difference are a frequent strategy people use in order to differentiate themselves from others and to form community, but they are also a way to pigeonhole people into categories that can distract us from making a deeper or more nuanced consideration of an individual. We must consider the identities of those who appear with Lee in these images: they perform a critical role in her work, legitimizing and authenticating her. How do we understand their participation? How might they have understood their participation? And when we consider these projects with their titles— Hip Hop or Ohio, for example—what do we learn about the artist’s understanding or interpretation of her subject? Finally, Lee has the ability to move in and out of these communities. When we examine the relationship between Lee and the other people in these images, how do we understand her position of privilege within the context of Project? How do we reconcile our own gaze in looking at them both?