PRINT September 1999


There may be eight million stories in the Naked City, but the number of social identities we recognize and inhabit is far fewer. Some are self-selected (punk rockers, for instance), some apparently ascriptive (Hispanics), some even combinations of both (say, young Japanese in the East Village). What matters is being part of a group, not condemned to go it alone. Nikki S. Lee, an artist born in Korea in 1970 who has lived in New York since 1994, has an immigrant’s keen eye for the quotidian rituals of social identification. Grouped under rubrics like “The Yuppie Project,” “The Lesbian Project,” “The Swingers Project” (as in dancers, not wifeswappers), the images that make up her various series might be taken for straightforward photojournalism, except that a second glance reveals that one figure inevitably turns up amid the crowd, fitting in no matter what the group: the artist herself.

For Lee, it seems, these identities are all fundamentally subject to convention; absentminded viewers might be fooled, but she is not deceiving the people whose lives she is temporarily sharing: After all, there’s no way this Korean could convince a group of Latinos, for example, that she’s one of them, though it is quite possible for them to act as if that were the case. The people who pose with Lee are her collaborators but they don’t have to understand why she’s doing what she does; they only need to be willing to play along.

“I thought of this ten years ago, ” Lee says in reference to the time a professor showed her the work of Cindy Sherman, “but I didn’t have enough courage to use snapshot photography. I thought, ’Probably it’s not going to be photography.’” And maybe she’s right—as a student she would have lacked the editorial eye that is key to turning what would otherwise be a performance into a specifically photographic project. (But it remains a good rule of thumb: The best art ideas are usually the ones you had in school but didn’t think were worth pursuing.) Today, even though Lee is not the one wielding the Yashica T4 and though all the earmarks of amateur photography are here, right down to the date of their processing in the lower right corner, the images are far from shabby. Especially when they are blown up rather than presented as five-by-seven-inch snaps (as in “Generation Z” at P.S. 1 last spring), a closer look reveals a multileveled visual structure underlying the apparently hap hazard surface.

Unlike some artists who make it a point of pride to use photography in a technically indifferent manner, Lee’s training is in photography per se. After getting her degree in the subject in Korea, she came to New York to further her studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and then, after two years of commercial work, went back to get an MA at NYU (granted this year) before becoming an assistant to fashion photographer David La Chapelle. But in the end, it is the work’s performative qualities that are most striking and that to an extent underlie the photographic endeavor. Even the fact that Lee does not take her own pictures reflects this, surprisingly enough, because it means she understands the cardinal rule of amateur photography: To photograph something and to see it are mutually exclusive. Vernacular photography is a sort of willed blindness—one shoots in order not to have to look. The scene is being “saved,” so that it can be looked at, if at all, later.

Lee’s work, on the other hand, is deeply involved with looking, with observation. Having a picture taken, then having it enlarged so its details can emerge more clearly, is more a product of this investigatory attitude than a strategy of display—more means than end. To crack the codes governing the various subcultural details of clothing and other accoutrements takes some effort; but where a certain genius may be said to operate is in the fathoming of all the peculiarities of posture, gesture, facial set particular to a social group—in going beyond donning an identity to assuming it in one’s very body. Dressing like a working-class Latino teenager, a Wall Street broker, or (with the addition of suitable makeup) a bedraggled senior citizen requires some ability, but to mime, say, the very different facial expressions that subliminally give stereotypes their recognizability takes real talent, like the knack for picking up languages. “I identify myself easily,” as Lee says. “It’s kind of weird, but I knew this naturally—how to act like a punk, how to have that attitude.” The more self-conscious components of her research come afterward.

All this happens in order to end up in a photograph. But whose? The ones Lee exhibits are mostly taken by a friend, Soo Hyun Ahn, who accompanies her on her adventures without attempting the kind of assimilation that Lee does. (“She’s just there, like my shadow,” Lee says.) When Ahn is not around, any bystander will do. But what about the image published alongside an article on swing dancing in the February 9 Village Voice? Signed Catherine McGann, not Nikki S. Lee, it is striking evidence of her artistic project, because it shows how successful her insinuation into reality has been: In it she is used to document, not her work as an artist, but the trend toward this kind of dancing. McGann’s photograph renders Lee as part of life, not art. Can we really assume “artist” to be a more profound description than “swing dancer”? To say that would be, contra Yeats, to know the dancer from the dance. She is not a fictional swing dancer, but a real one. Or rather, just as real and just as fictional as anyone else—except that art, Lee reminds, provides a more richly layered image.

Barry Schwabsky is the author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press. 1998).