The following comments are made in connection with the work of artist Nikki S. Lee.
The moment I started to look at some of Lee’s photographs from the Projects series (1), in which she impersonates and infiltrates various sociocultural, ethnic, age and gender groups, I knew there was something in them that made me very uncomfortable. I have been thinking about this and doing further research, including a video where the photographer herself talks about these series and gives some limited background comments about how they were done (link) (2). I immediately associated this work with a recent famous case here in the UK in which undercover police officers infiltrated environmental activist groups for many years, befriending, partnering and even forming families with members of those groups, whom for many years were not aware of the deceit (link) (3). I have tried to find evidence that the people appearing in these photographs were all fully aware of Lee’s ruse and consented to being part of this project, but I could not find anything entirely convincing (this article from the New York Times (4) mentions that she identified herself “as an artist working on a piece” to those she encountered while doing the Projects, but we are never sure how candid she was in this respect). To the extent that some of these people did not fully realise what was going on, I have to conclude that was Lee has done could at the very least be classified as exploitation. On a general level, I am not sure how this series posses any questions about identity. Judging by some of Lee’s reaction to her final work (see for instance her attitude when confronted with the photographs from his “Exotic Dancer Project” in the video linked above), I am not convinced she approached any of these sub-cultures with the sensitivity that would be required by a non-exploitative practitioner and that on the contrary, it seems that some of the characteristics of these groups generate either shame or repulsion on her. Was this series intended as genuine exploration of life under these subcultures or just an exercise on performance? For many in these groups, they have no choice but to live their lives that way (seniors cannot reverse the clock, for instance), which in many cases implies accepting the consequences of being at the periphery of society’s rigid and implacable mainstreamism. For them it is not a matter of changing their “performance” and all of a sudden stop “acting” like lesbians, Hispanics or OAPs. A greater sensitivity to this would have been expected and instead we seem to get a treatment which is superficial and “fun”, with Lee hopping from one identity to the next every three months or so. Rather than posing questions about identity, this series seems like a cry about the limits of art within the realm of acceptable ethical behaviour. I understand that art needs to be controversial and to push the boundaries of acceptability, but is it correct to tolerate racism in art? (Lee appears in blackface in some of the Project images) is it OK to accept exploitation of the subjects? Why, if other spheres of public life such as politics and business are subject to the public scrutiny with regards to tolerance and non-discrimination, can it be acceptable for an artist not to be questioned about the views posed by his or her work?
Ultimately, the problem with Projects is that there is no serious exploration of the artist’s identity or identity in general. Nikki S. Lee, however, has made other work where this exploration comes across more clearly. Her series Layers (5), for instance, uses portraits of the photographer made by street artists, using translucent paper. These portraits were then overlayed on a light box and photographed by Lee. The resulting portraits, a combination of the efforts of various artists, are fuzzy and intriguing, but the outline of her main facial features can be clearly seen. Lee tried to classify the portraits by region and / or city with the intention of showing how different cultures perceive her. I cannot see any discernible “cultural” differences among the various portraits, but perhaps if there are any we would need a greater sample to notice them. The artists frames this as an exercise of perception, but by layering the individual portraits that each of the street artists produced, resulting in something indefinite, she is perhaps obscuring their feedback, erecting a defense against the opinion that others may have of her. This is something that many of us do consciously or unconsciously. We fear rejection and consequently find ways of avoiding being confronted with criticism.
She continues to explore the relationship between perception and self-awareness through a project called “A. K. A. Nikki S. Lee” (6), where she shoots a mock documentary of herself acting based on the perception that other people have of her. Unfortunately, the video is not freely available to watch in the Internet and the excerpts available are too fragmented to comment further, but it does looks like an intriguing idea.
(1) Some of the images for this can be found here: Nikki S. Lee | artnet. 2018. Nikki S. Lee | artnet. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/nikki-s-lee/. [Accessed 28 January 2018].
(2) YouTube. 2018. Photographer Nikki S. Lee Can Turn Into Anyone – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oI8xpJItPVI. [Accessed 28 January 2018].
(3) The Telegraph. 2018. Undercover policeman’s son sues force after discovering his father was an officer ‘left him with depression’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/04/undercover-policemans-son-sues-force-discovering-father-officer/. [Accessed 28 January 2018].
(4) Carol Kino. 2018. Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee – The New York Times. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/arts/design/01kino.html. [Accessed 28 January 2018].
(5) Nikki S Lee Layers on artnet. 2018. Nikki S Lee Layers on artnet. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.artnet.com/galleries/sikkema-jenkins-co/nikki-s-lee-layers/. [Accessed 28 January 2018].
(6) MoMA. 2018. Nikki S. Lee’s a.k.a. Nikki S. Lee | MoMA. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.moma.org/calendar/film/884. [Accessed 28 January 2018].