Like Cindy Sherman, Nikki S. Lee offers a valuable critique?of our social need?to identify and be identified in a particular way. She?broadens her scope?beyond Sherman’s examination of clich?d feminity, inserting herself, as a Korean minority,?into the setting and style of many?cultural identities.
To contextualize Nikki Lee?s work (ooh, the irony), I visited The Museum of Contemporary Photography and read?”Karma Chameleon Revisited” by D. Robert Okada and Z. Samual Podolski, The Harvard Crimson, September 28, 2001:
Lee is not stereotyping and marginalizing her subjects, but rather indicting those stereotypes, exhibiting the fluency with which we can shed and assume any of them we like. She doesn’t objectify the person, she objectifies the ideas we all have about minority identities. She shows her audience the extent to which they stereotype-and marginalize-themselves? In this way, Lee achieves two biting critiques in one fell swoop-cutting at both the stereotyped and the stereotyper. We identify others and ourselves in purely visual terms. If Nikki Lee’s “Projects” seems at first ridiculous, then, that’s the whole point. They are ridiculous, and so are we.
This passage brought me right back to Hutcheon:
The postmodern, as I have been defining it, is not a degeneration into ?hyperreality? but a questioning of what reality can mean and how we can come to know it. It is not that representation now dominates or effaces the referent, but rather that it now self-consciously acknowledges its existence as representation-that is, as interpreting (indeed as creating) its referent, not as offering direct and immediate access to it. (32)
First off, the reference to?postmodern degeneration into?hyperreality is interesting. In one sense, Nikki Lee’ s work is the ultimate hyperreality, demonstrating the ways in which we put ourselves forth into society using?visual signs, signifying?the group to which we belong. The group collectively (those who both embrace or impose) determines what that visual language is and?derives meaning?from certain body posturing, clothing?and hair style. At the end of the day, one must ask, who are we when we aren’t pretzeling ourselves to fit some mold? Can one access a “true self” any longer? Has our true self been erased by representation over?time or has?individual identity always been?based on?social construct?
Considering the work of?Hutcheon and Lee, hyperreality in and of itself is a reality, if not as a representation of the real, then as a very real representation. Visual?identity is just one more form under Lee’s scrutiny?through postmodern photogrpahy, examining what tools?we use to represent?ourselves and interpret others.?Lee is shooting holes all through the meanings we think we can derive just by looking, and yet we simultaneously see that those meanings are not meaningless because we assign power to them.
Society would have us?believe that identity is?fixed within a particular race or ethnicity, but as Nikki Lee goes culture surfing, she demonstrates how maliable and yet influential visual cues?can be.?Perhaps she best passes?in yuppie, tourist, punk, and elderly?groups since race and ethnicity are not their sole defining factors, yet, when she inserts?herself into Hispanic and other ethnic settings, the lines of distiction are most de-doxified. We can see she is slightly different, and yet?there is?an uncanny?comfort level in the scene for both Lee and those who surround her. She has become, and has been accepted as, one of “them.”?As we observe her, we must ask ourselves what makes her different and?what makes her the same. Does she, or do we, decide??Is there so much destinction between “us” and “them” when the “us” becomes “them?”
In an October?1, 2006 New York Times article, “Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee,” Carol Kino says of Lee, “Even after a long face-to-face conversation, it?s hard to say for certain what Nikki S. Lee is really like.”?This could be read two ways, either Lee’s art is so relavent?that she unmistakably proves?we never really know a person, even when we?think we do,?or she’s crazy. The following passage describes Lee’s film:
Titled ?A K A Nikki S. Lee,? the film purports to be a documentary about the real Nikki, a rather plain, serious young woman who is in turn making her own documentary about her alter ego, Nikki Two, the effervescent exhibitionist who appears in the photographs. Yet as the true Ms. Lee explained in an interview in her East Village apartment, ?Nikki One is supposed to be real Nikki, and Nikki Two is supposed to be fake Nikki. But they are both fake Nikki.?
Fight Club schizophrenia anyone? I’m just saying. Still, I’m with Lee. I think we’re all crazy?and simply?masquerading as sane.
The article goes on to say “Ms. Lee also played fast and loose with the dates, just as she did with the camera date-stamps on her ?Projects? photos.” I had wondered, when I saw the Lesbian Project, if it really?spanned over the course of 6 months. This adds a whole new dimention to?Lee’s art, playing with?our assumptions?about time and?about long relationships vs. short ones. Right on.