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Who Am I This Time?

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 10/31/2001

The ultimate Halloween costume: a whole new identity, slipped into and out of at will.

Nikki S. Lee started out as a fashion-photography student with hopes of seeing her pictures published in Vogue. She took a left turn into conceptual art, and now Lee herself (rather than some malnourished model wearing a $4,000 T-shirt) is the recurring subject of her work.

Self-portraiture is nothing new, but Lee's work would be more accurately termed "selves-portraiture." Flip through a copy of her new book Projects and you'll recognize the novel way in which this artist poses age-old questions of identity and authenticity. "The young Latina hanging out on the stoop, the old lady on the bus, the bleach-blonde woman in the trailer park, and the Yuppie clutching a Tiffany bag are all the same person," the book's introduction notes. "Nikki S. Lee."

Like an anthropologist or a method actor, Lee "identifies a particular group in society and infiltrates it over a period of weeks or months. She will drastically alter her hair, her weight, her clothes," the intro continues. "More subtly, she will take on the mannerisms, the gestures, the way of carrying oneself characteristic of the group she has chosen. After entering into her new identity, she will hand her point-and-shoot camera to someone and ask to have a snapshot taken of her in the chosen milieu."

I stumbled upon Lee's photographs a few months ago at a museum in Boston. Having just seen the museum's more traditional collection of documentary stills, I initially didn't notice what was strange and different about these pictures. There were some amateurish snapshots of a gang of punk kids hanging in New York's East Village, then some cozy photos of a lesbian couple in their sparsely furnished apartment. Only when I came upon a series of group portraits of transvestites did I notice the omnipresence of a very petite Asian woman in all of the photos--here, among the towering, tarted-up cross-dressers, all obviously tall white males under the glitter, little Nikki S. Lee was impossible to miss.

It made me laugh out loud, this image of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. But the striking thing was that nothing else about the pictures--the candid poses, the obvious camaraderie between Nikki and her thick-wristed pals--seemed staged or forced. Though she stuck out so blatantly, there was nothing self-parodying about Lee's presence in the shot. She was just another one of the "girls."

The same was true of Lee's photos of skateboarders, exotic dancers, Hispanic girls, and T-shirted tourists. Although her physical and racial characteristics stood out more in some locales (e.g., Ohio, among white trailer-park residents) than in others (e.g., Korea, among uniformed high school girls), I marveled at the way she'd integrated into these different environments, had forged apparently genuine relationships with people who were not play-acting for the camera but living their actual lives. As the Projects introduction notes, "The best of these photographs contradict what we think we know about Lee's 'real' relationship to her tacit collaborators. At the beginning of each project, Lee does introduce herself as an artist and explains the nature of her project, but seems clear that such information is quickly put aside. In 'The Seniors Project' [wherein the 31-year-old Lee was convincingly made up to look about 70], several elderly women flatly refused to believe she was, in fact, a young woman in disguise, dismissing her story as a harmless eccentricity or early senility."

Nikki S. Lee was born Lee Seung-Hee in a small Korean town in 1970; she wanted to be an actress but decided she wasn't pretty enough, so went into photography with the notion of become a filmmaker one day. She moved to New York in 1994 and decided to give herself an "American" name. Before you are tempted to criticize that act as a form of self-hating "assimilation," you should look carefully at these photographs and read Lee's interview comments at the back of her book. Both the name change and the photographic "projects" are about something deeper than mere assimilation: They are ways of acknowledging and expressing the different identities or characters or selves that Lee already harbors within her.

Perhaps that's why I'm so fascinated by her pictures. They remind me of my own life. I am constantly moving among different groups of people--journalists, novelists, musicians, academics, engineers, Ivy Leaguers, blue-collar workers, New Yorkers, Baltimoreans, Washingtonians, Indian relatives, Irish-American in-laws--simultaneously belonging and not belonging among each. This tendency toward social fluidity used to make me sad, as if I hadn't really found my "place" yet, as if I were a chameleon with no decisive, authentic, cohesive sense of self. Eventually, I came to accept--indeed, revel in--the fact that I'd never fit completely within the confines of one single community, one single set of social interactions.

There is a potentially sad subtext to Lee's photographic projects, I'll admit. She says it's "hard to maintain friendships" with people she has come to know through her projects because, afterward, when she has moved onto the next milieu, people can't necessarily handle the thoroughgoing (though temporary) changes in her personality, gestures, and interests. As an artist, she can don and discard identities at will; most people she encounters will never enjoy, or even recognize, the possibility for that kind of freedom.

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