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5 Fast Facts: Nikki S. Lee

Blog Category:  5 Fast Facts
A light-skinned woman of Asian descent is dressed up in a fancy black dress, sitting at a table in a room with ornate yellow walls. Her hair is in an updo. She stares unsmiling at the camera, to her left is a male companion in a suit, thought he has been cut from the frame and all that shows his is arm and half is body.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about contemporary multimedia artist Nikki S. Lee (b. 1970), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

A light-skinned woman of Asian descent stands in the doorway of a small home or trailer, her arms above her head and resting on either side of the doorframe. She has blonde hair and bangs worn up and wears a pink crop top, jean shorts, and flip flops. Her midriff is exposed and she looks directly at the camera.
Nikki S. Lee, The Ohio Project (8), 1999; Fujiflex print, 40 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Nikki S. Lee

1. A Casual Capture

While studying fashion and commercial photography at New York University, Lee worked as an assistant to famed fashion photographer David LaChapelle. However, in her own artwork, she adopted an amateur style. Some of Lee’s photographs are snapshots taken by friends; they include motion blurs and candid scenes in which her subjects are only partly framed. “People in the street are not going to wait for you with a big camera. They would freak out. With a snapshot camera, they are comfortable,” Lee said.

2. Playing the Part  

Lee strategically uses appropriation to explore race, gender, and sexuality. In her “Projects” series (1997–2001), Lee attempted to assimilate into different ethnicities and subcultures, including skateboarders, yuppies, and hip-hop fans. The series straddles a fine line between interrogating markers of identity and cultural differences and perpetuating stereotypes. In a 2020 article for Art in America, Wendy Vogel asks, “Is her work a provocation or a genuine search for connection? Does she celebrate the mutability of identity or comment on the limits of assimilation?”

A light medium-skinned Asian woman sitting in a black chair with her legs propped up on a table cluttered with items. Her blue garment is pulled down to reveal her breasts and she has a black garter on her right thigh. She holds a cigarette in her left hand and looks at the viewer.
Nikki S. Lee, The Exotic Dancer Project (23), 2000; Fujiflex print, 30 x 40 inches; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Nikki S. Lee

3. A Photo is a Mirror

Lee believes that an individual’s essence shifts when interacting with different people. In her “Parts” series (2002–05), the artist explored the effect of relationships on identity. She took photographs with male partners, then cut them out until only she remained. Through this process, she documented an identity that shifted with each romantic relationship.

4. Documenting Another Self…and Another…

In 2006, Lee released A.K.A. Nikki S. Lee, a mockumentary that depicts two versions of herself in the shells of fictional characters. The project is a mix of real and staged events, and it showcases Lee’s ability to blend in and find common ground with strangers. The New York Times wrote, “And though it may be perceived as exhibitionistic, her art has a spiritual, almost Buddhistic, undercurrent: her ability to don and doff personalities at will implies a lack of concern with self.”

Color photograph of a group of figures with medium skin tone in an urban setting. Six figures sit on chairs in semi-circle and one young woman sits in a plastic swimming pool in the foreground. One more figure is almost completely cropped out of the image at the upper left.
Nikki S. Lee, The Hispanic Project (19), 1998; Fujiflex print, 29 x 22 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Nikki S. Lee; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, © Nikki S. Lee

5. Reverse Orientalist

In recent years, Lee has been at work on a film, Two Monks, about a gay love affair between  American and Korean monks. She explained that one of the film’s goals is to “see Buddhism in a different way from orientalism,” as the latter promotes clichéd cultural stereotypes about Asia. With this forthcoming project, we can look forward to the next act of Lee’s playful interrogation of cultural stereotypes and identity.

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