Nikki S. Lee: Projects

edited by Russell Ferguson

(Hatje Cantz)

O ne of the most disturbing and unsettling artists working today isn't an unchecked sadomasochistic performance artist with a death wish, or a sacrilegious, neo-expressionist, dung-flinging painter, but a young Korean-America woman who like to play dress-up and hang with the crowd. Her name is Nikki S. Lee, and Hatje Cantz has published Projects, a slim volume illustrating her recent photo-adventures.

Lee works within the artistic mediums of disguise and infiltration. Her "projects" revolve around specific subcultures of society, which she assimilates herself into with the thoroughness of the most rigorous method actor. Jumping wildly from skateboarder to lesbian, yuppie to exotic dancer, Lee's strength is the seeming ease with which she can transform herself and blend into specific segments of contemporary culture. In an interview in the book, Lee says that she prepares for a few weeks for each project, studying the group she wants to permeate, buying a wardrobe, and practicing the lingo, mannerisms, and habits of each group. Then she just starts "hanging out," mentioning at some point that she's an artist there to do a project, although she notes that she doesn't go too far out of her way to make sure that everyone hears this. With uncanny precision, Lee "becomes" part of each of these groups--manicured and scowling as a yuppie, tongue-kissing a short-haired blonde as a lesbian, and spare-changing in a doorway as a punk. She keeps an inexpensive camera with her and asks her new friends to take her picture throughout the project, and then presents the photos as evidence of her chameleon-like journey.

Whether she's photographed with Confederate flag waving rednecks or heartbreakingly sincere tourists in Bermuda shorts, Lee's companions show absolutely no sign of suspicion, and Lee herself blends right in, approaching a disturbing line of invisibility. She has a sizable body of work, with a large number of projects, which suggests that most of her life is dedicated to a blatant phoniness, which she has adopted not only as a lifestyle, but also as a style of art. The idea of such a false, malleable human is unnerving for anybody with a compass of sincerity, yet the exquisite consummation with which she pulls off her charades demands attention. CHAS BOWIE

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