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The Dressing Room 

Nikki S. Lee becomes you

Wednesday, May 2 2001
Nikki S. Lee is a master of the quick-change. She peers back at you from every wall of her current exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, clad one moment in fishnets and fuchsia hair, the next in a conservative frock and Prada pumps. Lee, a 30-year-old Korean artist based in New York, has spent the last four years exploring the nature of identity and examining our drive to fit in. Her MO is to select a subculture or stereotype, transform her own appearance and mannerisms to gain entree into that group, and then hang out with its members for a period of weeks or months. Among other things, Lee has been a skate rat, an old lady, a lesbian, a punk, a Latina, a yuppie, and an exotic dancer. A friend takes snapshots of each of Lee's encounters, which then get enlarged and printed at the local photo lab. The time code emblazoned on many of these photographs reminds us that they are not precious objects, but rather documentation of an ongoing experiment.

It is tempting to dismiss Lee as a weak pretender to the throne of Cindy Sherman, that indefatigable Zelig of the art world. In one or two of Lee's photographs -- for instance, Exotic Dancer Project #34 (2000) -- she even resembles the pancake-faced housewives Sherman has most recently embodied. Cindy Sherman's world, however, is far more solipsistic -- and deliberately sloppier -- than Lee's. Sherman leaves us plenty of visual cues (badly applied makeup, wig askew), lest we forget that she is merely playing dress-up. Lee's project is actually closer in spirit to Vito Acconci's 1969 Following Piece, for which he spent 23 days choosing people at random on the streets of New York and following them until they entered a private space. Though imbued with a creepy stalker tone, Acconci's project, like Lee's, was an attempt to create a sense of intimacy between himself and a stranger -- however tenuous and one-sided it may have been.

One does get a strangely warm sense from Lee's group photos. It's entirely possible, of course, that this warmth is staged by the artist and some willing accomplices: Let the record show that Lee explains her projects beforehand to those she photographs, which undoubtedly prohibits a completely candid encounter. My sense, though, is that the camaraderie evident in many of these scenes runs deeper than mere performance. Perhaps, by acting as a mirror for the people with whom she interacts, Lee gives them a sense of validation. Even more likely, her subjects are flattered by the attention. Check out the nattily dressed elderly gentleman in Seniors Project #13 (1999), who looks simultaneously bemused and overjoyed to have the seemingly saggy-skinned Lee at his side.

Lee's transformations are stunning, virtually seamless. Her Latina and yuppie incarnations are particularly convincing (yuppies being perhaps the easiest types to mimic, given their stringent list of acceptable clothing labels). But Lee maintains her credibility because her efforts go far beyond sporting a new wardrobe. For her most recent series, the "Skateboarders Project," she grabbed a board and took to the streets of San Francisco, thanks to a residency last year at the nearby Headlands Center for the Arts. It took several months of training (and countless bruises) before she could ride well enough to gain acceptance from the local skateboarding community.

Lee's constant presence in these photographs can be distracting. As when looking at a Where's Waldo cartoon, your eyes seek her out first, appraising her getup before taking in those around her. In the end, though, the gestures by which Lee's cohorts reveal themselves prove far more interesting than Lee herself: The drag queen groupie who licks Lee's face lasciviously, revealing his tongue stud; the thirtysomething skateboarder who stands behind Lee, giving her bunny ears. Thrust into the role of anthropologist, we interpret the body language and appearance of the "subjects" in question, seeking out subtle differences in dress and posture, distinguishing between those who appear to be acting out a persona and those who seem genuine. The same drive that compels so many otherwise intelligent people to watch Survivor (and its still more offensive spawn) obliges us to look closely at Lee's photographs, seeking to define ourselves against the selves we encounter there.

Truth be told, from an aesthetic standpoint these photographs are fairly dull. Lee admits that the images' formal qualities matter little to her -- she leaves the question of composition entirely up to the photographer. Conceptual projects are rarely eye-catching beauties, however, and ultimately Lee's pieces come together as a complex examination of self: The scope of Lee's lens encompasses herself and her audience as much as the people she photographs. The best of her works invite you to keep looking, if only to unearth the subtle visual details that can manifest an identity.

The exhibition ends with a sweet shot of Lee embracing a heavily pierced punk on a New York City park bench. The punk gazes at us serenely, his expression neutralizing the otherwise menacing hardware adorning his body. This rare display of comfort in one's own skin is a fitting closure, especially given that the original punk spirit was a rejection of all conventional identities, a freedom to dress and act in whatever way one desired. Of course, punk too eventually crystallized into a stereotype, with its own dress code of mohawks and shredded clothing. Maybe we're all just playing dress-up after all.

About The Author

Adrienne Gagnon


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