Nikki Lee’s Identity Quest


Corey Armpriester wrote me the other week wondering why Libby and I had spent so much ink covering Roger Buergel’s lecture at Penn and no ink at all on the fabulous Nikki Lee who gave a lecture the same week. Armpriester was at both lectures and the Nikki Lee beat the Buergel by a mile he thought so he was a little curious as to our choice and peeved that we’d missed this great artist’s lecture. Well that’s how it is, I told him. We miss some of the things some of the time but the town is hopping and it’s hard to get to it all. I asked Armpriester if he’d like to write up a report on the talk for us — or, because many artists are not writers, whether he’d like to call me and I’d take his report over the phone and post it afterwards. So he called and we had a chat and here’s his report.

But first some background on Nikki Lee. Nikki Lee is a Korean-born artist (b. 1970) whose work deals with representation of self as pictured in groups she immerses herself in. She’s gone into various social groups (skateboarders, senior citizens, hispanics, yuppies, punk rockers and each time she makes herself over, dying her hair, wearing prostheses (in the case of the seniors), whatever it takes to make her a convincing member of the group. Her art is conceptual with photography a kind of byproduct.

Nikki Lee’s lecture at Penn, Jan. 22, 2007
A Report by Corey Armpriester

I get to the auditorium and maybe two people are there. But people show up late to these things so I don’t think anything of it. Nikki Lee comes in and she sits down and she’s telling the projectionist what she wants. She starts showing slides and talking about her older work. Here’s what’s interesting. Yes, she’s a photographer but she has a third party photograph her so she brings someone in on it — a participant in the scene — to take the photo. (Part of her art is editing the ouervre and controlling what images are finally put out there to represents her art.)

Nikki Lee, from the Hispanic milieu

Also, I didn’t realize…I thought she went into a scene for a week but it’s months. Sometimes she gains weight and sometimes she loses. She made it clear that she’s not exploiting these people. She’s actually welcomed by them.

She showed maybe around 40 slides, 3 or 4 from each scene. There was the lesbian scene, the punk scene, the hip hop scene, the trailer park scene, the senior scene. A makeup artist created prostheses for her to participate in the senior scene. She looks hunch backed and is walking around slowly. And she had photos of her with her senior friends. That really impressed me the most.

From the Ohio scene

Identity is very important today — and reality, so she’s mining something very big. She showed some new work too.

After the slide show was over — and it was good and thorough, then there was the Q&A. First question: Do you think you’re exploiting those people? Answer: No. These people know and they bring me into the fold. They want to be in the project.

There were six more question and every one was asking the same thing in a slightly different way…is she exploiting these people.

I wondered if it was because the lecture was in an academic environment? People seemed really hostile and out for blood. Or maybe there was some morality issue –something about right or wrong — that they were on about.

From the Punk scene

But art doesn’t exist in the realm of right and wrong!

It was very uncomfortable and by the end I felt like I needed to protect her. She kept her cool but was frustrated. She said “I get this with every lecture.” And then someone said something to console her.

How many people showed up ultimately? It was a full house. If there were 60 chairs, then maybe 53 people showed up.

From the Skateboarder series

I think this audience came with preconceived ideas…that she was exploitative in her art. But I see her as a performance artist using photography to document American social settings and herself — a Korean-born American — in them. Does she have compassion for these people? Well, sure. She said the photos are very spontaneous and come when she’s hanging out with her friends. What’s most impressive is that she doesn’t take the photos. She doesn’t print them either. She’s a conceptual artist.

I really like what she’s doing. She’s like Cindy Sherman but she’s pushing it. She is of the moment.

–Corey Armpriester is a Philadelphia artist who’s had three back to back shows the last year, at Safe T Gallery in New York Oct 19-Nov. 18, 2006Photo West Gallery, Sept 2-17 and ASFe Gallery Dec. 8-31.



corey armpriester, nikki lee



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