Identity in Flux: Exploring the Work of Nikki S. Lee

Article excerpt

Recommended for grades 9-12


Ahh, teen angst. I must admit, when I think of my teen years, I recall a host of film director John Hughes' movies: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club. In each of these films, the characters belonged to certain cliques and the story line often revolved around exploring the extent to which their identities were solely defined by their membership in these groups, and how their belonging was often tied to their appearance. This issue is no less relevant to teens of today. How do teens today define their identity? How fixed are these roles, and what rewards exist for membership in these groups? Identity is a vital topic for discussion, exploration, and discovery in the art classroom. The artwork of Nikki S. Lee provides an opportunity for students to begin reformulating their notions about selfhood.


During this unit, students will:

* Explore, describe, and reflect upon their multiple identities and roles;

* Develop an understanding of the work of Nikki S. Lee that will enable them to expand and refine their notions about identity; and

* Explore issues of representation in documentary photography.

About the Artist

Nikki S. Lee was born in 1970 in Korea. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography in Korea and then moved to New York to complete an undergraduate degree in commercial photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology and earn a Master of Arts in photography at New York University. Her influences include cabaret music, film, and documentary and fashion photography. These come to bear on her work, resulting in a hybrid art form of performance art, collaborative art, and documentary photography. Nikki S. Lee's work is featured in over one dozen prominent collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

As a fashion photographer, Lee has always been interested in subcultures and the ephemera that surround them. In 2001, her work on this topic was fully explored in the publication, Nikki S. Lee: Projects. This book features 12 documentary photographic explorations of subcultures and groups including tourists, skateboarders, elderly people, swing dancers, yuppies, punks, and others. This instructional resource will explore work from 4 of these 12 projects.

Lee begins her work by identifying a subculture that interests her. She researches the group and begins to adopt their dress, customs, and mannerisms. She then approaches the group, tells them about her project, and asks permission to begin "hanging out" with them for a period of 3 months or more. Once she has successfully assimilated herself into the group, she asks a passerby to take a snapshot of her with her new clique.

According to Lee, the success of the work is judged by two interdependent results: her successful assimilation into the group and a believable photograph (Martin, 2001). Lee wants viewers of her work to explore new constructs for identity and call into question notions where identity is seen "as a unitary thing, ideally expressed through the manifestation of a single, authentic persona no matter what the context" (Martin, 2001, p. 17). The fact that Lee is able to move fluidly among subcultures and assimilate herself into different ethnic, sexual, socioeconomic, and age groups makes us question the permanency of our identities when viewed in different social and cultural contexts. Lee explains that in Asian culture, identity is determined more by the relationships one has with other people, rather than fixed traits that confine a person to one identity or clique.

Background Information of Works

The Hispanic Project (1), 1998

The Lesbian Project (1), 1997

The Punk Project (8). 1997

The Yuppie Project (17), 1998

Nikki S. Lee (Korean, born 1970)

Chromogenic color prints, 21¼" × 28¼" each. …