By Choohyun Park, Nikki’s friend
Story, Hair, Makeup, and Styling by Nikki S. Lee
Nikki S. Lee gained international recognition with her immersion photography in which she examined issues of identity by engaging with different cultures. Her first collection, “Projects,” is a compilation of work that began in graduate school. With white borders and a date/time stamp, the photos appear to be candid snapshots with Nikki unwittingly caught interacting with various subgroups. The 36-year-old New Yorker’s second venture, “Parts,” again explored identity, this time through staged portraits in which her counterparts are cropped out. In January, “A.K.A. Nikki S. Lee,” a mockumentary/documentary, made its West Coast premiere and featured the conceptual artist once more investigating identity, how it is perceived from the inside and outside, and asking the question of what is real.
I was born in Geochang, but I grew up in Seoul until I was 10 years old and then I moved back to the town again for nine years. It’s just a small town with mountains. That was the most fun time in my life I think. There was only one theater so we would go to the theater, go to a restaurant and have ramen or something or just talk to friends all night or watch a TV drama together. Really small things feel like big things when you grow up in a small town. Most of the time I had to study, you know, the Korean education. From the outside it was isolating in terms of cultural experiences, but from the inside it wasn’t. When I finished high school I went to Seoul again to attend the university.
My father had a wedding business but is now retired. My mother has been a housewife all her life. I have a sister in Utah and a brother and sister in Seoul. I’m the oldest. Usually the oldest child in Korean culture has a huge responsibility, but my parents never put that on me. My parents treat me like I’m an only child. That’s why I could be an artist. My parents are very cool.
I didn’t know I was going to do art. I was interested in becoming a yuppie, like having a really fast carand nice apartment. I knew that I had an artistic side, but I was kind of avoiding becoming an artist because I didn’t want to live life poor and suffering. In Korea, the artist’s life is just like death. I had wanted to be an actress a long time ago, but when I was 20, I was looking in the mirror and thought I’m not pretty enough to be an actress so I gave up. I’m very objective of myself.
I really liked Seoul a lot. A lot of people feel the culture is frustrating and they want to have freedom, but I never felt that way in Korea. I had fun, I had a lot of friends. I didn’t care what people thought about me so I could do whatever I wanted. But after I graduated college I felt lost, like I have to get married — I didn’t know what to do so I was like, oh maybe I can go to New York. I thought maybe I can stay there for two or three years. If I’m a success there, great, but if I’m not I’ll probably come back. My family was middle class and had money to send me there and support me through graduate school.
I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology because I thought I was going to become a fashion photographer. I worked as a fashion photographer’s assistant and realized that it’s not my thing. I really felt bored so I decided to do something else.
I was very interested in documentaries back in 1997 and issues of simulation — what is fake and what is not fake. I was also interested in the snapshot quality of photography. So I kind of wanted to combine those.
“The Drag Queen Project” was my first. Back in the ‘90s there were a lot of drag queens. Drag queens are very dramatic, dressing up in costume, so that first time I was thinking it would be a funny, dramatic change.
I was curious how it would turn out. I really didn’t think I’m going to make this work and make it happen and become an artist. I just started doing these projects for myself and for the school, so I didn’t have any pressure. I was really curious about myself and how I was able to access culture. It was more of a personal approach.
I went to a place called Mother. It’s disappeared now. It was in the meat market area, which was very funky in the ‘90s. Now it’s kind of trendy and clean and fancy. I approached the drag queens there.
People really don’t mind in New York City. A lot of people introduce themselves as an artist and it’s like, Yeah? Whatever. Some people didn’t want to be in front of the camera, but not too many.
Every project has different difficulty. “The Skateboarder Project” was physically really difficult. “The Seniors Project” was difficult because it’s summertime and I had to put on really thick special makeup and walk around the street. And then “The Exotic Dancers Project” — it’s not comfortable you know. I didn’t really want to show my boobs to strangers.
I style myself to look like I fit in and just hang out in the beginning. If I think it’s a good shot, I ask my friend to take the picture. I try to make things natural. From the outside maybe it looks like a very awkward situation but I don’t feel it. I don’t really get shy. I’m a very confident person. It takes a lot to get me to react. Like when my dealer called me in the beginning, saying, “Oh you are in two pages of the New York Times,” I go, “Oh yeah?” Or if somebody says, “You have to pay a huge tax,” I’m like, “Oh Yeah?” I don’t really get surprised or excited.
My parents maybe raised me like that. Or I was born with it, I don’t know.
I’m probably different from traditional Korean women. I’m a very confident person so I don’t really mind what people say about me or what people think about my life. I’m like f-ck it, I’m gonna just live my life. That kind of attitude makes me very straightforward. I’m very direct. Sometimes it causes problems but usually people are less confused.
One of my teachers really liked my work and mentioned it to Leslie Tonkonow who owns a gallery. She looked at my work and decided to have a show. I had six projects finished by then. By the time I got my master’s in fine arts and photography in 1999, I had already sold some of my work. That’s when I knew this is the thing maybe I can do for life. I don’t remember which one was the first thing that sold, but it was $850.
I never suffered the artist’s life so my case is an exception. I made money with my first work and I never approached a gallery, they approached me. I started to sell my work immediately and then my career was just going up from that point so I never worried about living life as an artist. But I don’t regret not having that struggle.
A lot of artists cannot sell their work in Korea. A contemporary artist my age? No way. They have to teach at a school.
I’m privileged in a way, because I came to the United States when I was 23. And there are not so many female Korean artists. I’m in a unique position.
I’m more of a conceptual artist. Because I enjoy myself more when I’m thinking about the concept. I don’t feel comfortable when people call me a photographer because when people say “photographer” they mean in the classical sense. I have a small digital camera, but I don’t have like a big, huge camera. I hate taking personal pictures.
My identity after “Projects” didn’t change a lot.
I’m not really affected by the cultures I go into because my personality is very centered. I’ve gotten affected by really personal relationships, but not with a project.
The only lasting friendship I have from a project is from “The Swingers Project.” I love to swing so I danced swing after I finished the project without a camera or pressure to take a picture.
I still wanted to skateboard after “The Skateboard Project,” but I had to leave because I’m getting old and I don’t have health insurance here so it’s very dangerous. But usually when I finish I love to have that feeling of being finished.
I was more interested in myself than cultures. Like my identity and dilemmas about my personalities. So I didn’t have any purpose to change cultures, make cultures or introduce cultures. It deals with identities like how people can choose their own culture or how you change yourself, how you’re able to deal with your various identities.
It’s not all about me, it’s just, I was more interested in issues of identity. That deals with culture, so yeah people can bring up culture issues but that wasn’t my purpose. I didn’t stereotype these cultures, there are stereotypes and I don’t think stereotypes are bad. Artists are stereotyped too.
I love that it brings up issues of whiteness, even though that wasn’t my purpose. I like that the work has a lot of layers and people can approach it from different perspectives.
For example race issues: People bring that up and ask me because they think I’m Korean American. But I’m Korean Korean and I didn’t grow up with racism issues at all. I didn’t grow up as a minority of culture — I have only one culture. That makes a huge difference. So I had no awareness about minority or race in America. Now I have awareness because I live here.
When I say I’m interested in myself, it sounds like I have an ego. It’s not like narcissistic, I’m just interested in how contemporary identity issues develop.
I am the kind of person who is actually against belonging to a group.
I don’t have a favorite piece. I don’t have any attachment to the work I do. I have two books from the “Projects” and “Parts.” “Projects” isn’t staged but “Parts” I staged everything. I didn’t enjoy one more than the other.
I never look at my books. I don’t really look at my past work. And then when I look at it I don’t feel anything. Very cold. Very distanced.
I like making high art from low art. It’s kind of interesting to see how my work became an art. My work is like a snapshot, you know with the white borders and date/time code. Everybody has that kind of snapshot of their life. That’s why I say everybody is able to make a snapshot but not everybody is able to make art with a snapshot.
My film is more like a persona thing. I created two artists: Nikki 1 and Nikki 2. Nikki 1 is very serious and a typical artist and Nikki 2 is really social and outgoing. Both are not me, but at the same time both are part of me and maybe a cliché of artists a little bit too. That was my purpose, it has to be hard to know me, it has to be confused.
The purpose of my film is also about identity issues like let’s say you think you’re a very shy person but people say you’re a very outgoing person; maybe there’s a gap between the inside you and what people on the outside think about you.
TV shows are simulated so it’s not like, oh look at this concept isn’t that fresh? But I wanted to examine that concept through the documentary format. Of course, people are already making fake documentaries, but I kind of wanted to mix everything. I don’t say that this is a fake documentary but I don’t say this is a real documentary. I mean documentary itself already has issues of breaking boundaries between real and fake. So I don’t really focus on that, I just adopted that documentary format to tell more about persona issues.
Life itself is a performance, what I mean by that is just speaking English for me is a performance because it’s a different system. My gestures and my face expressions are a little bit different than when I speak Korean. When I speak Korean there’s less layers, but when I speak English there’s one filter I have to get through. That filter makes me think I’m doing a performance. Performance doesn’t mean acting. It’s just not naturally coming from my personality. English for me is an artificial process.
People think I’m Korean American. I’m not at all. I don’t even have a green card. I’m Korean Korean. Which to me means I have to have a Korean boyfriend, speak Korean fluently, eat Korean food a lot and I have to watch Korean dramas. I have a lot of friends in Korea.
I don’t really consider myself an American. I feel more comfortable saying I have a New Yorker’s personality.
When I first came here I tried to be American because I had to learn how to speak English. My English was bad. For example, I called somebody and I said “Oh can I speak to Juyon?” And she said, “Oh this is she.” I was like what? That’s an expression I never heard. I tried to learn English through American friends and movies without subtitles.
In my everyday life, I go to the gym and then I go to the library. I bring my books to the library and read there because I love the New York University library, I think that’s the most romantic place in New York City. I love reading next to the big huge windows and seeing Washington Park. Whenever I broke up with somebody I’d go to the library, doing nothing but sitting there sometimes.
So my life is going to the gym, run on treadmill, work out, go to library and read books and then come back home and have dinner. Mostly Korean food, healthy food. I don’t eat hamburgers, I don’t eat junk food. I’m not skinny but I want to live healthy. I’m kind of a controlling person so I like to make time for my brain and make time for my body.
I watch a lot of films. All different kinds. Mostly European and foreign films. I like all different kinds of directors. Intellectually I have the directors I like, but emotionally I like Pedro Almodóvar and Won Kar-Wai’s stuff.
I am not a very social person so I stay home a lot. I don’t have many friends. When we get together we just have a glass of wine and talk. I don’t do it every day, but I don’t mind hanging out with collectors. I like collectors.
My career is good. It’s good because I have freedom to do what I want. And then make money with it. My film is $40,000 and my prints are like $20,000.
I’m actually making new work now. Photo slash drawings. It’s mixed. Not the same concept but it also deals with layers of people’s personalities. I’m also very interested in acting and directing.
Which identity would I choose? Korean.
“I had asked an artist who was in a group show in my gallery at the time whether she had any students who were doing interesting work and she mentioned Nikki.
I thought it was very conceptually tight and that it was extremely interesting that she was dealing with a model of vernacular photography and how people work with photographs and live with photographs in their lives but doing it in the context of art. I’d curated a couple of shows on that subject already so it kind of fit very well with things that interested me about photography.
Nikki’s not an extrovert in any way. I think that a lot of people who see her work have an idea about what she’s like in reality, which is very different from what she really is like and she talks about that in her film. You see this woman who’s skateboarding on a half-pipe or performing as an exotic dancer and you think she’s this really outgoing party girl but she’s really quite reserved and serious and intellectual.”
— Leslie Tonkonow, art gallery owner who discovered Nikki
“For people who maybe don’t know a lot about contemporary art or come to it without knowing that much I think it’s easy for people to see on one level what she’s doing which is because the sort of hook to it is pretty straightforward. But I think she also commands a lot of interest among people who do know quite a lot about contemporary art because when you get beyond the initial kind of wow effect of her various transformations, you see that there’s a lot more than that going on in the work so it sustains beyond the initial impact.
I think her work is getting more serious and more complex. Some of the early work you can see there was serious thought going into it but she was also having a lot of fun with it. I think she still likes to have fun with the work and to have a good time but there are more kind of melancholy strands visible in the work now.”
— Russell Ferguson, chair of the University of California, Los Angeles art department, who wrote the introductory essay for “Projects”
“I got to know about her work before I met her. My friend knew her. I first saw her work in St. Mark’s Bookstore. I saw “Projects” and saw that through stereotyping different cultures and people it felt like she was rediscovering herself. And I was rediscovering myself through her.
Then I went to a party and I saw her. She showed up in white cashmere beret and turtleneck and pants, all white. I spoke to her briefly and then didn’t have another encounter for another year or so. We went to a club together and we didn’t like the music so we went to another hip-hop club and after that we became close friends.
She’s very versatile and she complains that most people think she’s very American but she’s actually not. Basically if you don’t understand her Korean jokes, then you can’t be her friend.”
Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi
Shot on location at the UCLA Hammer Museum
Photos courtesy of the Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Gallery