Portrait of the Assimilartist

By Chisun Lee Sep 15, 2002

When I watch any movie in which some lone, righteous figure is being relentlessly and unjustly pursued by the police state — take Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive, for instance — I root for the prey with an intensity that defies the bounds of the cinematic arc. I become obsessed with scheming: How could Harrison really and truly get away?

Ford’s character, Dr. Richard Kimble, dons certain costumes and shaves his beard in a desperate attempt to look like someone else. His tricks get him through a couple of tight spots. But, I think to myself, Kimble could do so much more — dye his hair pink, go five shades darker with a bottle of self-tanner, strap on some platform shoes, stuff a pillow under his shirt or in the seat of his pants — anything to alter his appearance so drastically that the spooks would never pick him out as their man. On a much graver level, the U.S. government’s post-September 11 pursuit of real innocents has forced some people into alteration, into doffing traditional dress and "Americanizing" their look to avoid the fists of strangers and the scrutiny of officials. With outrage and fear, I root for their getaways.

Now, it seems safe to say artist Nikki S. Lee had none of this political context in mind when she decided several years ago to make her name slipping in and out of disguise. In fact, once Lee heard that she would be featured in ColorLines, she refused to allow Leslie Tonkonow Gallery, which has exclusive rights to her work, to release photos for publication. "She does not enjoy being included in a magazine whose tagline is ‘race, culture, action,’ because her work does not refer to the concept of race," explained the gallery’s assistant director Julie Baranes.

Needless to say, Lee did not agree to be interviewed, so her views will go largely unaccounted for here. But my real art critic friends tell me, art exists in the eye of the beholder, and this beholder can’t help but see all things through today’s dark lens.

Lee undoubtedly would fare well on the wrong end of hot pursuit. The 32-year-old Korean native possesses more than enough talent for self-transformation to fool your average federal agent. (Recent news reports indicate the feds are not terribly swift.) Her formal training is in photography, and that is her medium of display, but her real craft is cross-cultural mimicry through clothes, makeup, and pose. She documents these crossings in collections of snapshots, taken by friends or bystanders, entitled The Latina Project, The Yuppie Project, The Hip-Hop Project, and so on. She immerses herself in a persona and surroundings as suggested by the project’s name. And at first glance, her work seems to epitomize the feat of disappearing into a crowd.

Collected in a 111-page, glossy book, Nikki S. Lee: Projects, are 12 forays into what critics who write about Lee inevitably call "subcultures." In one project, she is a lesbian in plain wire eyeglasses, tank top, and frumpy jeans, intimately posing with a bleached-blond lover. In another, she mingles with East Village punks in pink-and-orange hair, distressed biker jacket, shredded tights, and sleep-deprived eyes. As an "exotic dancer," she is unsmiling, greasy, and carelessly wearing a series of hot pink, leopard-print, and metallic silver bikinis. In The Ohio Project, she is blond as can be, sporting denim overalls and gingham, straddling a tractor, hanging with a white man and his rifle in his living room beneath a Confederate flag that bears the slogan: "I AIN’T COMING DOWN."

Mainstream reviewers call her transformations "astounding," "fascinating," and "uncanny." One puts her appeal quite bluntly: "Lee is an outsider who brings you ‘inside’…. the sympathetic visitor going native." The art world elite has been so arrested by her boundary-crossings, she is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum. One daily newspaper critic wrote of The Schoolgirls Project, where Lee pals around with uniform-clad Korean girls half her age, "It’s hard to pick Lee out of the group." Eye of the beholder indeed — it took me a nanosecond to find her. Actually, it wasn’t a matter of finding at all. I just looked and there she was.

As with so many cultural producers of color, Lee’s work is defined by the mainstream’s frame of reference. In the universe of Chelsea art galleries and world-famous museums, that frame is moneyed, genteel, and white. Hence, the voyeuristic astonishment over her blending into these "subcultures" — threatening, bizarre underworlds to these viewers. Plus, Lee’s youth and facility with clothes and makeup suggest a hipness, a certain "getting it," that those who don’t get it must covet and envy. And boy, does Lee get it. Her background in commercial fashion comes up all the time, not without her doing, and she says she forsook her Korean name, Seung Hee, for Nikki, after the model Niki Taylor. "My work is really simple, actually," she has said. "I’m just playing with forms of changing." Yeah, but she’s no fool.

When you get over how carefully she has mimicked the dress and ornamentation of the groups she picks, what is most intriguing and disturbing about Lee’s work is that she really does stand out. In The Latina Project, she poses against the backdrop of New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, having gained weight and dressed skimpy in her version of looking the part. But not for a single moment does she cease seeming the outsider. She serves as the point of comparison, so that unfamiliar viewers can look at the rest of the group and say, "Ah ha, those are realLatinas." It is clear, Lee is not the person against whom the Fifth Avenue boutiques barricade their windows with thick sheets of plywood. It’s not she who is hemmed in by thousands of cops in case she gets rowdy — or ignored by them when she needs help fending off the sexual attacks of groups of men in Central Park. She can hang, braided and disenchanted, with the hip-hop heads, but at the end of the day she leaves them behind and goes back to being a popular artist whose photos hang in major museums.

And no matter how light she bleaches her hair, she just doesn’t belong in that living room with the rifle-toting white dude under that menacing Confederate flag. Lee has attributed her ease of access to the fact that "I’m really petite — people don’t think I’m going to punch them and kill them." Indeed, her size, gender, and race must help take the edge off exclusion in many scenarios — my guess is the manager of the strip joint where she plays exotic dancer was not about to turn her away. But with the Confederate flag photo, I just want to scream, "Get out, girl! Get out while you can!"

Whether clever, offensive, or just plain commercial, Lee’s cross-cultural trespasses are art — art as in artifice, as in not reality, as in she is who she is underneath it all. That’s what makes it her work, not her life. In The Fugitive, when Dr. Kimble is finally discovered, he is underneath it all a white man, wrongly accused, who receives justice and honor in the end. A similar triumph for those pursued today, in real life, seems as elusive as a major motion picture deal or a flicker in time captured by a snapshot. Wherever we go, there we are.