Photos courtesy of Nikki S. Lee
We first encountered Nikki S. Lee’s work in her book Projects. Nikki is dressed as any young Hispanic girl on the LES, with big gold hoop earrings, and a boob tube top, a hairstyle left over from the ’80s, and some desperately in situ makeup.
She looks very comfortable in the environment. Until it hits you that she’s not Hispanic. You flip through the pages of the book, and all the pages follow the same pattern: Nikki dressed as a yuppie, an old lady, a stripper, a skater. She is visibly invisible; you keep having to ask yourself, “Is that her?”
Nikki S. Lee has had a seemingly effortless rise to fame since the mid ’90s. She’s had more than a dozen solo shows since first showing at the Leslie Tonkonow gallery in New York. Her work has been added to the permanent collections at SFMOMA and the Hirshhorn Museum, and has been shown at the Guggenheim, the MoMA in New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her projects draw regular comparisons to Cindy Sherman and Adrian Piper: the former being well-known for turning the camera on herself in the guise of a B-movie actress, the latter known for her re-incarnation as a young, aggressive, black man. Comparisons to Tseng Kwong Chi’s portraits of himself dressed in the de rigueur outfits iconic to communism are helpful, but sometimes irrelevant, since his work rarely had any interaction with the public or the environs he traveled. But Nikki’s work is uniquely her own, and appeals to a wide audience with its apparent conceptual simplicity.
On a cool November day, we invited Nikki to a lunch of Vietnamese sandwiches on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
The Bourgeoisie from the Parts Series, 2004.
Theme: So tell us about how you started doing your work. You went to art school in Korea, right?
Nikki S. Lee: I went to photography school in Korea. [In New York] I went to FIT and NYU, both for photography. At NYU I had an assignment to make something for myself. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do because I was really tired of fashion photography.
You did fashion photography?
I was David LaChapelle’s assistant. I was working at his studio during NYU.
I heard it’s pretty crazy working for him.
It was a lot of fun! He has huge productions. You’d have to check like fifty powerpacks. It was really crazy and stressful, but I enjoyed it actually. And David, I mean he’s a little crazed when he works, but he was very nice to me all the time.
I was happy working there, but I wasn’t happy as far as doing fashion stuff; I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And I had to make something for myself at school, so that was when I started doing the “Projects” pieces.
How did you come up with the idea?
I had the idea about ten years ago in Korea, but I thought it would be too difficult so I forgot about it. I remembered it when I was looking for a concept to realize. At the time—’97, ’98— people were into simulacra. I was thinking a lot about simulacra and fake documentaries and I was interested in seeing how I could combine all those things.
Did you show it at NYU first?
Yeah. And there was one artist at NYU who was a friend of Leslie [Tonkonow, the art dealer], and she called Leslie about my work. So I showed my work to Leslie and she really liked it. She offered me a solo show, but I said no [laughs] because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an artist.
So at what point did you decide to go with it?
Er, it was because of Leslie. I liked her. She talked you into it? [Laughs.] I guess. If I like people, I usually say okay.
The Tourist Project, 1997.
Did you know who she was?
No, I had no idea. She baited me with food. She asked, “Do you want to have dinner?” [Laughs.] She came with her husband, Klaus. He’s very intellectual—a curator—and I liked him too. And I thought “I like both people,” so why not.
And then you start showing there, and what was the reaction?
It was very positive. I started showing my stuff, and people were so interested. My career just went up and up and up, it happened so fast. I think my case was very exceptional; I never had high hopes that I was going to be a known artist. I mean people spend a lot of time, sometimes their whole lives to become an artist.
Isn’t that part of it though, the struggle? Do you think you missed out on a stage?
Yeah, I missed it, I didn’t have that struggle; but I didn’t feel it either because I hadn’t thought about it as something that I’d wanted. If I’d dreamt about it and obsessed about it for a long time, I’d probably be really happy and very appreciative. But because it didn’t happen that way, I had no idea what I should have been feeling.
I was really nonchalant about the whole success thing. It wasn’t because I was full of myself, it’s just that [I felt removed from the process]. I still don’t really believe the success of my career. It’s kind of strange.
It’s basically changing yourself and adapting to different cultures, and taking snapshots of people and situations. This Asian woman changes, and changes, and changes.
So why do you think people can relate so well to your artwork?
Because it’s really easy to understand. Basically people see my work, and they get the concept right away because it’s easy.
What’s your concept?
It’s basically changing yourself and adapting to different cultures, and taking snapshots of people and situations. This Asian woman changes, and changes, and changes. It weird, but it’s really simple to understand. Plus it speaks to people’s fantasies about becoming other people somehow. They want to live other lives.
I like that the work has multiple layers, and people approach it from different angles. They see the different perspectives.
What kind of work do you yourself like or appreciate?
I don’t like work that’s very serious on the outside, but not serious on the inside. [Some things] look really heavy and serious, but when you read into it carefully, sometimes it’s not. I hate that. So I like ideas where it looks simple and easy to understand, but when you look really carefully, the concept is very serious. I like that kind of work.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Francis Alÿs [The Belgian artist living in Mexico who is best known for pieces like Paradox, where he pushed a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City until it melted]. I love what he does, he does so many interesting things. He lives in a big studio with a lot of broken windows, and he stuffed the windows with pillows to block the holes. [Laughs.]
Which do you think of as home, New York or Seoul?
Both. I live here in New York and I go to Seoul once a year, for about a month. But this year it’s been a little different: I went back for about five months.
You feel comfortable there more than here?
I feel comfortable in both places, in different ways. Here because people understand my intellectual concepts and tastes more. And they seem to appreciate me more here.
In Korea, they don’t really know what I’m thinking, and sometimes I’m a little perplexed by the fashion. But I can connect with things there. I can understand why certain things are, and where that comes from. But sometimes it’s lonely because nobody understands what I’m talking about on certain levels. [Laughs.]
Here I have great dialogue, and people understand me cerebrally. So I’m comfortable that way. But I’m not comfortable here because of some of my Korean sensibilities towards living life, like Jung [In Korean, to have Jung is to have interest and affection for another person.] Relationships between people are very different here and in Korea. I love relationships in Korea.
The Seniors Project, 1999.
Why, what’s the difference?
Here it’s very individual. You have Yourself, and Myself. It’s very independent. Here, people always ask each other questions like “Do you trust me?” or “Are you really honest?”
Because people here are very individual, we make bridges between you and me to cross. And that bridge is the trust and honesty people associate with that relationship.
But in Korea, people don’t think of their individual positions, so when two people are friends, we think of “ourselves,” the “us.”We don’t really need that bridge to spell out the trust and the honesty, you know?
If, let’s say, you betrayed me or lied to me, fine, there is an understanding that it’s not the end of the world. Do you know what I’m saying? In Korea, if my friend lied to me, I understand that there was a good reason for that lie. Here it’s like “I trusted you so much!” [Laughs.] “Now there is nothing left in my relationship with you!” I don’t like those things.
Portrait by Dylan Griffin
Here’s an interesting question...
And if it’s not interesting?
I’ll buy you chajangmyun [noodles in black bean sauce], or something.
If you could give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?
You owe me chajangmyun. [Laughs.]
Just answer the question.
It’s hard to answer this question; I’m not a person who usually gives advice. I feel that life is evanescent. It’s like love. You love somebody— and for that period of time, you are so in love— but after you break up, you will forget. It will become just a memory. Life is just like that, impermanent and episodic. I’m always thinking that I could be dead tomorrow. I’m not a nihilist, but I’m always thinking “What is success, what is life?”
So what are you passionate about?
What do you want to talk about? Honestly? Relationships. [Laughs.] In my work, “Parts,” I explore identity and how I am affected by the other person in relationships. I realize I am very sweet and generous to one person, but bossy to another. Why?
Because it’s action and reaction. I’m reacting to the other person in the relationship. I’m interested in how people’s identities are affected in the context of a relationship.
My first work, “Projects,” is about sociology. The context of people. The second work is about relationships.
I’m interested in knowing people. I think it’s a really amazing thing to know people.