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14 Photographic Essays from 1997-2001

Immersing herself in a particular community for weeks or even months, Nikki S. Lee undertakes not only a physical transformation – painstakingly employing clothing, make-up, hair (even losing or gaining weight if required) – but also adapts her behaviour, attitude and environment to metamorphose into a character of another age, race, gender or class. Reinventing herself anew for each project, she has been a punk, a yuppie, an exotic dancer, a school-girl, a skateboarder, a lesbian, an Hispanic teenager, a senior citizen – this last guise so convincing that her fellow old ladies refused to believe that she was an artist, dismissing her story as a delusion due to her senility. The ensuing photographs are shot spontaneously by friends or bystanders at Lee’s request, using her very simple ‘point and shoot’ camera. They have the immediacy of the snapshot and its implication of veracity, the aura of the documentary. Yet this air of spontaneity is a conceit, engineered to suspend the familiar and hold it up for examination. Self-portraiture is at the core of the projects, yet Lee’s brand of ‘self-portraiture’ is not conducted as an investigation of the private self, but as an examination of the public, social self. The emphasis is on appearance and artifice, suggesting that surface tells us more than we would like to think. First impressions not only count – oftentimes they are the most important means of identifying with other people. Lee uses stereotypes not to examine them per se, but, through slipping with ease between one social group and another with a chameleon-like quality, she questions their validity. Humanity enters the picture with an exuberant rush – a non-judgmental acknowledgement of difference and similarity, concentrating on the interpersonal relationships that define identity, community and belonging, refusing simplistic ideological agendas. Catherine Gibson

Project Credits Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York With thanks to: Leslie Tonkonow and Julie Baranes, Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York


14 September – 24 November 2002