(born 1970) is a Korean American New York City-based artist and filmmaker.
Lee's most noted work, Projects (1997–2001), begun while still in school, depicts her in snapshot photographs, in which she poses with various ethnic and social groups, including drag queens, punks, swing dancers, senior citizens, Latinos, hip-hop musicians and fans, skateboarders, lesbians, young urban professionals, and Korean schoolgirls. Lee conceives of her work as less about creating beautiful pictures, and more about investigating notions of identity and the uses of vernacular photography.
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.
How did you come up with the idea?
Nikki S. Lee: 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.
How much thought do you put into the production aspect of your work? It looks extremely thought-out and “professional,” but you don’t seem like the type of person to spend a lot of money on printing costs.
Nikki S. Lee: When I first started I had no money because I was a student, however, I also don’t think that high-cost productions and expensive works are necessarily good. Of course, there is good work that cost a lot of money to produce but I don’t think it at all matters how much was spent. The important thing is how conceptually good or bad the project is. I like efficient projects because I like seeing the greatest outcomes with minimal effects. Like I said, I was a student with no money so I thought a lot within that limited space. I also like projects that involve many layers; at first glance they might seem like very simple projects, but as you dig deeper you discover many stories and layers within.
What kinds of still cameras do you use?
Nikki S. Lee: Actually, I’ve only used old, manual snapshot cameras. I’ve used too many different versions to list, but they all only had a simple shutter to click on. Even now I don’t use a digital camera, and I actually don’t have a camera of my own—not even a little digital camera or iPods that people carry around. Sometimes I panic when I want to take a picture while I’m walking down the street or something, but I’m not an avid photographer on a normal basis. When I need to photograph something, I hire a photographer.
Why do you think people can relate so well to your artwork?
Nikki S. Lee: 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?
Nikki S. Lee: 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.
Identity is a constant theme throughout your work. How does this influence who you select to appear in your images?
Nikki S. Lee: Well, all of my work so far has required the active participation of people. I think that’s mostly because I like to work with the idea of identity and my views toward it. I think the other people were important for me to identify my own identity within the relationships with those people. In Buddhism there’s a saying that goes something like “I can be someone else and that someone else can be me as well.” Thoughts like this one—thoughts that cause you to view yourself in other people’s shoes—were my main focus, so the people play a significant role.
Were the projects more about you or the people?
Nikki S. Lee: It’s about me. The question is about me, but to show me with the other people in the project becomes every much significant. The identity question of myself requires me to look at the relationships with myself and other people.
What kind of work do you yourself like or appreciate?
Nikki S. Lee: 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.