Karma Chameleon Revisited

Boston's Institute of Comtemporary Art ( ICA) is currently showcasing the "Projects" of New York photographer Nikki S. Lee. And if these "Projects" are any indication, Lee-hardly 30 years of age-will be producing rich, thought-provoking, and innovative work for many years to come. To some extent, it is misleading to talk about Lee as a photographer, since, strictly speaking, she didn't actually take any of the photographs featured in "Projects;" rather, Lee, who has extensive formal training in photography, (including a Masters degree from NYU,) plays the role of chameleon performance artist. She orchestrates and appears as the protean subject of all of the featured photographs, assuming a different identity in each of 13 projects, including "The Drag Queen Project", "The Hispanic Project", "The Lesbian Project," "The Ohio Project," "The Punk Project" and more. Despite the diversity of the roles she assumes, Lee never fails to present herself convincingly.

Lee's work, considered from a purely aesthetic and technical standpoint, is quite remarkable. She seamlessly and easily assumes the visual identities of people who, although often living side by side (as in New York City, where many of the "Projects" were shot), come from all walks of life, and differ in socio-economic background, nationality, race, and, of course, style. There is not a single project, though, in which Lee does not seem as organic a component of her environment as any of the actual people with whom she poses. She combines a keen aesthetic sense with an awareness of what sorts of features we look for in recognizing and categorizing groups of people.

In Lee's case, the technique speaks for itself-besides, it isn't really her point to display technical chops. In fact, she strips the medium down to its bear minimum, taking it clearly out of the region of interest. Friends take the pictures with point and shoot cameras-the digit date and time display attest to that--and they are developed in normal dimensions, with normal coloring and no framing, reflecting Lee's wish that these look like photographs which anyone could take. She seems to have an important statement that shouldn't be lost for the beauty or the virtuoso of the medium.

Just what that message is, though, is not immediately clear. On the one hand, Lee's work seems grossly to objectify and stereotype the various groups whose identities she attempts assume. Some may find it offensive that Lee apparently feels as though she can assume the identity-even if fleetingly-of already marginalized groups by taking advantage of the very stereotypes which marginalize them. In "The Lesbian Project", for example, Lee appears to be attempting to look as masculine as possible; In "The Hispanic Project", she often sports gaudy gold chains and obscene amounts of makeup. Her "Punk Project" features pink hair and black fishnet clothing.

On the other hand, it's difficult to argue that Lee doesn't do a good job-a chillingly good job-of blending herself into the various environments she depicts. In this sense, Lee is not stereotyping and marginalizing her subjects, but rather indicting those stereotypes, exhibiting the fluency with which we can shed and assume any of them we like. She doesn't objectify the person, she objectifies the ideas we all have about minority identities. She shows her audience the extent to which they stereotype-and marginalize-themselves. All Lee has to do to assume the identity of a Lesbian is to dress up in a manly outfit, showing us perhaps that our view of what it is to be a Lesbian is either extremely circumscribed, or simply false.

In this way, Lee achieves two biting critiques in one fell swoop-cutting at both the stereotyped and the stereotyper. We identify others and ourselves in purely visual terms. If Nikki Lee's "Projects" seems at first ridiculous, then, that's the whole point. They are ridiculous, and so are we.

Whatever her purpose in "Projects", and whatever your response to them, they are not be missed. Lee employs a unique blend of innovation, spontaneity, and technical sophistication to provide a startling cross-section of American society-one that would make a trip to the ICA more than worth your while. Admission is $4 with a student ID, and free with a Fleetcard.