CAN 3 Exercise 2.1

Is there any sense in which Nikki S. Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even exploitative? Is she commenting on her own identity, the group identity of the people she photographs, or both? Would you agree to Trish Morrissey’s request [to swap places with you] if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not? Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven Years and The Failed Realist. Look at these projects and make some notes.

I see Nikki S. Lee’s work as being on one level a comment on both her own identity and the identity of the people she photographs, and on another level a consideration of the nature of identity itself and what it consists of – whether it’s just a question of what you look like, your posture and mannerisms, the clothes you wear, the people you associate with, the way you interact with others in the group and vice versa – or whether there is a core identity that transcends any of these considerations.

In today’s political climate Lee’s work is seen as exploitative by some commentators, notably Kim (2016), who reads it as an exercise in cultural and commercial appropriation “rooted in white supremacy and white supremacist understanding of community, difference and assimilation”. Kim’s complaints against Lee include the observation that her work sometimes appears to involve her adopting “blackface”, and that she “used” the communities into which she inserted herself without crediting them or sharing with them the money she made from the works.

My personal feeling is that the fact that the concept and the decision to execute the projects came from Lee alone means that the works belong entirely to her and owe nothing to anyone else, in the same way that Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself owes nothing to the man who wrote the rejection letter that formed the basis of that project. The current sensitivity around the representation of race means that an enquiry like Lee’s now invokes issues that weren’t on the agenda at the time she made these works and mean that it would not be possible to make such works today without considerations about the representation of race overshadowing the broader questions about identity.

I really liked Trish Morrissey’s Front project. The images made me want to see the person behind the camera, the person whose life and identity had been temporarily stolen by Morrissey’s intrusion. I tried to picture what kind of a person they might be, based on the only information available – what I could infer from the companions and the way they were responding to that person as photographer. I felt it was a little like being the ousted person myself, accompanied by the sense of selfness that includes being unable to see oneself as others do. I also liked the fact that the warm and familiar way people responded to their group member as the photograph (set up in advance by Morrissey) was taken, and their evident amusement at the concept, created an interesting crossover of art and vernacular idioms. Would I have agreed to take part myself? Yes, I would, whether I’d been the person Morrissey wanted to change places with or another group member.

Morrissey’s Seven Years series aims to reconstruct family photographs of the 1970s and 80s and reveal the subtext of psychological tensions between Morrissey and her seven-years-older sister. But for me the often clunky costume props drew so much attention to themselves that they restricted my ability to read much in the way of subtle body language cues about the sisters’ relationship. Overstated clothing (and make-up/wig) props are also present in Cindy Sherman’s images, for example, but those works are all about these signs of identity, and exaggerating them as Sherman does highlights them as signifiers. In Seven Years, for me at least, they obscured rather than carried the intended message.

I liked Morrissey’s The Failed Realist least of these three projects. My attention was drawn through the series not to the changing masks but to the constant frame of Morrissey’s face – and what I noticed was the changes in this constant, especially the varying presence and absence of grey hair roots. This diminished for me the sense of continuity and consequently the idea of the series as a collaboration with Morrissey’s daughter. Admittedly, Morrissey does not claim that the images were all made at the same period of time – indeed, she says they were made when her daughter was “between the ages of four and five years”, but once I had noticed this discrepancy, the idea that Morrissey might have initiated the project herself rather than it being prompted by her daughter wanting to paint her, as she says in the accompanying statement (even though this is probably true), punched a hole through the concept for me. And I found the face painting itself neither “sinister” or “grotesque”, nor indeed of any interest at all.

References and resources

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.
Kim, E. (2016) Nikki S. Lee’s Projects and the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface/Brownface in “Art”. Available at http://contemptorary.org/nikki-s-lees-projects-and-the-ongoing-circulation-of-blackface-brownface-in-art [accessed 12.06.18]
Kino, C. (2006) “Now in moving pictures: the multitudes of Nikki S. Lee” in The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/arts/design/01kino.html [accessed 12.06.18]
Morrissey, T. (2018) Trish Morrissey. Available at http://www.trishmorrissey.com/index.html [accessed 12.06.18]
TateShots (2008) Sophie Calle – Take Care of Yourself. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9E4dA0EGaM [accessed 12.06.18]
Wikipedia (2018) Nikki S. Lee. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikki_S._Lee [accessed 12.06.18]