• Is there any sense in which 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 Morrissey’s request 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 and The Failed Realist. Look at these projects online and make some notes in your learning log.
Nikki S. Lee
Lee’s Projects (1997-2001) series is actually a series of projects which were undertaken over a 4 year period. In each Project, Lee integrates herself into a sub-culture (mainly american, but not entirely), by changing her identity to fit the group. Her integration sometimes takes weeks as she gains access to these groups and becomes a part of them. These sub-cultures range from Korean schoolgirls to Punks, Hispanics, OAP’s, Skateborders, Exotic dancers, Drag queens etc. Lee features in all of the photographs. Although she is responsible for the conceptualisation of these projects, she does not actually take the photographs. Instead, they are taken by other members of the groups on a simple point and shoot camera, which gives the images an authentic feel and sense of realism and truth. They resemble vernacular, everyday snapshots that we are all familiar with.
From: The Hispanic Project (25), 1998
From: The Seniors Project (26), 1999
From: The Hiphop Project (1), 2001
From: The Tourist Project (10), 1997
From: The Ohio Project (6), 1999
From: The Schoolgirls Project (6), 2000
From: The Yuppie Project (15), 1998
From: The Skateboarders Project (6), 2000
From: The Punk Project (7), 1997
From: The Swingers Project (37), 1998-99
From: The Exotic Dancers Project (20), 1998-99
Is there any sense in which 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?
Due consideration should be given to the artists intent in terms of context before judgements are made by the viewer. Being raised and initially educated in Korea, Lee noticed a change in her identity after studying in America and realised that her identity could fluctuate dependant on who she was with, whether it be family back home or friends in the US. Lee makes it quite clear that the work is about her, and her relationships with the groups, as she explores and questions her own identity in relation to group dynamics. Despite this intent, a second order effect is that the work also becomes about the group identity which we begin to question in relation to stereotypes, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, age and other frames of reference.
Given the snapshot/vernacular aesthetic of the images, it is easy to view the projects as voyeuristic (not in the malicious sense). We get the feeling of looking inward at someone else’s memories, almost like looking through someone else’s family album. We see moments shared by friends that are not constructed but which are real, as far as a photograph can be regarded as depicting what is real. It is only by understanding the context that we know different; that Lee has conceptualised this image, and therefore it is not real, and not voyeuristic, as far as Lee, the main subject is concerned. An element of voyeurism remains in regards the tertiary subjects and their sub-cultures as a whole which we have been observing throughout the project.
Just like the question of voyeurism, the question of exploitation is also a gray area. In one sense, Lee has exploited the people and groups that she infiltrated for her own means. I do not know if they were willing participants in her projects, but I assume not. That said, I do not find any of the images to be derogatory to any of the sub-cultures, and if anything, they are educational, giving us an insight into the group dynamics of sub-cultures that we may not have experienced ourselves. Stereotypes are reinforced throughout the projects but not intentionally, the groups have simply been photographed ‘as is’.
In the series Front (2005-2007), Morrissey photographed families and groups of friends on the beach using a 4×5 camera. In each photograph, she took the place and role of one of the female members (normally the mother), whilst they then operated the camera which had already been carefully set up by Morrissey. Morrissey would usually swap clothes with the woman she was becoming, in order to fit in. The groups and families were strangers to Morrissey, and the work is an exploration of Physical and Psychological boundaries, using the beach and the temporary encampments as metaphors.
From: Front – Sylvia Westbrook, August 2nd, 2005
Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?
Yes I would. In an interview, Morrissey talks about the psychology of asking the groups for their participation. Over time, she learnt who within the group to ask by observing the dynamics and identifying the ‘alpha’ male or female. Being at the beach in summer, people tend to be having a good time, and Morrissey’s proposition and the prospect of taking part could be seen to be exciting or fun. People want to say “Yes”, so when asking the question, Morrissey would refrain from asking “Do you mind if I take your photograph?” to which the reply might be “Yes, I do mind”. Instead, she would ask “Can I take your photograph”?
Morrissey rewarded her subjects with a conventional family portrait (without her in it), a copy of the book and an invite to the exhibition. For me, the prospect of being part of such a project would be quite fascinating, and as an Art student, I would be keen to help an artist.
It can’t have been easy to approach strangers and ask to take the place of a key member of the family. I can understand why a lot of people would have refused. Not everyone ‘gets’ Art. Some may have reservations about the use of their image, or they may be conscious about their appearance. In modern society, there is a suspicion of anyone who points a camera at children who aren’t their own. I expect that wasn’t much of an issue for Morrissey being a) a woman and b) using a large format camera with a professional and traditional appearance, but for many, they simply do not want their children photographed by strangers. For some, it may have been seen as an intrusion or invasion of privacy and may have made them far too uncomfortable. On looking at the first photograph in the series, my first thought was of a film called The hand that rocks the cradle (1992), in which a nanny pushes the mother out and tries to take her place within the family. It is really quite disturbing to see Morrissey with a strangers child who seems so comfortable in her embrace. In fact, one woman even remarked that it was as if she was dead, and had been replaced (about one of Morrissey’s photographs).
Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven and The Failed Realist. Look at these projects online and make some notes in your learning log.
Seven Years (2001-2004), is a series that explores the intricate relationships within a family and the telling gestures that we see in the family snapshot. The title refers to the age gap between Morrissey and her older sister who appears alongside her in the photographs. In each photograph, both Morrissey and her sister take on the roles of different characters in fictional scenes that mimic those found in most family albums. For me, the images appear authentic in terms of clothing, props, background etc, but they are just a little too well constructed to be believable as snapshots. I don’t think that this detracts from the purpose of the images because the meaning comes from the people/subjects and the gestures they make whether obvious or subtle. I’m not too sure about the relevance of the author appearing in the work as far as self portraiture is concerned. From what I understand, the scenes are fictional and therefore are not from her own childhood. The explanation could be as simple as the fact that both her and her sister are inexpensive and available models who have a close relationship. There could be deeper relevance but I’m not aware of it.
From: Seven Years – July 22nd 1972
The Failed Realist (2011). This is one of those series’ that absolutely requires an explanation in order to gain a proper understanding of the images. without such an explanation, the meaning is so vague that almost all authorial control is lost.
“Between the ages of four to six children are often more verbally than visually articulate. This means that what they wish to express through mark making is often beyond their physical skill. The psychologist Georges-Henri Luquet (1927/2001) called this The Failed Realist stage – the child’s desire to represent his or her world is hampered by motor, cognitive and graphic obstacles that will be overcome with time, but for the moment, their interpretation is flawed. These drawings are uncorrupted by representational conventions. The Romantic artists thought this was a reflection of direct access to the expressive self and strove for a return to this innocence in their own painting. Later on, painters of the modernist movement, such as Picasso, Miro, and Klee saw the drawings of children with their mixed perspectives and exaggerated features as a pure way of seeing. Picasso famously said ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child’
This photographic series was made in collaboration with my daughter when she was between the ages of four and five years. Face painting is a rainy day activity that we both enjoy. Once her motor skills evolved sufficiently well for her to control a paintbrush, she wanted to paint me rather than be painted. Instead of the usual motifs of butterfly, or flower, she would decide to paint something from her immediate experience – a movie she had just watched, a social event, a right of passage, or a vivid dream. Beyond the innocence of the child’s intention, more sinister themes such as clowns, carnival and the grotesque are evoked by these mask like paintings.” (www.trishmorrissey.com)
I like the concept behind this project, exploring the expressive and uncorrupted creative ability of a child who cannot yet visually articulate their meaning. The purpose of posing herself in these images is more obvious, given her own position as the artist, author, and now, canvas. What we are also presented with is a direct connection between mother and daughter which makes us question family connections and the way in which we express ourselves.
From: The Failed Realist – Ladybird (2011)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikki_S._Lee [accessed 9/9/15]
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http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/show/nikki-s-lee [accessed 9/9/15]
http://cielvariablearchives.org/en/component/content/article/393-stretching-identity-to-fit-the-many-faces-of-nikki-s-lee.html [accessed 9/9/15]
http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-front/workpg-01.html [accessed 9/9/15]
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http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104389/ [accessed 9/9/15]
http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-sy/workpg-01.html [accessed 9/9/15]
http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-tfr/workpg-01.html [accessed 9/9/15]