Putting Yourself in the Picture: Project # 2 – Masquerades

There are three questions posed on page 80 of the coursebook; I shall try and deal with each of them briefly…

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?

Video: Photographer Nikki S Lee can turn into anybody – accessed on You Tube (13/10/16)

“In her Projects series, Lee transforms herself through dress, makeup, gesture and posture and then approaches a group (Midwesterners, Yuppies, Hispanics, swing dancers, senior citizens, lesbians, etc.) that fits with her new persona. After introducing herself as an artist, she spends time with the group and has her photograph taken by a friend or group member with an automatic snapshot camera. Lee uses this process to explore issues of identity and social behaviour…”

– Mary O’Donnell-Hulme; International Center of Photography

This makes Lee’s activity seem quite neutral (and “exploring issues of identity and social behaviour” seems almost quite a high minded activity); but where O’Donnell-Hulme is highly complementary, others are much less so:

“Projects” was a durational performance series collected by Lee throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lee is a Korean artist residing in New York City. In “Projects” she “entered/adopted/appropriated” the visual language and aesthetics of ethnic, cultural and queer communities (the Yuppie Project, Punk Project, The Lesbian Project, Skater Project, Exotic Dancers Project, Hispanic Project, Hip-Hop Project and on) and documented this appropriation by asking a “passerbyer” or a member of that community to take a snapshot of her, often posing with members of the communities. The community members are unmarked, unnamed–irrespective of intention, they authenticate the existence of community and space but exist without citation. They are called Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects” and are sold for$3,000-5,000 per print (limited to editions of 3 people, this is HIGH ART people so everything will be crass and petty and ridiculous). Lee is the only compensated and credited artist of “Projects.”

Eunsong Kim; Contemp+lorary

The use of inverted commas here can be read as placing the qualifiction “so-called” in front of each enclosed phrase. Lee’s work is not simply regarded here as something neutral here, or even as “Art”; rather it – and the discussion of it – is rooted very clearly within a cultural and political framework of ideas.

(I’m not going to go into the relative credentials of the writers of these two quotes  (Kim’s blog descries itself as “A project supported by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program” while The International Center of Photography’s about page says it is: “The International Center of Photography (ICP) is the world’s leading institution dedicated to photography and visual culture.” For the purposes of this post, what matters is that these ideas about Lee’s work are out there.)

Exploitation is a political or economic concept, not an artistic one. An exploitation movie is one that seeks to make a quick profit from exploiting a short-lived (usually teenage, usually subcultural) fad. Think every Elvis movie made after he left the army; think Tommy Steele or Cliff Richard. Old people with economic and cultural capital, take a youth “thing” and milk it, dropping it when the next “thing” comes along. “Exploitation” occurs generally at the point where some creative endeavor is used in the process of making money from it by people who were not generally part of the original endeavor.

For example,  I was always a bit suspicious of The Police (Andy Summers was in his thirties when they put out their first single; Sting was about 28) or the Stranglers (really quite old as well, at least in comparison with John Lydon or any of the other younger – and in my opinion better – people who were there at the start of punk). There was always a hint of bandwagon-jumping about them.

At 27 when she started “Projects” and 31 when she finished, some of the groups don’t necessarily involve Lee being older than the person she is masquerading as (The Seniors Project obviously, and others like The Exotic Dancers Project, or the Ohio Project), but generally there is a disparity of age and power between Lee (who started this off as part of her MA, done as a foreign – and presumably self-funded –  graduate student in the USA) and the people whose outward appearance she assumes. In simple Marxian terms, she controls the means of production – the machinery to make the pictures, as well as control of the work’s relationship with the art market – and she is the one who is able to turn her intellectual capital into money.

I suspect that the people who are actually living the roles she assumes do not benefit from the pictures either financially or in any other way. There is nothing there online to suggest that she donates the proceeds of one of the limited-edition prints she makes to the pensioners’ centre where she found the real people she posed with for The Seniors Project, say. But then, the pictures are not “about” them, rather they have been used to validate the authenticity of Lee’s “performance”.

I can appreciate that a lot of work has gone into Lee’s various transformations (learning to skate on its own is a lot to take on), but it doesn’t touch me really. It’s as if you were watching Raging Bull (Scorcese, 1981) and could never quite get past the amount of pasta de Nero had eaten to put on weight and so missed the point of the acting,

Personally, I suspect there is a considerable degree of exploitation going on here (and – interestingly – would not level the same charges at Trish Morrisey’s masquerade “Front”, which is up for discussion next). A lot of this comes down to me and my reaction to the pictures and Lee’s interaction with “her” groups could be a lot more sophisticated than I am giving her credit for. This may say something about what I think about America and young people and Koreans and Irish people and women and people who succeed in turning ideas into large sums of money and all the other things that are in play here in this paragraph and that it is my reaction to the two bodies of work that leads me to say “Exploitation! Bad!” here  and “Brilliant!” for Morrissey, but that’s something I need to unpick somewhere else, I think.

2: Would you agree to [Trish] Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?

Hell yes! At the drop of a hat! I saw some of them these in Margate in 2015 and thought they were fantastic then; I still think they’re fantastic now! But of course, I wouldn’t be the one to be asked as Morrissey  always replaced a woman in the chosen group rather than a man; my partner would be asked, and I would encourage her to say yes, but she is much more suspicious of photographers and photography than I am. Of course, I would get to appear in the picture while Fiona would not (she would in fact get to take the photograph once it was set up and she had swapped clothes with Morrissey) so that might sway things…

The mixture of tenses in the paragraph above (there is no way we’d be approached on a beach for this project because it’s finished and done, which is why I know about it and am writing about it) makes me wonder though, how I would react if I didn’t already know who Morrissey was and what the photograph would be like; would I need more persuasion? And would Fiona?

How would Fiona react to being replaced by this other woman (for the purposes of the picture), and the extent to which she would object to my enthusiasm would be interesting. And then, sitting here typing this, I wonder what I would actually think, seeing the picture later; after all, the cuckoo mentioned in Morrissey’s statement is a threat not to the mother, but to the other baby birds in the nest.

That said, it might be fun to make a photograph of me and my two children on a beach, with an obvious absence where Fiona should be, and to title it “Waiting for Trish”…


3: 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:

Unlike Gillian Wearing’s recreation of her own family photographs for Album, the pictures in Seven Years are fictional, an imagining of typical family snapshots – X posing awkwardly on the beach (August 8th, 1982); Y (older sister? instructor) & Z (younger sister, learner driver) standing in front of a car with L-plates (September 4th, 1972) Smiling Mother with Scowling Teenage Daughter at Beauty Spot (September 20th, 1985) – shot with the faded palate of seventies snaps and recreating the characteristic “faults” of the snapshot – cut off heads, central composition, fingers over the lens – but with a view camera.

They are about families and growing up and nostalgia and the way photographs that are meant as a celebration or a record of a happy moment can turn – often as the photographer fumbles to get ready – into something much more ambiguous. “Oh God! Just take the bloody picture Dad!”

The teenage ones have a similar awkwardness (assumed, of course, rather than real) that is there in Rineke Dijkstra’s pictures of real teenagers emerging from the sea in Holland. As with the pictures in Front, Morrissey (and her sister) seem adept at taking on roles.

I like the fact that these are collaborations with her sister. Even in the scowly ones they seem as if one or both them is about to burst into fits of laughter…


The Failed Realist:

After explaining the series’ title (a psychological label given by the french psychiatrist, Georges-Henri Luquet to the short period when  “the child’s desire to represent his or her world is hampered by motor, cognitive and graphic obstacles that will be overcome with time“) and giving a potted history of artists ranging from the romantics through to Picasso and Klee’s attempts to recapture the innocence of this period, Morrissey’s introduction describes the actual pictures as a collaboration with her daughter made over the period when she was going through The Failed Realist phase.

“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.”

– Morrissey, 2011

The contrast between this artist’s statement and the pictures is immense and bathetic. The statement is somewhat po-faced and reads like the summary of a psychological experiment rather than “a rainy day activity”.  The pictures consist of identically framed head and shoulder shots of Morrissey with her face daubed in face paint by her daughter. Their titles reference children’s television and films  – Bitzer, the dog in Sean the Sheep; Fiona, Shrek’s wife –  or – again from the statement – “more sinister themes such as clowns, carnival and the grotesque.”

Which all seems very psychological and clip-boardy until you unpack Morrissey’s expression (again identical in every picture). Above her bare shoulders, gazing deep into the lens of her camera from behind great daubs of primary coloured paint, her eyes express the same sense of comedic indignity that you see on the face of someone who has been hit with a custard pie or Oliver Hardy after another fine mess has been gotten into. There is a mute deadpan appeal to the spectator: who is the failed realist here – the daughter or her mother, cast in another projected role, outlined on her face in painty daubs by her daughter? And is she wondering what Picasso would have thought of it all? And is she once again in danger of bursting out laughing?

Again, there is something marvellously engaging about these pictures: between science and slapstick there lurks fun and an obvious sense of humour. All three series of pictures by Morrissey can be seen to deal with serious matters – what a family looks like, photography and its relationship to memory, the relationship between adult and child, mother and daughter – but in ways that effortlessly sidestep solemnity. A lot of work has gone into making the pictures (from their 5:4 aspect ratio, even the Failed Realist pictures were made with a large format camera) but they retain a lightness of touch. They are wonderful – I like Morrissey’s work a lot…



1: Nikki S Lee:

2: Trish Morrisey:

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