Nikki Lee’s Transgender Performance: The Projects of Drag Queens, Lesbians and Strip Dancers

  • Abstract:

    Between 1997 and 2001, the New York-based Korean conceptual photographer Nikki Lee conducted a series of performative, photographic Projects mainly in New York and other major American cities. In her works, Lee appears as a slippery agent, infiltrating a range of American social and cultural groups, such as drag queens, strip dancers, yuppies, Latinos, lesbians, black hip-hoppers and skateboarders. For each project, Lee dramatically alters her appearance through a blend of clothing, make-up, diet, hair extension and use of hair dye, as well as tanning salons. After transforming herself, in her own words, into someone who looks like ‘eighty percent of any person from whichever group’, Lee accesses to each chosen community with a point-and-shoot camera and announces her artistic intention to become a member for a short period of time. She spends time with other group members, adopting their postures, behaviours and mannerisms and joining in their everyday activities. To document her temporary membership, Lee asks a passer-by to take snapshot photographs of herself in the disguise of other group members. Lee’s practice illustrates identity as relational, which is formed and reformed through identification with others. Her Projects propose a distinctive way of imaging identity, which is, as the philosopher Alison Weir has argued, based not on a presumed sameness, but on an openness to transformation of the self and the relations with other subjects. With a specific focus on Lee’s Projects in association with the formation of gender identity, this paper reconsiders Judith Butler’s conception of ‘drag’, and examines in what way this mode of drag performativity is practiced in Lee’s playful performance of ‘gender trouble’, raising questions about the construction and representation of both individual and collective identities in contemporary society.