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The many faces of Nikki S. Lee

By Brian Segna

Jan. 10, 2007 9:00 p.m.

Who is Nikki S. Lee?

The South Korean-born performance artist and 1999 graduate of
New York University has become internationally known for her
galleries of photographs which feature her under the guise of a
variety of identities. And spectators all over the world wonder who
she really is.

Tonight, the mystery continues as the UCLA Hammer Museum screens
Lee’s debut film “a.k.a. Nikki S. Lee” for the
first time on the West Coast.

“a.k.a. Nikki S. Lee” is a one-hour,
documentary-style film based on the events of Lee’s life over
the past two years.

“Nikki portrays two selves. One self that is kind of like
a socialite, partying artist, and the another self that is kind of
this bookish, very serious artist,” said Matthew Schenning,
the registrar of the Tonkonow Gallery which exhibits Lee’s
work in New York. “She went back and forth between the two in
the film, and you are left figuring out who the real Nikki

The film explores not just themes of identity, but plays with
the concept of reality as well.

“It’s not 100 percent documentary. It’s
mixed,” said Lee. “You can’t tell if it’s
acting or not acting, or if it’s a performer or not.
It’s really a fake documentary based on real life.”

“It’s basically sort of like a documentary in a
documentary,” added Schenning. “And what’s real
and what’s unreal is a little uncertain.”

The film, which was shot throughout 2005, follows the real-life
events of Lee as she travels to a number of cities, including
Paris, Venice, Mexico City and Seoul.

In many ways, it is a direct extension of previous work that she
has exhibited all over the world. Lee spent several years
assimilating by dress and action in a variety of different social
subcultures. Her galleries of photos have featured her assuming the
identities of punks, yuppies, tourists, rappers, schoolgirls,
dancers and elders.

It can be confusing. But as Lee says, while the two Nikkis in
the film may be a part of her real self, neither Nikki is actually

“It all comes out of the fact that everyone thinks they
know who Nikki is from her body of photographs,” said
Schenning. “But in making this film it’s saying you
don’t really know who Nikki really is.”

The film may speak to the identity of Lee herself, but may be
applicable to any person’s identity as well.

“The motivation of making this film came because I was
interested in people’s (personas),” said Lee. “I
was interested in making a documentary about two characters to make
people think about the gap between inside identity and outside

The film has already been screened at a number of museums across
the country, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City
and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.

“When it was shown at MoMA, it had a really great
reaction. Everyone seemed like they really enjoyed it a lot,”
said Schenning. “They laughed at the appropriate times and it
seemed well-received.”

Lee has also been pleased with the response to the film. But she
has no specific intended reaction that she hopes to draw from the
film’s viewers.

“I want to leave it open for the audience,” said
Lee, mysterious as ever.

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Brian Segna
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