This exercise presents a number of questions which can only be answered by researching Nikki S. Lee and Trish Morrissey.
Nikki S. Lee
Nikki S. Lee is best known for several series of photographs entitled, Projects (1997–2001), in which she appears as a stereotypical member of various American subcultures. Lee adopts the behaviour, mannerisms and customs akin to the various group and cultural roles she assumes. She has changed her hair, clothing, skin colour and weight to become a drag queen, punk, senior citizen, Latino barrio girl, hip-hop musician, skateboarder and lesbian, to mention but a few. She gained weight for her Hispanic series, while losing it to become an exotic dancer. The preparation for each series takes up to three months, followed by a month of shooting while immersed within her assumed persona. Incognito, Lee approaches the various groups, introducing herself as an artist working on an art project, then commences the process of gaining their trust in order to make the photographs for the project.
By using a simple point-and-shoot camera, Lee created snapshots that appear spontaneous and realistic, helping to provide very believable portrayals. Her photographs are haphazardly taken by a friend, a member of her new group, or passers-by. Lee feels that ‘the process of making the art doesn’t matter as much as who conceptualizes it. I think the important thing is to discuss the story within the art’.
Using snapshot style images, Lee exploits the viewer’s acceptance of the snapshot as a means of recording actual events. Gilbert Vicario, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston says, ‘What she really does effectively is to show how a photograph can persuade you into believing something that may or may not be true’.
Nikki S. Lee exhibits her various series mixed together so that the only constant is her own familiar face among the continually changing ethnic and social groups. Her ever changing position raises questions regarding the reliability of photography as a means of recording true and actual events.
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?
Through her Projects series, Lee’s goal is to explore her own identity,as well as wider issues of identity, group dynamics, belonging and acceptance. However, the roles Lee assumes are stereotypes, and her work reveals little of the individual character of those photographed. Although I believe Lee’s intentions to be pure, her work does exploit the various groups. In her own words, ‘I wanted to share about my concept about identity with the people, look at this, identity can be changed’. She says, ‘In Buddhism there’s a saying that goes something like “I can be someone else and that someone else can be me as well.” Thoughts like this one—thoughts that cause you to view yourself in other people’s shoes—were my main focus.’
Trish Morrissey’s series, Front, uses family groups and the beach settings as a metaphor to explore border and boundary issues. Morrissey approached families and groups of friends on beaches in the UK and Melbourne, where she asked if they would be photographed with her replacing one of the females within the group, generally a mother figure. After careful observation, assessment and selection, Morrissey would change her clothes, so as to be similarly dressed as the female she wished to replace. She would then approach the group, always address who she perceived to be the alpha figure. Bypassing the alpha figure would more often than not result in a negative response. ‘Normal codes of behaviour are suspended on the beach’ says Morrissey, ‘We’re half naked, we’re looking, being voyeurs. We are on display. People generally are having fun on the beach. Being asked to be photographed in this way is another fun thing to do’.
If you have ‘four groups of people on a beach, they’ll be quite far apart. If somebody sits quite close to another group – Its ruins everything and makes everybody feel really uncomfortable’. By approaching the groups, Trish Morrissey was crossing the groups invisible boundary and invading their space.
Asking the replaced female to take the photograph, Morrissey would assume a natural position among the group. The individual images appear to be family photographs taken at the beach, with nothing significant or unusual. However, when viewed as a series, the very comfortable and familiar Morrissey appears throughout, creating feelings of uncertainty and unease. In an interview with Morrissey, Source: The Photographic Review’s Richard West, suggests that Morrissey’s position within the groups is ‘more cookoo like, rather than chameleon like’. West’s cookoo reference seems apt as Morrissey successfully infiltrates each family, residing as if it were her own.
At the exhibitions opening, one of the women replaced in the series found the image of her family quite upsetting and interestingly said that it was as if she had died, and the portrait contained a new wife and mother.
In the Series, Seven Years (2001-2004), Morrissey explores and investigates roles and positions within the family through re-enactment and staging of stereotypical family photographs. The series title refers to the age gap between Morrissey and her elder sister, with whom she collaborates. Together, they appear across the series as various family member dressed in clothes found in the attic and charity shops. Rarely smiling and awkwardly posed, Morrissey’s images appear generic, yet nostalgic. Similar to her series, Front, Seven years again questions the reliability of photography as means of truthfully providing records.
Morrissey describes viewing ‘The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater’ by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, as providing her with a eureka moment for making the Seven Years series. From Meatyard’s work, Morrissey realised that one person can play many roles within the photograph, and two people was enough for her to express what she wished to say in the series.
The Failed Realist series was made in collaboration with Morrissey’s four year old daughter, and features images of Morrissey with her face painted by her daughter. The series title refers to the stage, according to psychologist Georges-Henri Luquet, when a child’s desire to express their world is limited by physical and cognitive obstacles that with time shall be overcome, but until then, their interpretation is flawed, yet pure. Artists such as Miro and Picasso attempted to return to this stage pure way of seeing in their work. Morrisseys daughter would paint movies, dreams or events from her immediate experience. While the paintings are the innocent representation of a child’s world, with the photographs titled accordingly, layered over Morrissey’s blank expression, the viewer maybe prompted to investigate more adult themes.
Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, Why?
I wouldn’t rule it out. I would probably make my decision based on my gut feeling about the person making the request and the manner in which they approached. I believe I might find it easier to be the one replaced as I’m generally more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. However, on the other hand being the replaced person records the very plausible scenario that if you died, life would go eventually go on for the rest of the family without you in it… holidays would still happen, family gatherings, photos would be taken without you in them, and worse still replaced by someone else. Not a pleasant thought!
Arirang (2013) ‘Who Am I ? The artist drawing attention in NY – Nikki S. Lee’, The Innerview , available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMychWgKedA [accessed 23 Sept 2015].
Ciel Variable Archive (2010) ‘Stretching Identity to Fit – The Many Faces of Nikki S. Lee’ [online], available: http://cielvariablearchives.org/en/component/content/article/393-stretching-identity-to-fit-the-many-faces-of-nikki-s-lee.html [accessed 23 Sept 2015].
Cotton, C. (2009) the photograph as contemporary art, new ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
Flannery, C. (2005) ‘Tris Morrissey, Seven Years, Gallery of Photography Dublin’, Circa Art Magazine, March, available: http://circaartmagazine.website/trish-morrissey-seven-years-gallery-of-photography-dublin-4-march-to-3-april-2005/ [accessed 29 Sept 2015].
McDermott, T. (2011) ‘The Family Album of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (2006)’, American Suburb X, 21 Nov, available: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/11/ralph-eugene-meatyard-the-family-albums-of-ralph-eugene-meatyard-2006-2.html [accessed 29Sept 2015].
Morrissey, T. (2015) ‘Trish Morrissey’ [online], available: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/index.html [accessed 29 Sept 2015].
Sources Photographic Review (2012) ‘Trish Morrissey’, Oral History Archive [online], available: http://www.source.ie/audio/Trish_Morrissey/Trish_Morrissey_12.php [accessed 29 Sept 2015].
The Creators Project (2015) ‘Nikki S. Lee’ [online], available: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/show/nikki-s-lee [accessed 23 Sept 2015].