Laurel Nakadate describes her 2009 feature-length film Stay the Same Never Change as “both visual fact and narrative fiction.” She’s referring to how she shot the film in the Midwestern milieu of the amateur actors she’d recruited to flesh out her invented, scripted tale. Maybe “visual fact and narrative fiction”—which could sum up most of Nakadate’s work in video and photography, as well as Stay the Same and her more recent feature, The Wolf Knife (2010)—is just another way of describing realism: the creation of verisimilitude through the use of observed detail. But there’s something more to Nakadate’s aesthetic, or anyway, something other than putting real toads in imaginary gardens. Realism implies a seamless transition between the real and the imagined. Nakadate troubles the relation between them.
She grew up in the Midwest and studied first at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and then at Yale, where she took an MFA in photography in 2001. From the beginning, her work was clearly influenced by a somewhat older group of photographers who’d come out of Yale in the late ’90s—artists like Dana Hoey, Justine Kurland and Malerie Marder, whose staged, girl-centric images came to wide notice through the 1999 exhibition “Another Girl, Another Planet,” curated by their teacher Gregory Crewdson. But it also had a performative dimension that recalled the aggressively sexual self-presentation of ’70s artists like Hannah Wilke and Lynda Benglis, with their parodic re-enactments of gender stereotypes.
It didn’t take long for Nakadate’s work to get noticed, and a visit to MoMA PS1 in Queens, where her exhibition “Only the Lonely” is on view through August 8, immediately shows you why. The work is not self-effacing; it deliberately pushes your buttons. It would be tempting to dismiss Nakadate as a sensationalist, a young woman artist who exploits her own body to stage soft-porn reality-TV scenarios with pathetic middle-aged men. Even critics writing enthusiastically about this art can’t help discussing it in terms that, when taken out of context, sound harshly critical. Writing in the Village Voice in 2005, Jerry Saltz called attention to what he saw as Nakadate’s “slutty, back-alley exoticism,” saying, “If a young male artist preyed on women this way he’d risk being kicked out of the art world.” As for those turned off by such a spectacle, they are well represented by the critic/blogger Carol Diehl, who has suggested that Nakadate’s admirers, such as New York Times reviewer Ken Johnson and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, who curated “Only the Lonely,” are simply men who become “unhinged at the sight of a young woman in her underwear.”
Given that Out magazine once named Biesenbach one of the “100 Most Eligible Gay Bachelors,” Diehl’s analysis may not be entirely watertight. Still, since I’m not on that list, it behooves me to examine my response to Nakadate’s work to see whether, as Diehl proposes, it radiates from something other than my brain. I’d be surprised if any man could spend much time with “Only the Lonely” without questioning his response. Consider one of the earliest of the videos at PS1, Happy Birthday (2000). In each of the work’s three channels, the artist lights the candles on a birthday cake in the presence of a different middle-aged white man; we can imagine that these are the men’s apartments: cheaply furnished, unappealing, a bit sad-looking, like their occupants. Once the candles are lit, the man sings “Happy Birthday” to Laurel, who then blows out the candles, cuts the cake and serves it. Except for the singing, the four minutes or so of each segment are mostly filled with awkward silence; occasionally one of the men makes a casual remark or a little joke—“I’ll have to throw my scale out”—to which Nakadate replies with a polite acknowledgment, but no more. Throughout, her ingenuous facial expression, neatly pulled-back hair and demure dress suggest someone considerably younger than 25, as she was at the time.
The Nakadate I see in Happy Birthday is certainly pretty, though not enough to unhinge me. But maybe I’m being too easy on myself with that example. A lot of skin gets flashed in her other videos. In Lessons 1–10 (2002), Nakadate models in various (but never total) states of undress and strikes provocative, sometimes absurd poses for a balding guy who assiduously draws her with charcoal pencils, all to the accompaniment of the yearning voice of Patsy Cline singing “You Belong to Me.” Then there’s Love Hotel (2005), in which Nakadate—this time without any male partners—engages in what can only be described as air sex in a Tokyo hotel room. Showing consistent form in her taste for tear-jerking musical Americana, she has set Love Hotel to Merilee Rush’s pop hit of 1968, “Angel of the Morning.”
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Let’s say one was inclined to let the presence of the more or less unclad body in a work like Lessons go to one’s head. There’d still be a snag—the male presence in the scenario. Here one has to keep in mind the question of something like a class or status politics alongside the more evident gender issues. Think of the kind of person likely to be a visitor of art galleries, someone who means to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, who probably has a considerable degree of education and also, if there not as a disinterested viewer but a potential collector, of income. For such a person, the men in Nakadate’s videos—her muses, her collaborators—are likely to be objects of scorn: guys stuck in dead-end jobs who have never seen the inside of a health club and lack the savoir-faire to arrange an unpaid date. They seem weak, unmasculine. If you find yourself appreciating Nakadate for her body, you’ve inevitably got to ask yourself, “Am I like those guys? Is that me?” And the answer is likely to be, “I sure hope not.” As a result, it’s hard (at least if you’re male) to look at some of these pieces without a queasy feeling. You’re not so much looking at the female figure as at male desire, and, much as in certain works by Vito Acconci, suddenly the latter doesn’t look very pretty. You might want to disavow your reaction, but Nakadate doesn’t make it easy.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to consider, in viewing these encounters, that while they are obviously to some extent staged, one has no idea how far down the staging goes. What if the men are actors who specialize in playing these kinds of roles? Or if that doesn’t seem too likely, to what extent has Nakadate directed them to play sad losers, members of what Saltz called “the race of men who lack the ability to seduce women and whom women never attempt to seduce”? When fact meets fiction, only the devil can untangle the result. In any case, because of the strict neutrality with which these situations are presented—the visual blankness of the still-camera mise-en-scènes, the lack of contextualizing setups, voice-overs or titles—we should always be ready to come to terms with the fact that most of what we think we are seeing in these works is our own projection. We can’t take the artist’s word for it because she is not explicitly telling. Why do I think the guy drawing Nakadate as she poses in underwear and roller skates in Lessons is not a “proper” artist but just a dirty old man who’s discovered life drawing as a socially acceptable way to leer at naked young women? Just prejudice, really, albeit conditioned by the overall context of Nakadate’s work, but prejudice nonetheless. The man drawing Nakadate looks as serious as can be—he’s not ogling her; he’s just looking, as any artist might, and he doesn’t seem to be having a good time. Then, too, I have to wonder why I think it’s possible to distinguish between someone drawing the model for valid artistic reasons and someone drawing with ulterior motives. Picasso was not the only artist to have had affairs with his models.
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The art of looking, and of thinking about looking, keeps getting more complicated. All my responses seem to turn back on themselves and end up somewhere quite different from my first visceral reaction. My disinterested aesthetic gaze might really be compromised, prurient—and that other guy’s prurient gaze might be much more innocent than I imagine. But what about a piece like Love Hotel? Doesn’t the absence of the alienating figure of the pathetic man turn this into something more like simple voyeurism? Maybe, but it doesn’t take any particularly acute sense of the absurd to see the ridiculousness inherent in all these postures, the fakery of these solitary writhings and come-ons to no one in particular. As pathetic as all those men may seem, Nakadate makes herself appear no less so. In her case, admittedly, pathos might be endearing in a way that the men’s pathos is not. A fit young body is innately alluring. But even so, the simple enjoyment one might feel in the display of the female body is complicated by a sense of emotional disconnection, of a displacement that feels troubling. Empathy and alienation are constantly embroiled in Nakadate’s art, just as are desire and compunction.
It’s all about self-consciousness, really, in both senses of the word—being self-aware and being ill at ease. You watch Nakadate—and you watch her watching herself, because she often indulges in the tic of breaking character and looking at the camera as if checking herself in a mirror. Or you watch someone watching Nakadate, and then you watch yourself watching someone watch her as she watches herself—and all those different viewpoints start to blur together. This mise-en-abyme might make you want to be more alert about understanding what’s going on, in the work and in yourself.
All this self-consciousness is no guarantee that Nakadate’s art will always act as a good, respectably self-disciplined essay in which critical reason triumphs over irrational impulse. The feeling of uneasiness provoked by the work is not always edifying or pleasurable. Sometimes things feel too creepy. Every viewer will have different limits, but for me they appeared in Good Morning Sunshine, from 2009, in which a given scenario is repeated three times with different subjects. “We”—that is, the camera—enter a young teenage girl’s bedroom. She’s asleep. A woman’s voice, that of the artist (who remains unseen throughout), coaxes the girl awake—“Hey morning! Wake up, Sleepy…. Did you sleep OK?” But then the voice starts coaxing the girl into undressing. “That’s a pretty shirt…. Let me see your bra strap. Why don’t you take your shirt off?… Stand up and let me look at you. You know you’re the prettiest girl, right? Let’s see your panties.” The voice takes each girl through the same routine. “You’re so pretty…. Let me see a little more.”
The girls, who act shy but mostly go along with what’s requested, hardly speak. They respond more with expressions and gestures: they come across as infantile, as incapable of speech. And Nakadate speaks to them as if they were even younger than they look: One girl wears a Snoopy T-shirt, so instead of “Take off your shirt,” the voice says, “Make Snoopy go bye-bye.” With this combination of flattery and pressure, Nakadate has taken on the voice of the child abuser. We know it’s all play-acting, as is the ceremony of the birthday cake in Happy Birthday and all the rest, but the performance is convincing enough to be excruciating. And besides, when has sex not had something to do with play-acting? I can’t resolve my aesthetic pleasure in many aspects of this piece (including the sensitive attention to these, yes, pretty young girls by Nakadate’s camera, which for once mimes the artist’s viewpoint rather than remaining stoically neutral) with the acute discomfort it causes.
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Good Morning Sunshine, with its mobile camera in place of the Andy Warhol–style fixed viewpoint of the earlier pieces, as well as its more evident fictiveness, was made after Nakadate had gamely set one foot into the world of cinema with Stay the Same Never Change, on which she was credited as writer, director, editor and cinematographer. Made with amateur actors on a budget of $19,955 (according to IMDB), it became a special selection at Sundance and part of the New Directors/New Films series in New York in 2009, and earned her fans like the novelist Rick Moody and the playwright Neil LaBute. Its teenage heroines drift through their hometown of Kansas City, observed by men who always seem to be looking for an opening (and who are sometimes shown with black bars over their faces). The color photography is at times achingly beautiful—one thinks of William Eggleston—and so are the two girls: being pretty is a promesse de bonheur but also a source of vulnerability, of danger. Their doings may be banal and arbitrary, but the film, essentially a sequence of loosely linked tableaus, is never boring to watch, in part because of its eerie atmosphere. There always seems to be an unspoken threat in the air. It’s a film that sticks with you, not just for its rare pictorial intensity but also for its empathy with a place that it nonetheless cannot depict as anything but lost.
Nakadate’s second feature, The Wolf Knife, follows a similar formula, but somewhat less successfully. It tracks the wanderings of a pair of teenage girls, this time as a sort of road movie starting in Florida and leading to Nashville. The girls drift among men who seem predatory; the film begins with the mother of one of the girls warning them about a rapist on the loose in the area, though it’s the mother’s boyfriend who seems the more immediate problem. But the relationship between the girls seems more fraught than in Stay the Same. There is a palpable sexual tension between them at times. The Wolf Knife is a darker film, but also a less coherently organized one. Watching Stay the Same, I felt sure Nakadate is a natural for the cinema; with The Wolf Knife, I was less sure. Besides, there’s also the question of whether in the long run she’d be able to accommodate sufficiently the conventions of mainstream cinema without fatally compromising her deliciously raw style. Any low-budget indie flick you can name would look downright slick in comparison with Nakadate’s films, but their ramshackle quality gives them a reckless poetry.
Another recent work likewise shows Nakadate less sure of foot: 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (2010) is a sequence of large color photographs, one for every day of the year, based on the conceit that once a day she would photograph herself in a weepy state. It’s a cross between Tehching Hsieh’s meticulously documented yearlong performances of the late 1970s and ’80s and Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2004 photographic series Crying Men, in which the British artist photographed famous actors exercising their métier by turning on the tears. Individually, the images are striking, but the idea just doesn’t carry enough weight to justify their quantity. A month of crying would have made the point well enough.
The photographic series Lucky Tiger (2009) is stronger through its evocation of intimacy, both in the scale of the pictures, four by six inches, and their more informal, snapshot-like style. But again, there is a conceptual conceit that falls flat: these images of the artist in pinup-style poses were passed around to men whose hands had first been covered with fingerprinting ink, so they are filled with black smudges. They are literally dirty pictures. It’s a clever, resonant idea, and yet the forensic overtones are exaggerated.
In any case, one feels that Nakadate is trying to close the book on the video work she’s been doing since 2000. “I made the majority of this work at a very specific time of my life, when, if an artist is lucky, they’re very naïve and brave,” she told R.C. Baker of the Village Voice. “I’m very proud of having been naïve and brave, because it’s authentic.” That kind of naïveté doesn’t last very long. It eventually cancels itself out. Nor, of course, does prettiness last forever. It’s specific to youth, and more than ten years after Happy Birthday, Nakadate might feel that her fascination with the pretty—an underexamined aesthetic category in comparison with its big sisters, the beautiful and the sublime—is best served through observing its embodiment in others, as she does in the two features as well as in Good Morning Sunshine. In this light, perhaps Lucky Tiger is a farewell to the video work, a last souvenir of that time, a deteriorating and partly obscured memory.
When a young artist is given a show of this scale, it’s always tempting to ask, “Is she really ready?”—all the more so when the exhibition is in New York, where Nakadate is based, and where so much of the work has already been seen. In this case, though, the question seems irrelevant. Familiarity certainly hasn’t dulled the work’s edge: it’s as disturbing as ever. In retrospect, Nakadate’s oeuvre of the decade beginning in 2000 has an undeniable power and completeness. Now the burden is on her to understand what comes next. It seems clear that she still hasn’t settled on a project that can take her through the next decade, perhaps through the rest of her life. Sometimes artists lose their way at this point of transition. A critic is not meant to be a clairvoyant, but if any artist has the nerve and intelligence to negotiate this crucial shift, it’s this one.