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.