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Laurel Nakadate at ACAC: Troubles with Beauty and Sexual Politics

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Laurel Nakadate, Exorcism in January, 2009, Video, 11:40 min. Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

Currently at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) is Laurel Nakadate: Photographs, Videos & Performances on view through December 16, 2012. The exhibition is rather generous in scope, covering a wide range of Nakadate’s work from 2007 to 2011. While not a traveling exhibition, many pieces included were from her most recent museum survey: Only the Lonely at MoMA PS1 in early 2011.

Georgia Museum of Art

There is a specific aesthetic to Laurel Nakadate’s work: DIY camera angles, a downtrodden and ‘poor’ quality, not only through her literal choice of subjects, but also through dark exposures and a natural palette. These choices support themes of power, manipulation, female heroine complexes, and sexually fetishized relationships.

Nakadate uses her lens to construct documentary-style fantasies; the result is a voyeuristic and unsettling approach between performed behavior and mis-behavior. She mines lonely sexual archetypes: the middle-aged male, the naive teenager, the single woman (herself). This sense of loneliness is amplified by the fact that, in order to make her work, Nakadate often travels alone and spends a lot of time either in her own head or meeting strangers. She favors transitional areas such as motel rooms, private homes, and neutral outside locales where a familiar-yet-foreign uncanny quality exists, either as a distancing mechanism or an aesthetic nod to notions of the ‘romantic’ and vast American West.

Yet, there’s a directness or heightened immediacy to Nakadate’s older work that feels absent from the newer, more-staged work on view. But is an uninhibited quality necessarily more successful?

It almost appears as if she’s trying to replicate those earlier casual moments through performed imagery, rather than the gut-responsive rawness that made her well known. Some of the newer work reads as a bit formulaic, although still technically beautiful and arresting (perhaps due to shifting from an academic to commercial mindset). They function most strongly when Nakadate’s actions appear less pre-meditated, and there is a level of collusion between artist and subject, rather than a feigned or forced encounter.

Laurel Nakadate, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (Jan 16), 2010, Type C print, 40 x 50 inches each, Collection Heather and Tony Podesta, Washington, DC, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

The main gallery at ACAC is committed to her recent year-long project, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (2011). In this series, Nakadate photographed herself before, during, or after crying daily in 2010, resulting in a visual archive of emotion. Through extreme close ups, still frames, staging shots, and even blurry action-type shots, we see Nakadate in anguish, solace, quiet, and anger. The project continues at the expense of interrupting ‘real’ life; her performative dedication blurs the line between reality and fiction.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

The 36 included photographs from 365 Days are each physically large (40×50 inches), and aggregately, the C-prints create a barrage of imagery in one room. There’s not much space (mental or physical) between photographs for pause—the eye cannot find a resting point—which allows the images to act dependently on one another as a collection of film stills. Such an installation removes any hierarchy and thus affords us the freedom to bounce around within them without aim—a quality that we have, rather quickly, become acclimated to in contemporary life. Perhaps there is a purposeful distancing mechanism at play (exacerbated by the camera lens) in scanning the charged imagery

This visual archive of 365 Days adheres to a seemingly strict methodology. Nakadate filters the emotional material via daily procedure, and furthermore relies on the grid to conceptually standardize the project. In each image, however, the emotional catalyst is devoid, and we are left with the resulting outcome or repercussions.

This process-before-product method adds to lingering questions such as what is real vs. what is constructed. It becomes important to remember the fabricated nature of Nakadate’s emotion, one that does not stray far, if ever, from performance. The human drama she creates is filtered and even promoted through her use of the camera lens as an emotional middle-man.

Also included is an older video that reads more poignantly because of its spontaneous nature, titled Exorcism in January (2009). Nakadate is seen visiting a white, partially clothed, overweight middle-aged male in his home—presumably a stranger. Through Nakadate’s narration and off-camera direction, the man is coerced into acts of manipulative collaboration, whether it be ‘exorcising’ a demon or discussing his cat’s sleeping habits. There is nothing overtly sexual or physical between the two of them (however Nakadate is scantily clad and there is easily a case for some fetish genre). Yet the tension with her subject reads as rather genuine; Nakadate owns her feminine power well here.

Nakadate heavily relies on female sexuality to simultaneously objectify women in the name of feminism and subvert gender power struggles (whether she is allowed to or not). Similar on some levels to the promiscuous cruising culture of homosexual males, Nakadate’s sexual abandon at times proves alarming and on other occasions feels completely put-on. There has been much discussion questioning if Nakadate has a hall pass to prey on men just because she’s an attractive young female. While addressing the male gaze she flaunts her own sexuality, while concurrently denying any connection between the two.

Laurel Nakadate, Good Morning Sunshine, 2009, video still. Image courtesy the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

On the other hand, the video Good Morning Sunshine (2009) feels too constructed, and the suspension of disbelief required overwhelms the ability to become fully emotionally engaged. Nakadate, most likely operating a hand-held camera, somehow arrives in the bedrooms of several teenage girls without waking them (inside their respective homes, with presumed family members nearby). Nakadate then wakes and instructs them (without surprise or alarm) in a game of sexual Follow the Leader.

But, as with most of her work, if we view as skeptics, we kill the necessary tension, whether emotional, physical, or sexual. In this way, the burden is on us to carry this work; the audience must be willing to overlook the limitations of the medium that might interfere with our acceptance of the video’s premises.

Laurel Nakadate, Star Portraits series, Tucson #2, 2011, Type C print, 40 x 60 inches. Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

The most arresting series on view is also one of the most recent, perhaps resolving itself somewhere between gut instinct and conscious calculation. Nakadate’s Star Portrait series (2011) fills a small gallery with the oversized portrait photos (each 40×60 inches). The series consists of collaborative photographs taken with strangers in the desert West at nighttime. These ‘truthful’ images rely heavily on chance-encounters and the unknown while working within prescribed conditions set forth by photography.

While the portraits are simple and their subjects isolated, they are aesthetically charged. There is something salient in the simple act of a contractual-yet-chance meeting that resolves itself formally within these photographs. There is a wide range of subjects—beautiful women, single men, and even a family with a small child—that removes the defensiveness surrounding a feminist position and speaks to the elemental relationship between photographer and subject.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Nakadate’s most recent feature-film screened at the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta on Thursday, October 11. The Wolf Knife (2011)—written, edited, and produced by Nakadate—follows two 16-year-old girls who decide to take an unannounced road trip from their rather unaccountable lives in Hollywood, Florida, to Memphis, Tennessee. The film explores their teenage boredom and sexual self-discovery (and its inherent repercussions), yet ultimately slow-reveals a relationship that is vulnerably raw and intimately complex between the two friends. And there’s something about these two characters evolving, in real time and in front of us, that finds an easy appeal.

So, how does one respond to the arc in Nakadate’s work between impulsive and contrived situations, and do we collectively believe what she’s selling? Does the overtly emotional or sexual material in her work actually create a less empathetic viewpoint from the audience? And how does the form the works take alter our read? Maybe the most successful critique of Nakadate’s work is that we do not have an answer—maybe, as some critics have suggested, she is a bit naïve and blind to some of the exploitative nuances, or maybe she is completely aware and playing us all the fool. Either way, she is not telling.

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center will host a curator’s tour on Thursday, November 8, and the exhibition continues through Sunday, December 16.