Meeting the Stranger's World

Laurel Nakadate's video performance art reveals the hidden through chance encounters.

August 1, 2007

Photographer Ichiro Okada

SHE OPENED THE DOOR to her small Manhattan studio apartment, earnestly shook my hand and said, "Hi. I'm Laurel," as if I hadn't just flown across the continent and arrived at her doorstep. "Sorry it's so hot in here. I can't control the heater." The window above the radiator was flung open, letting the December air seep in. And soon after: "Sorry the bathroom's such a mess," which it really wasn't.

I was surprised by her apparent nervousness, given someone who makes such daring work. Balls to the wall, it might even be called.

I first saw a still from one of Laurel Nakadate's video performance pieces, Lessons 1 -10, on the Asia Society website for the exhibit One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now. She is perched alluringly on a table in a camisole and boy cut underwear, facing her own camera, while a bespectacled middle-aged man sketches behind her. His expression, ostensibly of observation, comes across as one of surprise. Though her face is at a threequarters turn, her eyes look directly at the viewer, conspiratorially.

Much of her work made in the last several years involves lengthy, solo cross-country road trips, and men who have approached her, she in turn inviting them to make videos. She often enacts the same scenario with different men, sometimes placing them side by side on a split screen, turning them into an archetype in her playacted world. In We Are All Made of Stars, men encounter a passed-out Nakadate with varying degrees of coolness ("Laurel, you OK?") and hysteria ("Oh my God! Laurel, what happened!?") as if it's an audition tape for Days of Our Lives.

"I am obsessed with men who live alone with no one to care for them," reads an accompanying statement at the Asia Society show. "I think about the desire to be saved from loneliness, the way one life can change another. I think about the lies we tell and the lies we are told. I am fascinated with the ways lives intersect, and the ways the larger disasters of the world meet the personal, quiet terrors of an isolated life." And, the clincher: "I shoot in strangers' homes ..."

Her words remind me of Diane Arbus in tone, intently observational and personally invested, though Arbus didn't appear in her own photographs. But she was there with her subjects, nude with the nude couple at the 1960s New Jersey nudist camp.

The studio apartment serves as Nakadate's art studio as well. There is nothing haphazard about her workspace. Against one wall is stainless steel wire shelving-the kind you might find in a restaurant pantry-which holds neatly labeled photo boxes and books, including a binder marked Yale, where she received her masters in fine arts. A clean desk to the right holds her laptop. On it she played me her piece that was being exhibited at the Mary Boone Gallery, Beg for Your Life. The title comes from a scene where she has a man kneel on all fours while she holds a toy gun to his head and demands, "Beg for your life!" The dynamic is reversed, later, in a hokey segment where an elderly man shoots her in front of Mount Rushmore. Fake, viscous blood spills out of her mouth. She had just met the man, she said, "but he was cool with it."

I had just seen her piece at the Asia Society, I Want to Be the One Who Walks in the Sun, a montage of tease and striptease in different locations suggestive of Americana. My friend, quite upset, couldn't get over how sad it made her feel for the men. While we sat on the bench in front of the screen, watching it a second time, a woman stood in front of us with her toddler boy in a stroller and gave it a few minutes. The boy asked, "What is she doing?" Nakadate was pole dancing on the porch of a small shuttered house (which I later learned is the house immortalized in Grant Wood's painting American Gothic), dressed in vaguely Western gear, to Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

"She's crazy," she tells him before wheeling him away.

Dismissed in a word, but Nakadate's work-which manages to implicate everyone-hit her at her core. It is about the odd architecture of social interactions. It is about appealing women, loser men, and by extension, loser women and appealing men, a paradigm of the exaggerated and buffoonish, a tragicomedy. It's about the predatory as well as the empathetic, and all the combinations of which we may feel at varying moments.

Jeffrey Kastner in January's Art forum remarks that "trademark Nakadate" is "smart, shrewd, and more than a little ruthless, an unapologetically manipulative scheme that implicates not just the pitiable men the artist lures into her queasily intimate scenarios, but also the viewers she looks to seduce with her work's frank sensuality, its willingness to take chances, and its moral ambiguity."

"She could never do this with 'normal' predators," says Jerry Salter in the Village Voice. "If a young male artist preyed on women this way he'd risk being kicked out of the art world. Either way, Nakadate exploits female sexuality as ruthlessly as any man."

Without a doubt, Nakadate goes for it, full throttle and fully aware. A friend's mother, who writes about "really dark stuff, really difficult stuff" asked her one day, "Are you sure you want to do this? You can never teach kindergarten."

"She meant it in the best possible way," Nakadate says.

WE HAD DECIDED a few days earlier, at her suggestion, to go to Coney Island, the joke being that it was closed down in the middle of winter. Once out of the building door, I ask her about relationships.

"Um, dude. You have to turn off your tape for this." So I turn off my tape.

Her stride-a little longer than my own-demands that you stay on pace, matching the sharp beat of her boot heels striking the pavement, inciting you, too, to dig in. Her back pocket bore the Joe's Jeans leather insignia. An artist, but not starving, and certainly a girl. She has a manner of speaking that is both direct and soft at the same time.

We walk for some ways before arriving at an intersection, where suddenly she stops and says, "So this is the point where we can either decide to go to Raymond's and get a drink, or we can go to Coney Island." It would be "at least a two-hour commitment." For a second it's like we're kids who have come across a fork in the trail, one direction promising a warm, cozy place and the other a weird, fun place.

"You're cool? Cause I'm always up for an adventure, but then I never know how much other people are, so I figure, if you're along for the ride then this is your last chance! I am giving you fair warning." It feels like a sum of how it pans out in her work with the men: not so much a luring-in, but enjoining.

Soon enough we descend into the subway station and finally sit in the corner of a full train headed for Coney Island.

Though she is most known for her current work, her art school undergraduate work in the mid-'90s focused on young women's culture at the Massachusetts triad of Seven Sisters colleges, Smith, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley, which were still linked by bussed weekend thrills to the boys at MIT and Harvard. While everyone around her got wasted, she stood by and took photos.

"Whereas in my new work I'm experiencing-I mean, I'm watching, but I'm experiencing. I'm going to these places; I'm traveling. It's one step away from documentary. It's personal narrative meeting the greater world, meeting the stranger's world." But people may perceive it as strange "because I'm so much in it and I'm shooting."

Here I test my grounds. "Yeah, I guess, you know, it's like Diane Arbus."

"Exactly. Her work is influential to me, not just in this project, but throughout my life," she says. "She made pictures of people she didn't belong with."

Soon she catches herself. "It's weird, because I've been saying that I've changed the way that I work, but really I haven't changed my work. It's still investigating the lives of strangers and then forming a narrative out of it, and inserting my body into the work... and the impulse to go out and find, and tell a story that didn't exist before you got into it."

The train is above ground now, and there are fewer passengers. "We should sit here so you can see out the window," she says. We move to the center of the car and watch as Brooklyn speeds by in the astringent winter light. "I'm so glad we're going to Coney Island. I love going anywhere in the wrong time."

To make her work, she typically flies out to a car that she keeps at her dad's house in Iowa, where she grew up. Her dad is a literature professor who raised her and her brothers by himself. "It's an interesting thing to be the only girl raised in a house of men. You do a lot of observing and seeing how you're different from the way they are. Like in subtle ways, not in any big ways."

While she does make work on the East Coast, she makes most of it in the Midwest. I ask her why and she says, "They're the men that I watched growing up. And even if they're strangers, there's something about them that's not. Whereas on the East Coast I just don't understand people as well."

Strangers sometimes confront Nakadate on the street about her work. "I thinks it's interesting that people get really upset, saying that I'm taking advantage of these men," she says, "because it means that they're judging the men, and saying that these men don't even have control over their own lives, or their own choices."

"Or that they lack intelligence," I say.

"Or the ability to say yes," she adds.

A group of rowdy kids toss about the aisles as if on a ship deck. "Like they're the only ones on the train," she remarks. But she points out one girl, by herself, holding onto the pole by the doorway. She has a pink backpack with a small heart drawn on the zippered front flap.

"It's hesitant," I note, "in pencil."

"Yeah," she says, "But it's just as if to say, love exists."

Soon we get off on the Coney Island stop, and the wind blows strong and cutting. As we walk by Nathan's, where people stuff their faces full of hot dogs in an annual contest, she tells me about the film she's going to shoot this summer in Kansas City. Unlike her previous work, it's partly scripted and it will include men and women, and she won't be in it at all, but it will still be about "people on the edge of a community ... individual people, people who change the way we see a place because we barely notice them, and when we do it changes everything." And it will still be largely cast through chance encounters.

Our footfalls on the wooden planks form a regular, hollow staccato, clearly audible on the promenade vacant of bodies. It turns out that we both brought our Polaroid cameras. Hers is slick and red; she got it in Tokyo. Mine is dull gray; I got it at Walgreens. She points out that it's the same model. We snap Polaroids of each other in front of the Wonder Wheel and a metal palm tree sculpture, and a sign for a game that reads "Shoot the Freak."

After Hurricane Katrina hit, Nakadate went down to New Orleans to document the disaster. "I wanted to take a trip to a place that had been devastated and had just been haunted by that devastation. But... I wanted to make more personal documents." So she stayed in old hotels and made self-portraits after E.J. Bellocq's photos of prostitutes during the early 190Os. "Strangely, I went all the way to New Orleans and all I did was take pictures inside hotel rooms. When every other photographer down there at the time was taking pictures of like, overturned cars and drowning houses, I went to the French Quarter and photographed something that happened years before." She laughs.

"I'm drawn to the light, just like all the other moths, but when I get to the light, I want to make something else," she says. "You know, it's like we're always drawn to this exploding moment, but sometimes you get there and the thing that you're more interested in is very personal. And for me, I guess that's how I work. And sometimes when you're traveling, you don't go to Mount Rushmore, you go around the back where the people are hanging out at the gas station. But you're still drawn to the place because it's Mount Rushmore."

Rebecca Klassen enjoys meeting strangers in funny ways.

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