Laurel Nakadate

Untitled (from “P.S.1 Greater New York” exhibition), 2002-2005
© Laurel Nakadate

Laurel Nakadate graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and went on to get her MFA from Yale‘s photography program in 2001. You may have seen her Girls’ School work in 25 Under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers. Since graduating from Yale, Laurel has recieved a lot of attention for her video (yes, video) work. Her 2005 solo show at Danziger Projects, Love Hotel and Other Stories, was featured in The New York Times, the Village Voice and FlashArt. Art critic, Jerry Saltz named her a ‘standout’ in Greater New York show at P.S.1 the same year. The piece that she had in that show (pictured above) is one that she is most often associated with — a video clip of herself dressed as a Girl Scout on September 11th, after the buildings had collapsed. As you might imagine, her work is often thought of as “controversial,” makign her something of a cult figure and favorite of art insiders. Most recently, there was a review on Laurel in January 2007 issue of ArtForum.

We Are All Made of Stars, 2003
© Laurel Nakadate

Laurel spoke this morning to the photography students at MassArt. She shared with everyone a lot of her work, in succession, which was nice to see in terms of how certain themes weave through the different projects. She brought up the idea that a lot of what is behind her work is just this idea of play — showing a clip of her pole dancing to Neil Young on the porch of the house that inspired Grant Wood to paint American Gothic. It’s hard to represent her videos here, so unfortunately those of you who have not seen it may find it hard to enter a discussion. At the end of her talk, and even throughout, she was faced with a plethora of questions about the nature of her work, what she is trying to say, and why she is choosing to say it how she is. I found the reactions of the students and teachers to be quite interesting. You may need to see the videos to decide what you think of the controversy and ideas for yourself. But, that aside, I thought I’d share a brief bit of info and provide a few stills along the way.

Untitled (Video still from “I Wanna Be Your Mid-Life Crisis”), 2002-2005
© Laurel Nakadate

I Wanna Be Your Midlife Crisis features Laurel improvising dance moves alongside single men that she meets, usually on the street, and convinces to join her in a collaborative performance for the camera. The sometimes humorous performances explore issues of role-playing and identity as well as “the emotional currents that are both recognized and trivialized by pop-culture,” the dance scenes set to pop songs by artists such as Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. Is Laurel exploting these seemingly lonely and rejected men? People tend to associate her with Nikki S. Lee for this reason, because she impliments herself into an intimate moment only to remove herself from it later for the sake of art. But, Laurel defended this by stating that she is still friends with some of the people, that she is not attempting to exploit a specific genre of “down and out” men, in fact, those men just happened to be the most willing to participate in her performances.

Untitled (Video still from “Lessons 1-10″), 2002
© Laurel Nakadate

In Lessons 1-10, Laurel uses her body in front of men but this time modeling in underwear and a school girl uniform for an artist. She — the “object of the male gaze” — looks directly at the camera.

Nakadate is melding disparate bits of artistic DNA to crackerjack effect. On a visual level she’s combining the force of Barbara Kruger’s use of pronouns like you and we by getting us to think about her and them. She crosses this with the way Louise Lawler’s photographs essentially say, “Look at the way ‘they’ hang ‘their’ art in ‘their’ museums,” then introduces the socially constructed sexual roles in Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills.” Nakadate combines these hardcore feminist photographic essences with the taboo gutter love of Robert Melee and the anti-feminism that lies at the dark heart of Vanessa Beecroft’s amazingly complicated and compelling art. To this Nakadate adds her own slutty, back-alley exoticism, her vulnerability, insight, and isolation.

Villiage Voice

Where You’ll Find Me, 2005
© Laurel Nakadate

Where You’ll Find Me, 2005
© Laurel Nakadate

In Where You’ll Find Me she acts out suicide scenarios. We see her “dead” in various locales. Here, Nakadate represents primal neediness, the fantasy of “They’ll know how much they love me when I’m gone.” Then out of nowhere and completely anomalously, she suddenly comes close to the camera, looks from side to side, pulls her shorts to the left, stands, and pees while looking directly at you.

Villiage Voice

Love Hotel, 2005
© Laurel Nakadate

Voyeurism, exhibitionism — the roles of hunter and hunted are blurred. In Love Hotel, Laurel films herself engaged in sexual acts but without a partner in the frame, leaving her moving her body against air. She says simply about the work in her press release, “It’s about loneliness. About being by yourself in a place where you’re supposed to be in love.”

…a similarly narcissistic and conflicted caprice unfolds as Nakadate writhes almost naked on various beds. As alone and pitiable as the men, she’s seeing what she would look like if she could actually be with a real person. It’s onanistic exhibitionism, very peculiar, strikingly devoid of real feeling, and disquieting.

Villiage Voice

An interesting, and unavoidable, question came up: If a man were to make this work with the sexes reversed (referring to the whole spectrum of her videos), how would it be recieved in the art world? And also: How would this videos, many of which were made prior to the internet video boom, function in a YouTube context?

What I felt to be one of Laurel’s most successful pieces was one of the videos of her and a man. In this scene, however, neither of them were dancing. Instead, they both began by taking off articles of clothing down to their underwear. We at first notice the man’s “unattractive” round body next to Laurel’s young and feminine physique. Laurel raises her arm and begins to make the man spin by rotating her finger in the air. He turns awkardly to further reveal his undesirable figure and looks at Laurel for direction along the way. The video was, as someone in the class also put forth, shocking at first based on the assumption that she is taking power over this poor man. But, just a minute later he also makes her spin. As with much of her work the question of power — who is in contol? — arises again. For me, this moment where he has a chance to direct her to twirl was exceptionally beautiful.

Just as she moved in a completely new direction from her Girls’ School project (into making these videos), Laurel said that she plans to move on yet again and make a feature-length narrative film this summer.

UPDATE: Read this interview with Laurel Nakadate from The Believer.


  • meira

    wanna trade link?

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  • sharky

    I wonder if her Love Hotel video was at all in responce to Misty Keasler’s Love Hotel series? Then again, I haven’t seen the video nor do I know when she made it; however both artists were in the 25 under 25 book.

  • Sharky, never made that connection before — that’s really interesting, I wonder. For those of you curious about that series, some images can be found here.

  • She came to AIB to speak on Monday. Unfortunately she did not get to show whole pieces because she was limited to a classroom time frame, but she showed clips from each video she did and took questions at the end. The question part was the most interesting. She never addressed the sexualness of her videos and sort of danced around questions that people asked. It reminded me of seeing Gregory Crewdson last semester, except she was playing with the questions more than he was. I think the dancing around is part of the whole Laurell Nakadake experiance.

  • Horton

    Even if she is letting the man twirl her in the end it’s her artwork and she has control of what the world sees and doesn’t see. All imaging of people exploits to a certain degree, but I find her work to be pretty obnoxious. I just don’t think that pointing out that lonely men will go along with whatever a young, attractive woman wants them to do so they can have some attention is that insightful. I appreciate your point Shane about the Youtube context, I imagine one of those love hotel videos would get a lot of lewd comments and of course the naysaying “she’s not that hot’ kind of comments as well. It’s funny to think of almost any art in that context though as most of it is deflated.

  • Agreed, that’s what make it interesting. And I can see how it can be seen as cruel, of course — I think many people can agree with that. As I said, she justifies it by discussing the nature of other men she worked with, more “attractive” ones who were less cooperative, willing to collaborate. She also points out that she is still friends with many of the men.

    Thanks for your comments, Horton.

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