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Q&A: Laurel Nakadate explores loneliness, voyeurism, intimacy in videos, photos at Contemporary

Laurel Nakadate: "Exorcism in January"  2009  HD digital video  11:40 min  Copyright Laurel Nakadate  Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
Laurel Nakadate's "Star Portraits, Mesa #1"

Laurel Nakadate’s art offers a discomfiting glimpse into private moments. For her career-launching videos, made while a student in Yale University’s MFA program, she followed older single men to their apartments and directed the ensuing interactions. Although the videos were rife with unsettling sexual overtones, the real subject was the loneliness of these men and the wretchedness of their situations.

The artist, now in her mid-30s, had a large-scale solo exhibition at MoMA PS1 last year. “Only the Lonely” included the photographic series “365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears,” for which the artist photographed herself crying every day of 2010, and “Good Morning, Sunshine,” in which she entered the bedrooms of young women, woke them and instructed them to strip down to their underwear for the camera.

“Laurel Nakadate: Photographs, Videos & Performances,” which opens at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center on Friday, October 12, includes images from “365 Days” and her new photographic series, “Star Portraits,” as well as several videos. “The Wolf Knife,” Nakadate’s feature film, will be screened at the Plaza Theatre at 9 p.m. Thursday, October 11.

We spoke by telephone with Nakadate, who will be in town for the opening this weekend. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

ArtsATL: Would you mind discussing some of the works in the show and how it builds on or differs from the show at MoMA PS1?

Laurel Nakadate: I know Stuart [Horodner, artistic director of the Contemporary] is showing a few early videos and more recent videos. I think it’s interesting to show some of the more recent videos in context with my more recent [photographs], because it speaks about my overall project of trying to work with strangers, trying to work with the ways we connect with one another, and trying to tell stories about people who meet through chance encounters and the way we sort of distill the experience of our life into performance or artmaking.

A scene from Nakadate's video "Exorcism in January"

ArtsATL: For clarification, for the “Star Portraits” series, you’re taking strangers to isolated areas and photographing them at night looking at the stars?

Nakadate: Yeah, that’s basically it. There are a couple of offshoots of the “Star” series. One part of the series we’re going to be showing is one in which I’ve asked people to invite strangers to meet me in a location where I make their portraits under starlight. In a lot of ways it relates to my early work where I was reaching out to strangers to create videos or photographs with me. In the same way, I’m asking strangers to meet me and spend time with me and out of that comes the portrait of that person.

One thing that’s interesting for me is that I don’t really see the person clearly until I have the photograph made inside of the camera. When you’re in the dark with someone, the camera can see more than you can, because the camera has the ability to open a shutter and record light over a period of time in a way that our eyes cannot. I’m able to learn more about them in the dark than if I’d met them without a camera. So there’s a little bit of photo-geeky stuff happening, but also strange ways to connect with people through technology that real life denies.

ArtsATL: It seems like, in your earlier work, the three crude categories of subject matter are yourself, adolescent girls and older men. Is there a category or certain type of person you’re going for with “Star Portraits,” or is this a move away from that directed choice of subject?

Nakadate: [In] this new project the people in the photographs are chosen through chance, in the same way they were chosen in those earlier videos. But the one difference is that really anyone and everyone can show up. I’ve simply asked friends to invite friends, and I’ve posted things on Facebook and local community message boards, so in that way it’s less casting on my part and more casting on the world’s part. I think when anyone can show up, really interesting things can happen.

ArtsATL: In past interviews you reference literary works, you reference Nabokov’s Lolita, you reference film, and these works with a narrative structure. Was there a literary or film point of reference for the “Star Portraits”?

Nakadate: No, not really. I was very much drawn to the night sky, and I spent some time out in Arizona and realized I wanted to make some works under the night sky with strangers. Out of that desire, I formed this idea of these portraits. I think this feeling of standing alone in the middle of the night with strangers is a really intense and profound experience. We as humans forget that we were not always meant to be inside and in our homes watching CNN all day and night. When you throw yourself out of your comfort zone and put yourself in a place where you’re surrounded by nature and up against another human being at night, there’s going to be a profound feeling of belonging or perhaps alienation, and a longing for belonging or the desire to connect coming through.

ArtsATL: There’s something that feels so American about the themes that you deal with. The availability of open space, the truckers, the road trips, the Craigslist interactions.… there’s a lot that speaks to a contemporary American experience of loneliness. Do you feel that your works fit within an idea of a postmodern America? 

A scene from Nakadate's video "Good Morning, Sunshine"

Nakadate: I think you hit it exactly. I think it’d be impossible to escape that, and I’ve been reading modern literature for a long time, and I’ve been obsessed with the American West and romanticized it and that was definitely something I was very interested in with those early videos. You already mentioned Lolita, which deals with romanticizing the American West and the West as something we can escape to or create a personal narrative….

ArtsATL: … or America as this young sexual being. Is there anything you’re reading right now that is influencing your current work?

Nakadate: I’m actually doing a ton of research on my family history in America, specifically my mother’s family history. I’m directly related to the McCoys of the miniseries that was on TV last spring. I’ve been doing a lot of really strange, geeky research into the American Revolution and the South and the history of people in Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas … [laughs] so maybe not the most leisurely reading I could hope for right now, but some really fascinating research for my new work.

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