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Review: Laurel Nakadate disturbs with voyeuristic mind games, reversed roles and a year of tears

Laurel Nakadate: "The Exorcism," video still
A scene from Laurel Nakadate's video "Exorcism in January."

In her solo exhibition on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through December 16, Laurel Nakadate, a Yale-educated photographer, video artist and filmmaker, makes voyeurs of her audience.

Known for her titillating aesthetic, the 36-year-old artist, who hails from Iowa, is the lead provocateur in much of her work. As writer, director and performer in her semi-constructed narratives, she presents emotional complexities that are as indulgent and solipsistic as they are disarming and unabashedly direct. Weaving a simultaneous thread of desire, power, vulnerability and loneliness through her characters, her process comes across as both honest and steeped in messy contradiction.

The Contemporary exhibition, a large part of which was shown at the Museum of Modern Art’s P.S.1 last year, presents a psychological entanglement of photographs and video. Invigorated by the awkward and uncomfortable, Nakadate wants to dislodge herself and her audience from the drone of all things predictable. Planting herself in unlikely situations, often with strangers whom she incorporates into her work, she blurs the line between documentation and improvisational performance, making art from the unexpected as it occurs in real time.

The intensity in her work lies in the characters she reveals, who are often desperate and embarrassing. The exhibition begins with the all-pervasive sound of Nakadate and her found collaborator, a pitiful, large-bellied older man, performing an exorcism. The corresponding video piece, “Exorcism in January,” depicts a writhing Nakadate, clad in a miniskirt, pink tank top and cowboy boots, allowing this man she met on the street to perform his routine demon-banishing ritual on her. She plays the part, then in a reciprocal gesture helps him ward off his own evil spirits as he rocks back and forth on his crusty bare mattress. Their relationship is sympathetic and awkward, and unavoidably pulsates with a Lolita-esque charge.

Drawn to outcasts and misfits, mostly older men living bleak, isolated lives, this artist identifies with the lonely. On some level, the shared vulnerability of this unlikely pair, albeit strange and awkward, creates an opportunity where meaningful exchange can occur. This shared vulnerability, a driving force in Nakadate’s work, repeatedly exists within a larger, much more complicated negotiation with power and control, which is largely expressed through overt sexuality and kink.

The peculiarity of this kind of “collaboration,” and arguably what makes the piece interesting, resides in the ambiguous way she presents power. Often inconsistent, inverted and blurry, power for Nakadate is a moving target, constantly shifting as she portrays herself as both predator and prey, as both sympathetic and manipulative. In “Exorcism in January,” it’s unclear whether she’s exploiting the man, making him complicit in exploiting her, exploiting herself, or some combination of these.

A scene from Nakadate's "Good Morning Sunshine."

More blatant expressions of this theme occur in “Good Morning Sunshine,” an outright creepy set of fictitious video vignettes depicting a behind-the-camera Nakadate videotaping young teenage girls as she wakes them from their still-adolescent bed sheets and stuffed animals. Seducing them with compliments, the voice behind the camera wants to know what’s underneath their pajamas. Timid but open, the young women acquiesce by undressing down to their panties.

The very problem of Nakadate’s work is also what makes it compelling. In contrast to the feminist modus operandi, which critiques and undermines the “male gaze,” Nakadate constructs narratives that explicitly objectify and even blatantly abuse either herself or other women, thus drawing the viewer into the fraught position of voyeur.

In a conniving game of role reversal, she turns this power dynamic on its head, employing her sexuality as a means of control. She argues that by creating these constructs herself, she is somehow empowered by them. But in doing so, she’s implicating herself in the very problem she’s attempting to defeat.

Nakadate's "Feb 2," from "365 Days: A Catalog of Tears."

The magnum opus of the show, “365 Days: A Catalog of Tears,” is a selection of 36 very large C-prints from an impressive year-long photographic performance, which surround the viewer in the main gallery. Responding to the social media phenomenon (Facebook et al.), in which self-image is neatly regulated, if not constructed, by the photographs one chooses to reveal of oneself, Nakadate chose to “deliberately take part in sadness the way people deliberately take part in happiness.”

Diaristic and exploratory, the series depicts the always-sexy artist in a seemingly perpetual deluge of tears. With a solipsism recalling Sophie Calle, she captures herself in a string of hotel beds, train stations, airplanes and empty parking lots. The woman shown may very well be the only person on the planet, evoking an Edward Hopper quality of loneliness that is both sympathy-worthy and self-possessed. Teetering on the edge between real and unreal, Nakadate entices the viewer to play yet another game of pretend.

Her game, however, is that sometimes pretend means performing what’s already very true. Many of those tears are real, willed by the conjured memories of dead childhood pets and failed relationships, the artist has explained. This is what keeps her work in a perpetual state of question and circularity. It is the blurriness of her hand — how much she controls and does not control — that keeps the viewer on edge.

“There’s a friction that’s created between the things we imagine and the things that exist,” Nakadate said in an interview in Believer magazine. “… [P]eople want it to be one thing or another; they want it to be fact or fiction.”

Some of the overly stylized portraits evoke a stronger fictional narrative, while others remain seemingly candid and honest. In the photograph “Feb 2,” Nakadate weeps before her computer screen, sitting before a blogger website that strategically reads “Hope is the Thing.” Perhaps a 21st-century nod to Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #96” from her “Centerfold” series (in which Sherman holds a singles ad reading “Know Yourself, Know Your Future”), the message contained in the image is one of hope as well as defeat.

Nakadate's "Tucson #2, 2011," from the "Star Portraits" series.

Nakadate is full of surprises. The exhibition includes an unexpected, more recent photographic series titled “Star Portraits,” in which she offers a different sort of project engaging her interest in chance encounters. Inviting strangers to meet her in the Arizona desert at night, she beholds their faces only in the moment the flash illuminates them. Despite the very specific demographic portrayed in the selections exhibited here — mostly arty, 30-something hipsters — the photographs reveal a delicate interiority that seems to transcend time amid the vastness of the night sky.

The Contemporary rarely gives over its entire exhibition space to a single artist; Artistic Director Stuart Horodner is making a clear statement that this work is worth serious attention. The show, in all its strangeness, offers a compelling overview of the ways in which Nakadate’s videos and photographs uncover a level of human desire and frailty that is raw and unapologetic despite a seeming facade of performitivity.

In fact, some of this work treads such dark and potentially dangerous ground that one is tempted to psychologize the artist: what trauma drives her to reclaim authority within such perverse narratives? Whether intentionally or not, her work reveals an artist who appears as desperate and searching as those she decisively undermines. The formal beauty of her work presented within such abject terrain certainly argues for an artist fully self-possessed.

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