“What I want to do as an artist is make things that really challenge me.” Robert Ayers in conversation with Laurel Nakadate
You can hardly miss Laurel Nakadate these days. Her ten-year retrospective Only the Lonely has been at MoMA P.S.1. since January (through August 8), she has a solo show 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears at Leslie Tonkonow Art Projects (through June 25), she was Modern Painters’ cover-girl for April, and published today – in admittedly more obscure territory – she’s the subject of a feature I’ve written for EIKON magazine in Vienna.
It’s not surprising that Ms Nakadate’s art gets the attention that it does. She focuses on a distinctly difficult area of contemporary life – the (sexualized) appearance and (emotional) reality of young women’s lives, and does so from the perspective of exactly such a woman; and she permits – and even exploits – a remarkable overlap between the making of her art and the living of her life. That she has herself in real physical danger in the process adds to her work’s fascination. Nakadate first came to public attention with short video pieces recording her visits to an older men’s homes. These pieces established something like infamy for the young Nakadate, and stories that she met the men in these videos either by chance or (worse) on craigslist became the basis for seeing them as tantamount to filmed prostitution. As she explains here, “Some of the reactions are still just as severe as they were twelve years ago.”
While I was preparing my EIKON feature, I had the opportunity to talk at length with Ms Nakadate, and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Laurel, let’s begin by talking about the massive recent project, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, which is at the core of both of your current exhibits. As I understand it, it comprises one photograph taken every day for a year. And the photographs show you either crying, or just about to cry, or having just stopped crying. Is that right?
Yes. I let my living prescribe the places that I would be during the performance. I decided that the rules of the performance were that I had to cry every day, and I had to document myself before, during, or after that performative act every day. If I was on an airplane to Estonia, I had to cry on the airplane. If I was on the Amtrack, I had to cry on the Amtrack. So I let myself be wherever I needed to be in my life, but I had to let the performance show up every day. I had to deliberately take part in sadness every day.
What does that mean, “take part in sadness”?
Taking part in sadness and not running from it. I originally came up with the idea when I noticed that on social networking sites like facebook or Myspace, everyone pretends to be happy all the time. There are all of these normal people, all around the world, pretending to be happy. Maybe it’s a performance that they’re not totally conscious of, but there are all these normal people doing these performances every day. People hold their iPhone an arm’s length from their face and do a self-portrait and put it up on facebook every day. These layman’s daily self-portraits became interesting to me because of the idea that the self-portraits had to be happy. So I thought I would do a performance every day where I deliberately turn away from happiness, and deliberately take part in sadness. So that’s how the performance was conceived.
So this is genuine sadness you’re depicting? It’s not just pretence?
At first I would just think about really sad things from my past. I think that everybody has a list of ten things that they can go to that can probably make them weep. But as the year went on I found it harder and harder to weep about those things It was as though I’d used up that material. So then I started turning to really sad music. Or I started asking people questions about the saddest things that ever happened to them, and I would cry about their sad thing. Or I would just open the newspaper or turn on the news and obviously within five minutes I would see something worth crying over there. This seeking out of sadness became a way for me to work through all the saddest things that I could conjure, through the things that other people told me about, to the things that the world presented to me.
Does that mean that the piece outgrew what you’d intended for it?
One of things about this performance is that it allowed other people to open up and talk to me about their feelings of sadness (or their lack of feelings of sadness). It started a conversation with strangers. I’m now getting people contacting me on the internet to talk about their sadness. It’s interesting when performance art allows the public to interact with the performance on another level, beyond just the photographs of me crying. It becomes a conversation-starter or a dialog piece.
Have the people who’ve contacted you seen the P.S.1. show?
Yeah, sometimes they’re people who’ve seen the show, but sometimes they’re people on the other side of the world who’ve read about it in the New York Times or Modern Painters or somewhere else where there’s been an article. They say, “I didn’t see the show but I read about the project, and I want to tell you this story …” There could be a million spin-offs from this performance. There could easily be a book of people’s reactions to the performance.
It’s not every kind of art that would elicit that sort of response.
I know. The work allows itself to be open – or vulnerable – to that sort of attention.
I’m intrigued by the Laurel Nakadate that appears in your art. Is she you, or is she a character that you play?
I think as any actor would probably say, the character is one part me and one part a fabrication I’ve created in order to narrate the story. Of course it’s my body and it’s me in that space, but certainly some of the actions are actions a performer performs in order to create a narrative.
But you’re far more than an actor.
Yes, I’m a performance artist, and that means that I’m performing, and directing, and narrating, and writing, and editing as I go. It’s more of a whole-bodied experience, I think.
And you are also living out the reality of your own existence, to some extent.
That’s true, but it’s only something that I’ve really been thinking about recently, since I mounted the P.S.1. show. It’s an interesting thing that happens when you put together ten years of work for a show and look back on the process of having made it.
How does the Laurel who appears in the new series differ from the one who featured in your earlier work?
Well, one of the main differences is that in the 365 Days performance I’m alone. In the earlier video pieces it was a collaboration on camera with a stranger. So they were not unlike the 365 Days performance in that they were created on the spot, and there were parameters: in one of the early pieces the parameters were “We’re going to dance in this room together,” or “We’re going to have this birthday party together”. In the 365 Days performance the parameters were “I’m going to cry in this room alone.” The main difference is that when you put two people in a room it changes everything: that character is reacting to the space, the performance and also the stranger, whereas the character I’m performing in 365 days is more me in some ways because I’m not reacting to a stranger, I’m just existing in a space.
Those older video pieces that explore the relationship between a beautiful young woman like yourself and rather creepy middle-aged guys must have taken real courage to make. You really put yourself in harm’s way.
The first videos were shot in 1999. (They have a completion date of 2000, but they were actually shot in 1999.) So I was 23. That’s a long time ago, but looking back I’m very proud to have been brave enough to make that work. Not only was it complicated work to imagine and then go make, it was complicated work to defend in a lot of ways. I think the general public at the time was not willing to imagine that the story I was creating on video was anything other than a dismissal of a certain relationship formed between a young girl and an older man. I think that now the work is being embraced in a slightly different way, but there was a time – twelve years ago – when there were very few people willing to go there with me.
That’s not entirely surprising. You were working in very difficult territory.
At the time I don’t think I really completely understood the far-reaching reverberations of having made that work. But now I think it’s really interesting work and I’m proud of having made it. In some ways it should have got easier to take the work out into the public these days, but some of the reactions are still just as severe as they were twelve years ago; there just happen to be a few more supporters.
Yes, I remember a weird piece in the New York Post last summer where they called you an “Undie Achiever”!
There’s always something weird surrounding my work, and at any given time I have stalkers that I’m avoiding. I think that part of it is that I’m mining interesting territory, or I’m making myself vulnerable to a certain type of attention from people who maybe also feel vulnerable. They think they’ve found a kindred spirit. I’m incredibly moved by the fact that people want to engage with me in my work, but there have been times when it crosses over the line between human beings wanting to engage to terror situations.
What do you mean by that?
Unfortunately there’s a fine line between a person who’s genuinely interested in art practice and all its interesting questions and a person who wants to insert themselves into your life more than what you’ve asked for. I’m sure that many artists have to deal with this, because the act of making and showing art is such a public thing. You have to be very generous with your time and your life when you’re an artist because if you ask people to pay attention to your work, you’re also saying “I will give this of myself. I will make myself available and vulnerable to have this conversation with people surrounding the work.” I think that’s required, certainly of a performance artist.
Particularly when the performance you’re doing is so intimately connected with you and your actual life.
Right. It’s really me and my body. I’m actually sitting there crying.
Your feature movies [Stay The Same Never Change, 2009, and The Wolf Knife, 2010] are different though, aren’t they? You tend to stay behind the camera there.
Yes. Both films star amateur actors found through open casting calls, and they’re both scripted to the extent that I wrote a series of scenes that fit together to form a narrative and a loose portrait of these girls. For the first film, Stay The Same Never Change, I went to Kansas City and I cast almost everyone who showed up at the casting call, because I liked the idea of community theater: people coming together against all the odds to put on a production. Like outsider artists coming together to produce something that they don’t really have any training to do, but the brilliance that comes from that might be even better. It’s just a group of people in Kansas City that we cast into this script that I’d written, and we shot it over three and a half weeks. The second film, The Wolf Knife, was made in a similar way, but in even more extreme circumstances, because we only had ten days to shoot the film. Both films are not quite narrative films and not quite video art. They bridge those two worlds. That was an interesting place to be.
So where do you go next?
Everybody wants to know what you’re doing next, but after putting up a twelve-room show of ten years’ work what you’re doing next is recovering! I’m working on a book project with Hatje Cantz right now: It’s a ten-year book survey of my work that was supposed to coincide with the P.S.1. show, but we’ll be lucky if it’s out before it closes. I’m writing a new feature screenplay and I’m also getting ready to shoot a short film – but those are both up in the air depending on funding. But just dealing with the P.S.1. show has been a full-time job: doing press, and talks, and meeting with groups who want to do a tour – all of the things that surround a big show once it’s up.
What is really challenging for me at this point is working in forms that I don’t completely understand. That’s what I love. What I want to do as an artist is make things that really challenge me and surprise me and make me feel like the things that I’m making are new and interesting.
You know, it’s really refreshing to talk to an artist of your generation who makes no reference whatsoever to art theory.
What I’m really inspired by as an artist is the world around me and walking out into the world and reacting to it and remaining vulnerable and open and navigating that terrain. That’s what’s really interesting to me. I think that if I’d wanted to discuss theory more I’d have ended up on the other side of art making. For me the great challenge is to remain an emotional human being who responds and reacts to the world. For me that doesn’t really involve theory. It involves emotions.
All images courtesy Laurel Nakadate and Leslie Tonkonow Art Projects