Dear Laurel Nakadate:
This is what I have dug up so far.
You were in born in 1975 in Austin, Texas, and raised in Ames, Iowa, both university towns. According to the 2010 census, Ames has a population of 58,965. After graduating high school, you studied photography with Bill Burke and Jim Dow at the Museum School in Boston and then went to Yale to get your MFA in 2001. While at Yale, you lived in an SRO (single room occupancy or seedy apartment building for transients), rather than in university housing. A number of videos you made during this time include other residents, such as the middle-aged men in Happy Birthday (2000), who sing “Happy Birthday” for you when you arrive in their apartments with a cake.
In 1982, while you were growing up in Ames, Bill Burke made his first trip to Thailand and Cambodia, photographing the Khmer Rouge and, later, the changes that took place in Cambodia after the fall of Pol Pot. I am sure you know the books documenting these travels: I Want to Take Picture (1987), Mine Fields (1995), and Autrefois: Maison Privée (2004).
You are bi-racial (“half Japanese,” as another critic put it). You have not made any statements about your ethnicity that I can find, which is as interesting as the fact that almost no one brings it up, or does so only in passing. Most reviews focus on the collaborative videos you’ve made with older men who have “hit” upon you. Many emphasize the dangerous situations you seek out, and find the work sensationalist and creepy. In an interview featured in the Believer (October 2006), Scott Indrisek asked: “How much of what you’re acting out is actually you?” Your answer: “I think it’s about 10 percent me and 90 percent fiction. Although I get a lot of ideas from things that have happened in my life, I see the final product as a place where my imagination meets my experience.” As a child you studied to be a professional clown and learned juggling and how to ride a unicycle. You don’t believe in “danger,” but in the “narrow escape.” This is the site you keep returning to, both as participant and witness.
You once spent a week alone in Japan, did not sightsee, and photographed yourself in different sexual positions sans the other in Love Hotels (2004) where you can rent rooms by the hour.
Another time you got on Amtrak and rode trains for 30 days. You took photographs of the moment your underwear (what you like to call “panties”) went out the window. There is also a video of you pole dancing on the porch of the house in Iowa that Grant Wood used as the setting for American Gothic (1930). As you probably know, Wood was fired from the art department of the University of Iowa for having a homosexual relationship with his personal secretary.
This is some of what I saw the first time I went to see your 10-year retrospective.
There are three different videos of you dancing to Britney Spears’ Oops, I Did it Again (2000) in three different men’s apartments. The music is coming from a pink Hello Kitty boom box, the first of many telling touches. You have told the men, none of whom you know, that you have memorized Spears’ MTV choreography, which you have. Two of the men try to dance along with you, while one keeps absolutely still, frozen with fear and delight. (No critic mentions what a half-Japanese woman imitating the blonde, pneumatic Spears before a lonely, unattractive, middle-aged white man begins to expose.)
In the video Good Morning Sunshine (2009), you enter three adolescent girls’ bedrooms and film each of them waking up. You ask them questions as well as tell them what you want them to do, beginning with: “Let me see your feet” and later, “what do you have on underneath?”
In the video Greater New York (2005), you document yourself wearing a girl scout’s uniform on a rooftop on the morning of 9/11, with smoke billowing from the Twin Towers seen in the distance. This clip is juxtaposed with short sequences of you lying on a wet pavement exhorting a dead bird to wake, of you and an older man (your father?) shooting water guns at each other in front of a suburban house and of other banal events that no longer seem ordinary.
In the video Exorcism in January (2009), you are in convulsions on the floor of a seedy apartment while a man sits nearby, saying “go away, leave her alone, she is a good girl.” The short, faded denim skirt, and how far up it might go, adds another layer of tension to the work.
In Lucky Tiger (2009), there are 24 postcard-sized photographs of you in cheesecake poses based on calendars found in gas stations and garages across America, the classic white audience. You are posing on or beside pickup trucks, wearing a Superman T-shirt, cowboy hat, and underwear. The series gets its title from a two-piece bathing suit, which has the head of a tiger printed on the crotch. Contrast this with the photograph of you in a bathing suit that is red, white, and blue, and it is clear that you pick what you wear for a reason, that nothing you do is casual. For this project you contacted a group of men on Craigslist and asked them if they would sit in a circle and pass the photographs to each other. The men had to first smear printer’s ink on their fingers, and, as expected, there are fingerprints on the corners, but in some cases they partially cover you, skitter or mark their progress across the glossy surface.
Although all of your work is connected by time-based media—photography, film, and video—you do not have a style or shtick. Each project stands on its own, even when the same middle-aged man appears in different scenarios.
This is some of what I thoughtabout after I saw your ten-year retrospective.
In Lucky Tiger, the fingerprints are like tattoos, a tracery of black lines covering parts of your exposed body. Did the men want to touch you or did they want to get under your skin? Intimacy and distance occupy the same terrain. “Who are we?” the photographs ask, “Just another man in the circle, passing the photograph to the next person after getting our fingers all over it?”
You seem to be deeply empathetic with middle-aged single men who live on the margins, with no family and apparently without any friends. And yet you also know that such empathy can get you in trouble. You mount and walk on that tightrope. These men are stewing in their own fetid juices. They are non-productive members of society and therefore failures. They are fat, awkward, and, in the eyes of the mass media, repulsive. They will take off their shirts and pirouette if you tell them to. For that brief moment each is a troubadour doing his lady’s bidding. You know that loneliness is a social disease for which there is no known cure. It is not a habit you can kick, like heroin or smoking.
By and large, Americans cannot stand solitude, which is why they hate people who are obviously misfits and most likely deeply lonely. We prefer narcissists, people who overcome their emptiness by being self-serving, ambitious, and obsequious. They can only be productive if they are around people. We like greasy palms rather than the dirty hands of those who spend most of their time alone (artists and poets, for example).
Despair is more commonplace than we would like to admit.
You find new ways to embrace your awkwardness and the realization that you will never fit in, that society has offered you no refuge. I suspect that you learned this early on in your life.
The fact that you never foreground your racial heritage in your work means that you have refused to become what mainstream society wants you to be: an artist-representative of a particular race. As someone who is half Japanese, you had to construct your identity from the beginning. Essentialist identity would be no different from stereotypical female passivity because in both cases you would be succumbing to a society that doesn’t know how to address you. When she was young, Cindy Sherman took set-up photos of herself in blackface. For you that wasn’t an option. Barry Schwabsky accurately characterizes Sherman’s project as about “a human being imprisoned in her own idea of herself.” You explore a more unstable terrain, always intent on making “a narrow escape,” the only option you see for yourself. Meanwhile, the middle aged, potbellied man is condemned to pirouette, again and again. It is his one true moment of beauty and tenderness recorded for posterity—you have given him his “narrow escape” and he knows it, as he does what he is told.