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Laurel Nakadate’s retrospective at MoMA PS1, Only the Lonely, confirms her reputation as a daring artist using bold sexuality and taboo subject matter to push buttons so hard that she completely short circuits the controls. Nakadate, who is half white and half Asian, isn’t a conventional beauty but is attractive nonetheless, and her photographs and videos hinge significantly on her smooth skin and lean physique. Her work frustrates because she broaches but never resolves complex entanglements of sex and power. Yet Nakadate can’t be dismissed as a tease because her approach has been validated in the art world—through predecessors like Balthus, Hans Bellmer, Ana Mendieta, and Hannah Wilke—and outside it. Madonna, for example, challenged religion and popular culture in the 1980s with similarly specious feminist credentials.
Nakadate emerged ten years ago with thinly conceived videos in which she convinced unattractive, bottom-rung American males to participate in silly charades. In “Oops!” (2000) she dances around middle-aged men to [one of] Britney Spears’s jailbait anthem[s], and in “Beg for Your Life” (2006) she holds a toy gun to their heads as they cry out, jokingly, for mercy. Nakadate develops a sympathetic rapport with the unlikely actors, dissolving predatory impulses on both sides. Her frequent coy glances into the camera, however, reveal a knowingness that disturbingly naturalizes a Darwinian truism that attractive people have inalienable advantages in life while conservatively reaffirming Edmund Burke’s eighteenth-century ideas about aesthetic qualities of beauty and ugliness.
For “365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears” (2010), Nakadate forced herself to cry daily for one calendar year, documenting the performance in photographs. A concurrent exhibition at Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects presents a full set of 8½ x 11 inch prints and two new videos, while 122 enlargements cover the walls of two large PS1 galleries. The artist’s feeble attempt to counter the feigned happiness of Facebook profile pictures neglects the full range of human emotions, and the sheer excess of images in both shows deadens their emotional impact. If Nakadate is exploring not sadness and loneliness but emptiness, her work takes an interesting turn. An analogous vacuity permeates her soundtracks: by including tunes from Neil Diamond, Juice Newton, and Elvis, she exposes the artificial sentimentality built into popular music intended for personalization by mass audiences.
Nakadate gets behind the camera in newer pieces, and her scenarios have become darker, hollower, and better. For “Good Morning Sunshine” (2009) she creeps into the bedrooms of three teenage girls and, with flat compliments and suggestive questions, coaxes them out of their clothes. Allusions to online predators surface, but so do thoughts of domestic abuse, even incest. Fact and fiction increasingly blur—how staged are these awkward moments? Nakadate’s first full-length, “Stay the Same Never Change” (2009), strings together vignettes over ninety-three minutes but never coheres. The pace of her second feature, “The Wolf Knife” (2010), reinterpreting Ghost World as sprawling mumblecore, likewise burns slowly. Nakadate’s amateur cinematography and editing serve a purpose: to numb the viewer until two bewildering climaxes during the final twenty minutes illuminate the passion and perversion she had only danced around—literally—in earlier work.