The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Thursday, August 25, 2011

The current exhibit of Laurel Nakadate's work at MoMA PS1 raises more questions than it answers. This may be what this artist needs right now, considering how even the praise she has received tends to focus on the least challenging aspects of her work. For several years she made videos featuring lonely older men who started conversations with her in grocery stores and parking lots; she would agree to go home with them as long as they allowed her to film what happened, which would usually turn out to be a scenario of her choosing. In some cases this meant a pretend birthday party (we see the man eating a slice of cake and then singing to her) or a pretend music video (we watch her dance to “Oops, I Did It Again”, Britney Spears’s paean to inadvertent seduction). Ms Nakadate, who was 25 when she started to make these videos in 2000, would often film herself gyrating in flimsy camisoles while the men looked on.

Marilyn Minter, an American artist, has praised Ms Nakadate's attempt "to own the creation of sexual imagery” in the service of self-expression: "When you're a young woman, and beautiful, all eyes are on you. Can you capture that experience?" (For the current issue of the Paris Review, Ms Minter curated a portfolio that includes Ms Nakadate's photographs and stills from her work.) Ms Nakadate's critics, meanwhile, accuse her of using her sexuality to exploit the men in her videos—beer-bellied, awkward loners who seem remarkable mainly for how unremarkable they are.

But neither view conveys how uncomfortable it is to watch Ms Nakadate's work. However pleasing the sight of a young woman's body may be, the stubborn presence of her dishevelled male co-stars thwarts any possibility of eroticism. What makes videos such as "I Want To Be the One To Walk In the Sun" (2006) truly strange is less the presence of a half-nude Nakadate and more the way in which we are forced to pay attention to these men, who would otherwise be invisible. We watch them watch her: images of nubile women are everywhere in our culture; images of titillated middle-aged shut-ins are not.

The PS1 exhibit, "Only the Lonely", also includes videos and photographs that do not feature her male collaborators. Some of these works complicate the sexualised tropes of pop culture, and are all the more disturbing for it. Ms Nakadate takes images that would otherwise be as familiar as an American Apparel ad and pushes them to melancholy and perverse extremes. In "Good Morning Sunshine" (2009), the artist stays behind the camera and rouses young women from bed, cajoling them to undress to their underwear with language ("You know you're the prettiest girl, right?") that is both childish and sinister. The video "Love Hotel" (2005) shows the artist in several of Tokyo's by-the-hour hotel rooms with what the wall card describes as “an absent, invisible lover”—a phrase that makes the work sound more romantic than it is. The actual sight of one person having sex with nothing strips the act down to a succession of absurd and lonely gestures.

The work is less interesting when it dispenses with Ms Nakadate's gifts for prolonging the uncomfortable moment and conforms more neatly to familiar notions of beauty and seduction. For "Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind" (2005) Ms Nakadate threw her underwear from the open window of an Amtrak train, snapping close-ups of her lacy knickers fluttering in the wind. The resulting stills are as wispy and inconsequential as the knickers themselves. The centrepiece of the PS1 show, "365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears" (2011), is a series of self-portraits taken before, during or after crying. Ms Nakadate says she "wanted to deliberately take part in sadness each day", which seemed to happen most often in expensive hotel bathrooms, while topless. Many of the photographs are highly stylised, and several of them are quite beautiful (Ms Nakadate's formal training as a photographer is always in evidence), but the cumulative effect of so much forced heartache and nude weeping is to render the project as consumable as the catalogue in its name.

Despite the unevenness of the work, or perhaps because of it, one leaves such an exhibit wondering what Ms Nakadate might do next. Also included are two feature films, “Stay the Same Never Change” (2009) and “The Wolf Knife” (2010), both of them written and directed by the artist, which revolve around teenaged girls. Some of the films' concerns, such as naivety and recklessness, connect to her earlier work, but Ms Nakadate's relationship to the actors—she directs them, she watches them, but she isn't one of them—conveys a certain distance from what she would have undoubtedly participated in before. Ten years after she started to take on the role of pretty young thing and excavate it for all its implications, Ms Nakadate seems to be at a transitional moment. Transitions are fraught with both potential and peril, but this artist has shown herself to be up for anything.

By Jennifer Szalai in The Economist Online.