Whether she was filming herself as she danced to Britney Spears’ Oops, I Did it Again (2000) in a male stranger’s rundown apartment or researching various DNA websites to contact distant relatives and invite them to be photographed at night in an unlikely meeting spot, Laurel Nakadate has long been interested in finding the unlikely relationship between isolation and intimacy.
In each project that she has undertaken, you could count on her to be thorough as well as thoroughly unsettling, as evidenced by her series, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, a photo-document of herself crying every day for a year, which was first shown in her survey exhibition Only the Lonely at MoMA PS 1 (2011). In many of her works, Nakadate often uses a specific span of time as a framing device. Her interest in duration helps dissolve the border between time-based works (videos) and those that are a record of the instant (photographs). One way to think about 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears is that it is a movie made of stills, and that time has been slowed down.
In her exhibition, Laurel Nakadate: The Kingdom, at Leslie Tonkonow (January 18 – March 17, 2018), the artist presents photographs, a sound installation incorporating a gritty, disused payphone, and videos. The ostensible subject of these works is her family — the one she was born into (as a daughter of an interracial marriage) and the son she recently had her with her husband, the writer Rick Moody. Time is again one of Nakadate’s preoccupations, but looked at through the lens of her family — specifically her parents and her infant son.
I would further add that being the child of an interracial marriage brings an acute awareness of never quite belonging to this group or that — a sense of continuity and disruption that is not experienced by those whose parents share the same race, religion, ethnic group, or culture. While interracial marriage is more common now, it was not when Nakadate’s parents got married: and it was surely an anomaly in Ames, Iowa, where the artist grew up.
As stated in the gallery press release, the title of the exhibition comes from “the last words spoken to the artist by her mother, who died shortly after the birth of Nakadate’s son in the summer of 2016.” The show is haunted by grief and irrevocable loss. In her piece “Executive Order 9066” (2018), Nakatate has mounted 180 photographs on six wood rails, 30 to a row. The number of photographs matches the length of time the artist’s father, at the age of one, was interned with his family at the Minidoka War Relocation Camp in Hunt, Idaho.
Signed and issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was an extreme continuation of the laws preventing Asian Americans from owning land or voting. The correspondence between Nakadate’s father and her son is the foundation of “Executive Order 9066,” but the gap between their lives remains: we see images of a happy child, but none of the artist’s father. It is as if Nakadate was unable to overcome the absence of a visual correspondence between her father’s childhood and her son’s, despite the overlapping period of time. None of photographs are memorable or resonate with the grandfather’s experience.
This is not the case with the 34 photographs of “The Kingdom” (2018), all of which are the size of a sheet of typing paper (11 x 8 ½ inches), whether shown vertically or horizontally. According to the gallery press release:
Nakadate envisions a physical connection between her son and his grandmother who never had the opportunity to hold him. […] [She] hired anonymous technicians on the Internet to merge photographs of her mother, spanning the course of her life, with images of her infant son. Her only direction to these technicians was to place the baby in the woman’s arms.
In “The Kingdom” — which is funny (in a weird way) and weird (in a funny way), as well as distressing, eerie, simultaneously tender and cool — the woman ages, with the last photograph showing her in a wheelchair on a promontory overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There are images of the infant balanced on the woman’s shoulders, lying on her lap, or being guided by her hands, but there is never any eye contact between them: they exist in the same and separate worlds. That contradiction, which is more obvious in some photographs than others, stirs up all sorts of feelings and speculations.
This is what I find sad about the photographs in “The Kingdom”: Nakadate’s mother may be holding the infant, but she is clearly more attentive to the camera than to what someone using Photoshop has placed in her arms. The other upsetting thing about the sequence is the disconnect between the woman visibly aging while the infant stays the same. These photographs memorialize the artist’s mother; they become a diary of mourning that is partially offset by the strangeness of the joining of a dead mother and a newly born infant.
Roland Barthes wrote Camera Lucida (1979) shortly after his mother died. Responding to a photograph by Koen Wessing of two nuns and three soldiers, he states:
I understood at once that existence (its “adventure”) derived from the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world (no need to proceed to the point of contrast): the soldiers and the nuns“.
It is likely that Nakadate read Barthes and possibly was influenced by him but that seems too narrow a way to approach her work. Her exploration of discontinuities is not limited to photography. In “City of Stars” (2018), she mounts a payphone on the wall. When I picked up and listened to it, I heard snippets of the “artist’s mother’s voicemail messages recorded during the last five years of her life,” as the gallery statement explains. The bits and pieces were pretty much the same: “I love you” and “Call me back,” words of that sort said in a flat voice.
Since the beginning of her career, Nakadate has had a knack for transporting the viewer to emotionally laden places, many filled with pathos. She doesn’t repeat herself, but extends the parameters of this interest so that it reaches into unlikely corners and inexplicable states and feelings that words might not reach.
In the digital video “Chewbacca” (2016), which is titled after the tall, hirsute, biped Wookiee warrior that appears in the Star Wars movies as Hans Solo’s first mate and friend, a clearly pregnant Nakadate wears a Chewbacca mask, a black top with the word “Twerkin” on the front, and pair of green tights printed with images of American money. Twerking is a provocative dance style that involves shaking one’s buttocks, often while squatting. With her exposed belly sticking out, Nakadate stands in a field and howls out strange animal noises, taking discontinuity to a new and intense level: it does not add up, but somehow makes complete sense. This is why, for all of the fiction she brings into her work, she is a realist who recognizes how strange and flustering it is to be alive.
Laurel Nakadate: The Kingdom continues at Leslie Tonkonow (535 West 22nd Street, Sixth Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 17.