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As the child of an interracial marriage (I got to meet my blue-eyed, English grandmother when I was seven, later discovering that she bore an uncanny resemblance to Virginia Woolf), I have to admit to having more than a passing interest in Laurel Nakadate’s most recent, ongoing photo project, Relations, which is included in her current exhibition Strangers and Relations at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects (May 11 – June 29, 2013).
The other reason is that in these two new bodies of work, Nakadate has moved from being in front of the camera — dancing, in convulsions or crying — to standing behind it. For someone who gained attention by making videos of herself in various states of undress, dancing to Britney Spears’s “Oops, I Did it Again” (2000) in three different men’s rather seedy apartments — with the music coming from a pink Hello Kitty boom box — to turn a still camera on the world around her, as she does in this show, is a major change, as well as a rejoinder to those critics who did not believe that she would stop focusing on herself, which I think is a serious misunderstanding of her subject matter.
By characterizing her work as “provocative and polarizing,” it was clear that critics had trouble dealing with what gets exposed when a young, seductive, half-Japanese woman imitates the blonde, pneumatic Spears before a lonely, unattractive, middle-aged white male. Instead of unraveling the relationship of the men trying to dance along with Nakadate, a number of critics wondered what she would do when she got older.
I suspect one reason for this patronizing concern is because these critics, as representatives of mainstream society, prefer that these men — largely invisible and ignored — stay that way: Society does not want to explore their isolation because it wants to believe it is something that they must have brought upon themselves.
Nakadate seems particularly attuned to finding ways to situate her work in the gap between “us” and “them.” As someone who is biracial growing up in Iowa in the 80s and 90s, she has long experienced being a member of neither a minority nor a majority. Her recurring subject is isolation, made all the more powerful by her ability to keep finding ways to reveal it as a condition that afflicts us all.
In Relations, which she started after her survey exhibition, Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely at MoMA PS1 (January 23 – August 11, 2011), and which I reviewed elsewhere, Nakadate turns her attention from random strangers to the randomness of relatives. The press release contained this statement by her:
In my early videos, I physically appeared in the work. In these new portraits, I am allowing my body, my DNA, to navigate my direction; where I will travel and whom I will meet. These strangers, who are also distant cousins, share bits of DNA with me – in some ways, these images become modern day self-portraits. I see these strangers, who are also relatives, as little glimmers of the ancestors who connected us hundreds of years ago.
Through various DNA websites, Nakadate contacted distant relatives, inviting them to participate in her project. Each person could wear what he or she wanted (say something about themselves). All the photographs were taken at night in a nondescript field, remote from obvious signs of life. The only light was the starlight, the distant light of civilization, and a flashlight.
In choosing to photograph at night, using only a flashlight to illuminate the meeting, Nakadate tries to get at that first moment when we encounter a stranger and do not know what to make of the experience, where appearance is everything. Nakadate frames the moment in a way that recalls our social evolution — how did we learn to accept strangers, people from another tribe?
We might have learned to not judge books by their cover, but it’s different when it comes to strangers, especially at night with no one else around. In an interview with Scott Indrisek in the Believer (October 2006), she stated that didn’t believe in “danger,” but in the “narrow escape.” These people are your relatives, but you are not them and do not look like them. You have contacted them via the Internet, letter or phone and arranged to meet them for the first time at night, in a place where no one else is around, and take their photograph — a lot of trust has to go into that meeting.
There is something strangely and touchingly beautiful, eerie, odd and mysterious about the seventeen large color photographs of lone individuals — a middle-aged woman holds her dog, a man cradles a rifle, another man wears a white lab coat and a stethoscope — seen at night standing in the middle of nowhere, which is pretty much everywhere in America. (John Ashbery’s poem, “The One Thing That Can Save America” begins: “Is anything central?”) In the deepest sense, Nakadate recognizes that nothing is, especially with the rise of the Internet and social media.)
As I looked at the photographs, I found myself studying the barely visible landscape almost as closely as the individuals, trying to sort through the variety of clues. I felt as if I had — out of necessity — become a sleuth; that this kind of looking was integral to our everyday life. And that is what Nakadate’s photographs embody from edge to edge — a set of clues, which may be useful or, as they say in detective novels, a series of misdirections.
Despite the physical distance between the photographer and her subject, an odd intimacy permeates the photographs. In the frozen moment of the photograph, Nakadate and her subjects share a bond of vulnerability. This moment strikes me as very different from the ones we encounter in the portrait photographs of August Sander or Mike Disfarmer, two precedents that have been mentioned in connection with Nakadate’s Relatives.
The other difference is the racial make up of her subjects. Sander wanted to document a cross-section of German society. He divided his project into seven sections, which Sander believed recognized every member of society; The Artists, The Skilled Tradesmen, Women, Classes and Professions, The Farmer, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). Disfarmer, who set up his portrait studio in Heber Springs, Arkansas, captured a specific cross-section of a particular rural community at a moment in time.
Nakadate’s relatives live in such places as Kalispell, Montana; Portland, Oregon; Carolina Beach, North Carolina; Pikeville, Kentucky; Cleveland, Ohio; Akron, Ohio; San Diego, California. They do not resemble each other. One of her relatives is a young African American woman. They are young, old and middle-aged and seem to be living very different lives.
Nakadate’s subjects occupy the other end of the spectrum from the essentialist photographs of Sanders and Disfarmer and — in this — they break new ground. This is enhanced by the fact that she photographed them in less than ideal conditions, standing under the night sky. In doing so, Nakadate locates her subjects under what might be called infinity; they are being pulled toward chaos and the moment of the photograph has long ago slipped away.
Laurel Nakadate: Strangers and Relations continues at Leslie Tonkonow (535 West 22nd Street, sixth floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 29.
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