Interview with Laurel Nakadate
Just a couple of weeks ago MoMA’s P.S.1. in Long Island City, Queens opened the solo exhibition Only the Lonely featuring the work of artist Laurel Nakadate. The show is comprised of the last ten years of the artist’s projects in video, photography, and feature-length film, including the very recently completed piece 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears.
Laurel Nakadate graduated from the MFA program in photography at Yale University in 2001. Since that time she has exhibited both nationally and internationally including everywhere from the armory show to the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, Mary Boone Gallery, the Getty Museum, Danziger Projects, The Grimm Museum in Berlin, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Her work is in the public collections of the MoMA, the Saatchi Collection, and Princeton University Art Museum to name a few. In 2009, Laurel’s first feature film, Stay the Same Never Change, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to be featured in New Directors/ New Films at The Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center. Her second feature film, The Wolf Knife, premiered at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival and was nominated for a 2011 Independent Spirit Award. Laurel is represented by Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects and currently lives and works in New York City.
Recently she was kind enough to sit down and talk about her work with me at her studio one freezing afternoon in Queens.
Sam Mirlesse: Let’s start with some early influences. You were born in Texas and raised in Iowa—did you grow up with a lot of exposure to the arts? Were your parents creative?
Laurel Nakadate: My dad teaches American literature at Iowa State University, so I grew up surrounded by the importance of stories and I think that is probably why I became an artist—because I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and I had to create all of my own fun, and telling stories was something my family really valued.
Mirlesse: So did you always knew what you “wanted to be when you grew up”? Or was artist just part of a longer list of ideas like becoming a veterinarian or a ballet dancer for example?
Nakadate: I always wanted to be some sort of person who worked with photography. So no. I remember looking at magazines—specifically National Geographic magazines and also old magazines found in my grandparents basement from like times past and lands far away. These magazines sort of destroyed me mentally and emotionally because I realized how amazing and huge the world is and how little I’d seen of it. So even though I clearly don’t want to be a National Geographic photographer something about seeing those images was really powerful.
Mirlesse: Could you speak a bit about self-portraiture as it relates to your work? How did you begin appearing in your own images?
Nakadate: I originally started because in undergrad I did all these pictures of girls at Wellesley and Smith colleges. It was a four-year really straightforward documentary about girls at these schools—but one of the questions that was always asked is “Where are you in all of this?”-- and so I think my reaction was “Well, I will make a body of work in which I am front and center, and totally visible.” And you know the natural progression of moving to grad school, and not knowing anyone, not having anyone to use as a model, not having a subject other than myself—was a very natural progression.
Mirlesse: Was it uncomfortable at first?
Nakadate: Yeah at first it was completely uncomfortable because I really didn’t wanna be in front of the camera. Even though growing I did a lot of theater and performance and dance and all of the sorts of things girls do while they are growing up it was different somehow to re-imagine myself as a character in my own video art.
Mirlesse: Do you feel like you are playing a different character every time that you make decisions about before you step in front of the camera or do you feel like that you are always playing yourself?
Nakadate: It’s sort of a hybrid between who I am and this character I’ve created to make the work, and that character can change depending on the environment or the performance. So sometimes that character is on this side of girlishness or sometimes that character is on that side of seriousness. It changes depending on the need just like I think for an actress the character would change depending on the role.
Mirlesse: What is the most memorable moment from all the projects you’ve done so far?
Nakadate: When I finished the crying performance --which ended on December 31st, 2010—an amazing moment for me was realizing that on the last day of the performance I was crying because the performance was ending. It was a grueling performance-- committing myself to crying everyday for 365 days. It was hard. It was not, you know, my first choice of things to do in 2010 but I felt once I started the project I had to finish it. There were times in September and October where I was really struggling every day to force myself to do it—but I still had to do it in the same way that maybe you don’t want to exercise every day but you need to. So it was this kind of emotional exercise everyday. One of my favorite moments was realizing at the end of the year how close I’d grown to depending on the consistency of that daily performance. As an artist to realize that this project had become larger than I imagined it could be and that it had brought me more comfort than I imagined it could bring me was incredibly satisfying… and that was something I could only learn through the process of doing the performance itself—I couldn’t have known it at the onset.
Mirlesse: How do you feel about crying now? Have you cried since? Is it a total catharsis that you can call on?
Nakadate: Oh my god, totally, I’ve cried all the time! It’s interesting though because now I think of crying in a different way—I used to think of crying as this… massive event. Since I’ve completed the performance of crying every day of the year 2010 it is less of a massive event and now just this fluid thing that occurs. I don’t think of crying anymore as a tsunami. I think of it more as a fact. Its part of living.
Mirlesse: Like breathing or brushing your teeth?
Nakadate: Like breathing or running or brushing your teeth or crying or taking the subway. It just sits in a very different place for me now. As a performer, or a visual artist, or a visual performance artist or whatever I am it was just so satisfying to have the work teach me something.
Mirlesse: Did you have any particular method to make yourself cry? Did it always change from day to day?
Nakadate: It always changed. Some days it was like “think of a childhood pet” and others it was like “think of a really sad pop song” and some days it was like “open a newspaper and you don’t have to read more than a couple headlines before you can just come unglued.” There were absolutely days where it was just for personal reasons but you can’t depend on those…
Mirlesse: I suppose it’s a good thing we can’t depend on the fact that every day for personal reasons whether we will like it or not we will find ourselves crying—
Nakadate: Right, but I think if people are being honest a large number of days each year you could find yourself crying for personal reasons. You know, that was the original reason why I started the project—I was looking on Facebook and on other websites and I was seeing how everyone fakes happiness all of them time. I mean, is it really true that all 3,000 of my Facebook friends are happy every day? ‘Cause according to their pictures they are! I just thought in direct retaliation against the concept that we should fake our happiness everyday to present the right façade perhaps I’ll deliberately turn the other way and take part in sadness each day and see where that gets me.
One more thing I’d like to add is that I think out of this performance people have begun talking to me about sadness in ways that they never felt free to talk to me before, and so it becomes interesting for me that people are talking about sadness now—it’s interesting when art can start a conversation about a taboo topic.
Laurel Nakadate, Still from The Wolf Knife, 2010
Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
Mirlesse: One of the things that particularly piqued my interest in going through your current show at PS1 was the mention of what was phrased as "moments of drama with strangers" ---I’d like to ask you what that means to you and/or if you can further describe it?
Nakadate: I think anything can happen in a room between two people. I’ve always found it incredibly fascinating—this idea that two people can walk into a room and create a whole world. I think that brings me hope on some level and excites me. It was definitely the driving force for me visually in creating the environment for the early videos. Anything can happen in a room with two people and that’s deeply interesting.
Mirlesse: What about the idea also discussed in the show about creating “visual truth and narrative fiction”?
Nakadate: I find the idea of hybrid worlds really interesting-- the idea that we live in this one world with say these keys [Laurel grabs her housekeys] and this phone [she points at my phone], but we could walk into it and it becomes a set—like suddenly "these keys were stolen from the deli" and "suddenly this phone is owned by your ex-boyfriend."
Mirlesse: So when you would walk into one of these strange guys’ houses or apartments in New Haven for one of your early projects you would think of it as your set and instantaneously create what the narrative would be for that afternoon or evening?
Nakadate: Yeah. And I don’t think it’s that different from say what a documentary photographer does. Documentary photographers are constantly walking into places and thinking “Okay, this is my set, I’m going to portray it this way, I’m going to tell this story based on my reading of the set.” So I don’t think it was such an innovative way of working I just think it was interesting that I was doing it on video instead of shooting straight photos.
Mirlesse: Can you talk about the theme of “exorcisms” in your work? How do you define that very loaded word?
Nakadate: Originally the idea came to me from childhood slumber parties. When you’re a kid you play the Ouija board or you do these things that are exciting because they seem scary. Historically I’ve used childhood activities or games and placed them into the worlds that I create on video. The idea of an exorcism for me was about playing pretend, making believe, but flirting with danger. So it was the mix of girlishness and adult danger that was of interest to me. Also exorcisms at their core seem silly and dramatic-- so there was something really interesting about exploring the space between melodrama, hope, and total failure in the end because you obviously can’t perform a real exorcism (I don’t think). For me it was never about doing something like that correctly, it was about doing something that was futile. I mean I went out to the desert to dance for Britney Spears—did I actually believe I could exorcise her? I didn’t believe it would hurt to try. The exorcism with the man at his apartment – I mean, he said he felt better at the end so maybe it worked? Who are we to say otherwise?
Mirlesse: Did you have any specific hangout spots in New Haven while you were in graduate school?
Nakadate: I actually really liked the Home Depot parking lot. I remember going once and meeting a lot of strangers there. Where else? I just remember that Home Depot parking lot being really amazing. I just loved the idea that there were so many parking spots and there was always plenty of room. It was just great.
Mirlesse: What was the best pickup line you ever got in New Haven?
Nakadate: Oh man! Well, there was actually a really good one in the Home Depot parking lot in fact, when this guy gave me his number and said “Give me a call, let’s hang out, and if my mom picks up the phone just tell her you met me at the Home Depot.” It’s not really a pickup, but it’s a great line!
Laurel Nakadate, photo by: Sabine Mirlesse
Mirlesse: Could you talk a little bit about the footage of you standing in front of the Twin Towers being destroyed in a girl scout uniform on 9/11? I know that piece, “Greater New York”, has already received a lot of attention—I’m interested in knowing more about your impulse to make the work in that moment and your thought process—
Nakadate: Well, first of all nobody knew September 11th was September 11th until after the fact of course—the only thing we knew was that something terrible was happening. At the time I was making a series videos where I was investigating my relationship to small and personal rituals and the ways that they met the greater world -- for example I shot my having a small personal moment while fireworks went off behind me, etc. I was using this invented girl scout character to navigate through these different experiences. The morning of 9/11 I woke up and had planned on shooting that day anyway and I already had the uniform on when the events of September 11th started happening and so I decided I would just shoot what was happening in the world. There was no pre-conceived idea of what I was creating. I was an artist who planned on working that day and that was what happening in the world around me.
Mirlesse: Were there people on the roof with you watching you do this?
Nakadate: There were. But you know, everyone was in a haze though. There were people walking down the street with blood dripping off of their foreheads and on their shirts.
I realized that morning something terrifying was happening and the one thing that would allow me not to feel absolutely terrified was to make a video. I think a lot of artists probably had the same impulse. I know there were other photographs and videos made that morning. You know ultimately creating that video that has that footage in it was cathartic for me because it allowed me to process the day’s events in some way. I see that video as a love letter to New York because really I look back at the events now and think “my God, the terror” but at the time it wasn’t about judgment or catharsis it was about making sense of the world falling down around me.
Mirlesse: So your project that took you around the US and Canada by Amtrak—what was the most memorable place you encountered on that trip?
Nakadate: One of the first stops was New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. I remember staying in these little hotels near where E.J. Bellocq had photographed prostitutes and making some self-portraits and videos and thinking how history never stops surprising or hurting us. There was so much history in the French quarter and the rest of the city and then Katrina happened and people came and left and people were displaced and horrible things happened—such trauma and pain— all I kept thinking was “history will not stop hurting us, history will not stop hurting us.” I don’t even know why I went down at the time. I probably shouldn’t have gone down so soon after Katrina. I remember feeling there is so much heaviness here in this space and there is so much pain but how amazing is it to try to be a part of the world despite that… how important is it to try to take part in the world when things will keep happening and keep complicating our existence and our happiness but how amazing is it to try to take part in any of this.
Mirlesse: Do you feel as though you feed off of that heavy energy in terms of motivating you to make your artwork?
Nakadate: Well, I think my generation has had a lot of stuff happen, not to say that every generation hasn’t but September 11th happened right after I finished grad school and then not even five years later Katrina happened. I don’t know if I feed off of that kind of thing but what I do feel is compassion for people who experience hardships and horrible events. I think to not acknowledge the pain that certain people experience is to not being doing our job as human beings. So it’s not necessarily that I feed off of horrible events its that I respond to events when I feel that people are experiencing something huge. I think that that is the job of human beings, you know? We should be moved by these events.
Mirlesse: The world hasn’t gotten any less emotional. Making work about it isn’t trendy at the moment for some reason I don’t think I will ever quite understand. It is often judged as a subject that is too romantic or sentimental and something that we’ve seen too much work made about in the past and somehow that makes it less valid or less interesting-
Nakadate: The world is just as emotional as it has always been meaning very f*cking emotional. Everything is romantic and everything is sentimental and everything is heartbreaking. And I certainly didn’t mean to say that the Bellocq work and the events of Katrina were equals just to clarify because I don’t know if I worded that perfectly but what I meant to say is that I was drawn down to New Orleans by the Bellocq and what I ended up experiencing was the days post-Katrina—and the thing that brought me down there ended up being the less interesting thing, just as all the cities that I went to I thought I was going for a certain reason and then of course ended up finding other more important things there.
But how can people say we can’t make work about emotional states or about the fact of loss? Its absolutely not encouraged and in some ways looked down upon—like “oh, emotional art.” But we’re human beings! I have a heart! I don’t know how to make art that doesn’t in some way address the fact of having a heart.
Laurel Nakadate, photo by: Sabine Mirlesse
Mirlesse: What is your favorite piece of music at the moment? I ask this because soundtracks, specifically pop songs, play such an integral role in many of your video pieces.
Nakadate: Looking back now to the earlier work I chose pop songs that meant a lot to me as a child or in the moment that I made the video, so they sort of reference being part of culture through music. But I will say that with the crying performance the one song that would always make me cry is Jolie Holland’s Mexican Blue —it was the one song I knew I could turn on and it would immediately start tears. She also does this song called The Future which is pretty incredible.
Mirlesse: Could you tell me a little bit about your transition into making feature films and what you will be working on next?
Nakadate: The new feature film is going to be about adults—so that is what will separate it from the other ones. It is also a film that will require a significantly larger budget than the first two and its also going to require trained actors. So that is a huge departure for me. I’m still working on the screenplay.
Mirlesse: When you say “trained actors” do you mean also more known or perhaps famous actors?
Nakadate: Not necessarily famous people but actors who can draw on skills that they have developed as professional performers.
Mirlesse: But we’re not talking Hollywood or…?
Nakadate: We’re talking whoever is right for the role. But I have a feeling it is going to be a different sort of casting from the first two. So that is a huge departure and also a great challenge and I’m very excited for that challenge. I have to finish the screenplay but I’ve written it so it should take part in a certain area of the US but depending on a million things it could be moved—you just never really know until you start your production…
Mirlesse: Will you continue to make your other projects while you work on the feature film?
Nakadate: Yes. I’m currently working on the new screenplay and some new visual art pieces. So absolutely I will continue to do everything.
Mirlesse: Okay, last question: How do you feel when you go back to Iowa now that you’ve made New York your home?
Nakadate: It feels amazing. I love the Midwest. I love where I grew up. I mean I couldn’t wait to explore other places when I was growing up but I think like a lot of Midwesterners I feel the Midwest is home and when I’m there I feel that it is this familiar safe space.
Mirlesse: Would you ever live there again? Move back?
Nakadate: I would definitely consider spending time there again but because I’ve built my adult life in New York City I can’t imagine a greater city to live in.
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