Laurel Nakadate thrives off of meeting strangers. Old, lonely, creepy and sexually repressed men fascinate her, to the point of making them the subject of her videos. She’s had these men beg for their lives, perform exorcisms, sing happy birthday or pretend to have a telephone conversation, all while in the same room with her. The eight video installation Laurel Nakadate: Say You Love Me at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, is bound to make you feel dirty and in need of a shower (at least, the first time you see the exhibition, not so much the second or third time).
Ms. Nakadate makes exceedingly difficult work that explores and pushes the boundaries of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and vulnerability. The grittiness and raw video quality in her work adds to the discomfort that perhaps many people feel, when confronted with the creepy and awkward situations Nakadate places herself in.
In “Good Morning Sunshine,” Ms. Nakadate casts three women who play the role of teenagers and coerces each one into taking their clothes off. Nakadate shows us that a little pressure and sweet talking goes a long way. “Stand up and let me look at you…you know you’re the prettiest girl right? Take your shirt off…” she says in a silky smooth, alluring voice. “You know you’re so pretty right? Let’s see your panties…” We squirm and cringe as we watch each woman succumb to the pressure. It is as if we’re about to watch a casting couch video.
With Laurel Nakadate, we hold our breath anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. We expect something naughty to happen following a situation where some sort of sexual tension is explicit or implied. At times, Nakadate leads us into thinking that what we’re about to see are clips of some sort of fetish sex tape. But it isn’t, which allows for a more thrilling voyeuristic experience.
Nakadate is always in control of the situation, but I think she does not always come across as being genuinely interested in her subjects. There are times, particularly in the video Beg for Your Life, 2006 (not the video still shown above, but another segment within that same video) where Nakadate’s body language is that of a person thinking “I’m taking advantage of this old, creepy, emotionally unstable guy and he doesn’t even know what he’s in for.” These men are lonely and they need to be loved. Perhaps they see these performances as a means of being loved, but who knows? Regardless of Nakadate’s true intentions, her work is thought provoking and intense.
Her videos are compelling in part thanks to a great soundtrack that includes songs like ‘Devils and Dust” by Bruce Springsteen, “You Were Always on My Mind” by Elvis Presley, “All I Have to Do is Dream” by Roy Orbinson and Neil Diamond’s “I am,” I said” among many others. These songs further underscore the loneliness, vulnerability and hope that present themselves as recurring themes in Nakadate’s work. Her videos may be uncomfortable to watch for some, but they’re also touching, empathetic and funny. These qualities make all the squirming all worth it.