Photo by Monica May
“A week before grad school started, I was standing in the parking lot at Home Depot thinking ‘What am I going to document?’” says video artist Laurel Nakadate. “And this guy, probably 50, gave me his number and was like ‘Call me. And if my mom picks up, tell her you met me at Home Depot.’ I thought that was fascinating.”
Images courtesy of Laurel Nakadate
This pick-up attempt launched Laurel, already an accomplished photographer, into making a series of video art pieces that would put her on the art world map by way of New Haven, New York, and a half-dozen Amtrak trains that would take her around the country. In most of the videos she is interacting with men—lonely, single, older men, in the heartlands and the cities—and a quick scan of her footage reveals her, portraying either a girl or a woman, doing things you can’t help but think she oughtn’t do: getting into a car with a strange man, posing in her underwear for a creepy artist, holding a gun to a kneeling man’s head as he begs for his life. In other shots she lays dead on a couch in a godforsaken bachelor pad, or sprawled and bleeding across a supermarket children’s ride, and in one particularly striking image, eyes-open and chin-down on a beach, her mouth filled with sand, a body that has washed up on the shore.
“I’m very careful about having my stuff up on the internet,” says Laurel, and it’s easy to see why; viewed only in part and absent of context, the content of her videos would be easy to misunderstand. It is only after looking closer that we can understand why a young, single woman armed with nothing but a camera would interact with strange men at a truck stop, or accept invitations into their homes, or play-act everything from confessionals to suicides to birthday parties to murders with them.
What is she doing?
It’s simple, really. Laurel Nakadate is trying to see where she fits in.
When you’re standing alone in a room full of strangers at a social event and you’re uncomfortable, you need something to do—light a cigarette, dash off a text, get in line at the bar. Something to give you purpose.
It’s 1999 and an uncomfortable, nineteen-year-old Laurel Nakadate isn’t back home in small-town Iowa anymore; she’s holding up the wall at a Wellesley party outside of Boston, surrounded by girls she doesn’t know. She needs something to do, and with no cell phone to check for messages, she pulls out a used 35mm Nikon that’s legally the only thing in the room old enough to drink alcohol. Laurel’s uncomfortable with the surroundings but comfortable with the camera. She starts taking pictures.
Four years’ worth of those pictures became Girls’ School, a photo project that was eventually selected for the book 25 Under 25: Up and Coming American Photographers. Before that first party at Wellesley, “I had images in my head of good girls studying, talking politely of politics over dinner, and falling asleep in their footed pajamas,” Laurel writes in the book.
“Maybe it was naïve of me,” Laurel tells me in person, “but I was really shocked to learn that at this all-girls school—that produces leaders and amazing women we all admire—I was surprised to learn that these girls were throwing these huge, blowout parties. So I started taking pictures at their parties and in their dormitories and document the story of these girls from their freshman year of college until they graduated.” The photos that emerged are calm, unflinching, and unsensationally honest, something like a more tasteful, erudite version of Girls Gone Wild. A dolled-up, cigarette-smoking underclassman with hair done-up like a ’20s flapper blows a perfect smoke-ring across her bed, with a detached and icy expression on her face. A girl on a dance floor absent of leering boys writhes through a move in a silver bikini, as if test-driving a new body. A girl in a presumably post-party state lays sprawled across her dorm bed while a life-size, cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton stands watch, her onlooking eyes covered by a hat.
Unlike most photographs taken during college kicks, none of Laurel’s shots are damning, incriminating, or scatological. “These girls were 18, 19, and exploring the ways they wanted to express themselves in public,” Laurel explains. “The pictures [aren’t] a judgment, but more of an observation or a night with them. And sometimes it’s beautiful to see, say, someone passed out on the ground.”
During these parties Laurel herself was never passed out on the ground; the closest she’d come was her car. “I would drive out to northern Massachussetts or Mount Holyoke to take pictures of these parties, sleep in my car, drive back on the turnpike, and go to school on Monday morning first thing to print the pictures,” she remembers. Nor was she a student at Wellesley; Laurel was enrolled at the nearby Museum School at Tufts University, attending for four years. After graduating and receiving a BFA in studio arts, she applied and got into Yale University’s Graduate School of Arts & Science. “Um, I applied to graduate school because I didn’t want to be a part of the real world,” Laurel laughs.
“Most of us just talk it out with our friends or make things, but these men who live alone and don’t have families, they don’t have ways to resolve the things.”
“When I moved from Boston to New Haven, I was really tired of documenting [the girl parties;] it was a natural time to end it because we all graduated.” Then she began looking for her next project, but as it turned out, the project was coming up to her—several times a day. “All girls have this experience: when you’re just walking down the street, guys give you numbers, I’m sure my friends could fill a bucket. It’s just a fact of walking down the street.” Case in point was her Home Depot encounter. “And I wondered, what would happen if I engaged these guys? Instead of ignoring them or laughing it off—what if I started investigating them and seeing the ways we do or don’t fit together?”
That investigation led her into the apartments of mostly older bachelors who chatted her up in the street; she’d agree to be their (untouched) company, as long as she could shoot them. She shot footage of roughly a dozen guys in New Haven and continued the practice after completing school and moving to New York City, where there is no shortage of bachelors inviting you to spend time with them.
“In some ways it was really different from the girls work,” Laurel continues, “but in some ways it wasn’t because I was still investigating the relationships between people, the way that they surprise us, and if my life did or didn’t fit with a stranger’s. And maybe that’s just a fact of photography, that we’re always investigating and trying to see how we do or don’t fit in.”
So what would actually happen when the cameras started rolling? Laurel tried a variety of things, all in the realm of a kind of play-acting. In one sequence she pretends it’s her birthday, and asks several men (individually, in separate videos) to help her celebrate. There is a cake, candles are lit. (I want to point out here that these are all lonely, older men, not necessarily well-socialized or popular human beings, living in the types of poorly-lit and underdecorated apartments you’d expect of that demographic. Like Laurel, I don’t mean that as a judgment, but just to set a context for what these videos look like.) As the men light the candles and sing “Happy Birthday” to her, they seem as if they are trying so hard, they really, really want her to be enjoying herself at her lonely “party.”
One of them botches the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” and I find myself wondering, is it possible for someone to be so ill-socialized that they’ve not had a chance to sing this song often, or never heard it sung for them, and so the lyrics are not easily recallable for them? The scene is heartbreaking. But whether it’s heartbreaking for the man, the girl Laurel is portraying in this particular video, or the viewer, is not so easy to discern. I’m left with a feeling that I’ve just witnessed, in a staged event between a man and a woman, a profound honesty I’m hard-pressed to name.
Sometimes, true honesty in a relationship comes when one of the parties is not even there. In Love Hotel and Other Stories, Laurel videotapes herself having sex with her boyfriend in a number of Tokyo’s love hotels. Well, not really—her boyfriend is not actually in the videos, or even in Japan; the two of them planned the trip together, but broke up before it could be realized. Laurel then decided to go by herself, and while her boyfriend couldn’t keep her company, her camera could. The sex is all simulated.
Traveling further along the lines of honesty and into disturbing territory is A Message to Pretty, which Laurel shot in various men’s homes, some while traveling cross-country on Amtrak. She asks the men—again, lonely, older bachelors—to pretend they are speaking to an ex with whom things ended badly and to say anything they want. The vicious, vitriolic diatribes that follow are positively frightening: threats leveled through graphic descriptions of hideously violent acts, cursing and name calling, raw, seething anger that is particularly male. But as disturbing as each man’s diatribe is to hear, the subtext of each is the same: You hurt me. I loved you and you hurt me, and I will say any vicious, shocking thing I can to hurt you.
I ask Laurel how she thinks people manage to get this way, what happens to people that causes them to develop this tremendous reservoir of pain and anger. “I think...they’re born,” she says, ruefully. “I think that we’re born with love, we get our hearts broken, and we have things to say about it. Everybody has gone through that cycle of feelings,” she says. “Most of us just talk it out with our friends or make things, but these men who live alone and don’t have families, they don’t have ways to resolve these things. And I think that anybody who has ever had their heart broken has been in a place where they’ve just wanted to open fire on love.”
So why tap the reservoir, why put such pain up on the screen for all to see? “I think one misunderstanding in my work is that I’m judging these men. I truly want to have an experience with these men, and if out of that, the audience finds some judgment of their own, then so be it. I want it to be about a human experience, even if it fails.
“I have this soft spot for men who live alone, for men who don’t have families or children to go home to,” she continues. “Even as a little girl, I was really obsessed with the idea of people who didn’t have a family because when you’re little, that’s everything. You have your mom and dad. But what about the people who don’t have anyone?”
This surprising empathy for a little-seen subject would eventually drive Laurel beyond making 20-minute shorts. Her latest project is a feature-length film which was inspired by, of all things, a polar bear. “I was really affected by this scene in the Planet Earth BBC documentary that came out last year. It’s a scene of a polar bear swimming in the ocean, and it’s clear to the audience that he’s not going to make it,” Laurel explains. “And it really affected me in the way that seeing these single men who had no one to go home to really affected me, and I started drawing lines between the idea of a drowning bear and the idea of a man without a family. The feeling, for me, was the same sort of heartbreak. I started writing this scene about this father and daughter watching this polar bear about to drown. So, the movie [developed] from there, and it’s a series of vignettes about people and their daily activities, the heartbreak in things that they see as they live, and the quirky ways we cope.”
The film, titled Stay the Same, Never Change was funded by the Grand Arts gallery in Kansas City, where it was shot and will also premiere (at press time the scheduled date was January 31, 2008). And though Laurel wrote and shot it, she won’t be in this one. “I was sick of being in my work, so I decided I’d make a movie where I didn’t have to be in it,” she says. “So I ended up just casting strangers, amateur actors, and normal people in Kansas City.
“It’s a strange little movie about the ways the world can disappoint or enthrall us, and the things we do to be okay,” Laurel finishes. And Laurel Nakadate knows, perhaps better than most, the things people need to do to be okay; she’s ventured into territory most people wouldn’t dare, and come back with footage.
While I’ve not yet seen the movie, I’ve seen all of her work, which people have asked me about. I’ve found it difficult to succinctly describe what she’s done in her pieces. But if I had to boil it down to a sentence, I’d say she stared loneliness and social discomfort in the face, and then she shot them.