At 23, I sat on a beach with my brother, eight years older than me, and confessed to identify with women. Embedded in my confession was an indelible anxiety about what that meant—something I had always rejected. I don’t know why it’s the case, or where it came from but as early as I can remember I wanted to be a boy, rejecting the signifiers of femininity with a ruthless vehemence that vexed my mother to no end. (I remember, for instance, her asking with special timidity, whether I felt she was somehow too weak a role model for me; assuming, I suppose, that my fierce (and impossible) attempts at male-identification stemmed from a desire to be more like my father). Fortunately or unfortunately I didn’t have an answer, though I do appreciate the tenderness with which she broached the subject—what I seemed to indicate her own conflict between trying to encourage and support the child-ego in me while wrestling with her own gender expectations. At the time I think I was perplexed by her question and (probably) slightly annoyed. I expect I was certain my individuality had nothing to do with her.
While I’ve yet to unpack the perceptions of femininity in my family (both immediate and extended) I have considered the female alternatives in child cartoons: I would always prefer to be a smurf than I a smurfette; I would rather be Popeye or a Brutus than an Olive Oil. Bat Man (or Robin, for whom I had a particular affinity) were far more intriguing to me than the Betty Boops or Barbies; I desired an experience of peril and achievement that was not contingent on negotiating a gendered body. I wanted to conceive the surmountable danger so prevalent in boyish narratives,within which the female protagonists were generally rare (i.e. one female within a cast of many differentiated males) and symbolic: female characters indicated a feminine force—what generally always had to address, in some way, their physical properties (whether the weakness of Olive Oil, the prettiness of Smurfette, the sexiness of Cat Woman). And then I ended up on a beach talking to my brother about gender at an age when I should have been fully sorted out. He repeated a dating metaphor his friend used, where women were gazelles and men lions. My habit would have led me to laugh, but suddenly I identified not with the lion but with the gazelle. I don’t think either of us were equipped for the conversation at this time, but we did our best and thereafter I muddled through a new experience of the world. Of course there are probably countless women who enjoy the ritualized traditions of gender (these women always appear to me as idealized figments, perfectly manicured, elegant and slim with polite breasts and expensive taste) but I am not one of them. Furthermore I’m sure their meat-and-bones manifestations are more complex than I give credit in day dreams. Nevertheless I have begun to appreciate the way an albeit emotional response to banal images of half-naked woman wheat pasted on various surfaces of culture has challenged me to face and hopefully trouble the still and ever-present cultural representation of women, something I adeptly avoided when I didn’t identify with them. I want to think about what those images mean, what they signify and where I stand/am supposed to stand in relation to them.
Which is why I so deeply enjoyed Laurel Nakadate’s show, “Only the Lonely” at PS1. It closes this next Monday, on the 8th of August. I went to see the show about a month ago while visiting friends in New York. I had read about her work before hand; I had read about how she vies to be the center of attention to such an extent that she makes a parody of those attention-seeking impulse so easily exercised (and thus pervasive) in our times. I had read that her work platforms a much overlooked demographic—the middle-aged, single, shlubby, presumably lonely male, a figure marginalized in society and media alike. The punch of Nakadate’s photographic persona is entirely reliant on the context provided by her male counterparts. It is their gaze we end up muddling around in an attempt to study her form. I had read about how her work involved a kind of self-exploitation, where she enacted the pinup, or reenacted the dance steps of Brittany Speers’ Oops I did it again. To be honest, before going to the show, I braced myself. I thought, yes, this might make me faint in an hysterical swoon. After all, Knocked Up made me cry. I’m still terrified of the third book in 2666 (though I’m working up the courage, 300 pages of female murder sounds devastating) and I never saw Sex in the City because I felt sure I would leave the theater wanting to punch someone (the image of Kim Cattral riding a camel in the midst of our vexing Middle East presence seemed a dubious enough tip).
The last thing I expected when I walked into PS1 was to start laughing—that’s what happened, though. I started laughing. Nakadate does create an uncomfortable space, because she is directly facing and then recreating the subject of male desire, but accompanying that muscular subject-tackle is an attention to humor. She reenacts slap stick death scenes by herself in an American landscape, putting a plastic gun to her lips and then spewing fake blood. She bares her chest to an empty landscape. Pretends to hang herself, badly–these motions are shlocky and amusing for their poor execution. They feel badly scripted, like one enacting a fantasy. In another series, Trouble Ahead Trouble (2006) Behind, she photographs different pairs of underwear just before releasing them outside a train window. The underwear itself, while handsome and nicely framed, conjures our curious affection for lingerie and all its ornamentation. Removed from the body, it hangs like a flag of passing fancy. In her video Love Hotel, she parodies sexual acts without a partner, still clothed (albeit ridiculously in fetishistic sports socks and all pink cotton panties) we watch her body writhe to the point of absurdity before repositioning from an all-fours jiggle to a partially upright stance with her hands against the wall. In this second pose, again, she appears to be humped by a ghost. It’s comical because sex is comical. People look weird having sex outside the stylized lens of pornography and they look especially weird if they are alone, gyrating. She capitalizes on the signifiers of lust—those fetishized (and kind of creepy) knickers and bows so familiar in call-girl advertisements where 30 year-olds (you hope) dress like they’re 16. Part of what enables the humor (and probably its inextricable companion, discomfort) is her lack of judgement. She embodies and performs with unapologetic commitment, leaving her audience to question its gaze.
Listed in the materials of Oops I did it again (2000) is the infamous Hello Kitty Boom Box (what also and always seems to be mentioned when anyone talks or writes about this piece) and while its presence immediately lightens the mood, it is further softened by the movements of her companions who try with relative effectiveness to contribute to Nakadate’s choreography. After being asked for a phone number, she asks to go to the man’s house if he will let her take pictures. Upon arrival she sets up the boombox and the camera. She plays the Brittany Speers song and encourages the men to dance with her while she performs, verbatim, Speers’ dance moves. Her partners are endearingly funny, not in a “look at those losers” kind of way, but in an empathetic way. (Jesus, if I had to dance with someone to that song, especially if they seemed to know what they were doing, and especially if we were alone in my kitchen, I don’t know what I would do). For me, that empathy increased exponentially as I continued through the exhibit. I wasn’t just empathizing with the projected loneliness of these characters (which I’m sure played a part) I was also empathizing with Nakadate’s bravery, to create a relationship within a dynamic traditionally considered threatening to women at large (i.e., don’t talk to the weirdo, he might do something–probably he looks at weird porn in the sad house he never leaves, and yes, maybe he wants to stick a hot rod up your girl-butt). Nakadate engages these men, demanding something performative of them, while also asking they clarify their participation in her performance. One of my favorite pieces in the show, Lucky Tiger (2008), features a collection of self-portraits where she has posed in a traditional pinup style: she sits atop a horse, barefooted in a cowboy hat and panties, navel undressed in a short cropped t-shirt. In another she has her back to the audience, her head partially turned over her shoulder, looking coy in cowboy boots. The photos are covered in fingerprints, fingerprints left behind by men who have examined them with her (she had them cover their fingers in ink). Accompanying these photos is an audio track where you hear her companions reviewing the image, “This is a nice one here,” says a man. “Why?” Nakadate asks. Her companion responds, “You can see your diaphragm peeking out just there between your legs; that’s nice.” His voice is calm and reasoned: they are discussing the formal expectations required of such imagery. By documenting the conversation, Nakadate requires her companions to be both accountable to her, in the way he they assess her person as represented in the photograph, and accountable to an unknown public. And of course, what is most upsetting is to hear experience the reality of these evaluations–an extreme instance which, I would argue, takes place all the time everywhere to a lesser degree.
Consistently in her work, there is a back-and-forth dance of power. At first she appears exploited, then exploiting. In Lessons 1-10 (2001) Nakadate poses on a table, half dressed. A man sitting behind her looks up, concentratedly. He has a pencil in his hand and holds it over piece of paper. At first I imagined a young woman going to man’s house after seeing an ad on Craigslist for life drawing models. I imagined her arriving to this house and felt a shadow of lonely perversity, as I doubted the credentials of his life drawing appetite. Then, I recognized Nakadate as the author of the shot; she has facilitated and documented this scenario. Perhaps she is the one exploiting, using her body as a kind of red herring to distract and illustrate the man in the room. Even then, though, the man has agreed to be in the room which calls forth a shadow of loneliness once more. One minute she seems in total control, the next you realize she is all alone in a stranger’s house. One moment the men seem predatorial, the next devastatingly pathetic.
Add to this a last essential detail: I kept returning to an experience of mutual enjoyment between Nakadate and her subjects. This too facilitates humor, softening the brutal dynamics she exposes. She asks a man to lie down on a bed while she, as the eye of the camera, performs an excorcism. The bedding is sad, messy, unmade–the shelves around the bed are adhoc, containing disheveled books. Still, the man lying in this vignette is playful, repeating after her clunky, childish phrases to imaginary ghosts, “I do not want you in me. Stay away from me.” The element of play allows a real relationship, despite its center around subject of sexual tension. Here too, I was supremely aware of my position as a voyeur—someone not privy to the specific interior dynamics of the relationship, an element of mystery that contributes to the work’s success. “It’s all about self-consciousness, really, in both senses of the word—being self-aware and being ill at ease. You watch Nakadate—and you watch her watching herself, because she often indulges in the tic of breaking character and looking at the camera as if checking herself in a mirror. Or you watch someone watching Nakadate, and then you watch yourself watching someone watch her as she watches herself—and all those different viewpoints start to blur together. This mise-en-abyme might make you want to be more alert about understanding what’s going on, in the work and in yourself” (Barry Scwabsky, The Nation). We, the onlooker, can only judge based on our understanding of the signs as they are portrayed, the very signs which are being exhumed and challenged. Because she often works with the same subjects on different projects, we must assume experience is enjoyable for them, yet we cannot identify the precise nature of that enjoyment. It is reciprocally impossible to pin down the payoff for Nakadate’s investment. Obviously the project, as a whole, works because she is making a point. At the same time, she is a complicit and active participant in this point, appearing as potentially lonely as her subjects. It’s very probable she likes this form of attention—is that bad? Should it matter? Would it influence our aesthetic experience? What if she hated it? In an interview with Scott Indrisek she said, “In general, I wait to be approached. I want to be the one who’s hunted, I want to be the one who they take interest in—because if they’re not interested in me, they’re probably not going to be interested in being in a video. I also like the idea of turning the tables—the idea of them thinking that they’re in charge or that they’re in power and they’re asking me for something and then I turn it on them, where I’m the director and the world is really my world.”
What is difficult about this work is the way it engages the subject of girl-ness, not girls as a stage in life but as it is portrayed culturally through the lens of American Apparel and Brittany Spears. It’s a highly sexualized genre—something that remains taboo while being pointed, poked and exploited. Good Morning Sunshine (2009) further delves into the subject. Here, Nakadate is behind the camera, out of view; “‘We’—that is, the camera—enter a young teenage girl’s bedroom,” on three occasions. Each room belongs to a different girl. Nakadate coaxes them awake, gently. She asks them how they slept, and not-so-slowly tries to convince them to get undressed. “Let me see your feet,” she begins. “Can you take off your socks for me?” Peppering these requests with honey-dripped compliments, “You’re so pretty,” the young women seem uncomfortably complying. This project further informs Nakadate’s relationship to the camera, her understanding of its power and how to illustrate one extreme of its mechanics. Do we imagine Dov Charney to behave any differently? What is our responsibility as consumers in that equation?
Of course that question comes to me again and again. Having seen a number of movies this summer and noted the lack of female protagnists (here’s a pretty awesome conversation about The Smurfs/Super8), picked up on the on-going project of Lady Drawers, read about disheartening DC Comic conferences and, maybe above all else, read the curiously aggressive comment threads that follow those posts–it was a relief to feel submerged in a body of work that dealt directly with the gender binary. Here too, I feel it’s worth noting that Nakadate’s work is about a male/female world–distinctions that are becoming more and more porous as our expectations of gender and its performance grow more complex and conveluted. “The traditional Oedipal backstory is grainy at best; we are copies of copies of copies of copies of Oedipus’ children. Copies repeat. Copies degrade. Copies transform.” (Ken Corbett, from his book Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities).