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‘Say You Love Me’ Challenges Depiction of Desire

By Ola Topczewska, Contributing Writer

Sexual predation. Innocence. Power. These are some of the themes explored by provocative photographer and video artist Laurel Nakadate in a new exhibition that opened at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts last Thursday. The exhibit, entitled “Laurel Nakadate: Say You Love Me,” is composed of short videos showing young women and the artist herself in unsettling sexualized situations with older, middle-aged men.

Nakadate has been creating art since the 1990s, but this is the first time her work has appeared at the Harvard Art Museums. She spoke on an opening panel last Thursday alongside Professor of the Humanities Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Visual and Environmental Studies visiting professor Deborah Bright, and the Director of the Carpenter Center, David Rodowick.

At the opening show, Nakadate gave a lecture about her development an artist, starting with a documentary photography series about the secret world of women’s colleges she completed as an undergraduate at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, a partnership between Boston and Tufts University. “I’m a little nervous to even be showing this to you,” said Nakadate as she flipped though slides of women from Wellesley College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College at parties wearing revealing outfits. Nakadate said that the inspiration for this work came in part from the changing cultural standards during her childhood, and pioneering female photographers like Diane Arbus. “I came of age at a time when women were using their bodies to do extraordinary things. [The photography series] is about that generation: young feminists who are owning their own bodies.”

Another of Nakadate’s early projects was a performance piece called “Lucky Tiger” in which she took pinup self-portraits that emulated the style of suggestive photography that became popular during the 1940s. After she developed her photographs, she asked unknown men to handle the prints with ink on their hands to create a record of the project. “I consider a lot of my work performance work,” she said.

Another one of Nakadate’s performances was inspired by what she saw as the false happiness that people present on online networking sites. Nakadate decided to cry every day in 2010—and document it in 365 photographs. “I was trying to talk about how, through social networking, we’re giving away more than we should. People have complicated lives that include ups and downs. It’s more than happy status updates,” she said.

Currently, Nakadate is working on a portraiture project titled “Star Portraits,” for which she photographs strangers in remote locations at night. “Her work elicits strong reactions, both positive and negative,” said curator Michelle Lamunière, who organized “Say You Love Me.”

Now on display through December 22, “Say You Love Me” includes eight short videos featuring Nakadate alongside amateur actors. In “Lessons 1-10”, Nakadate, dressed in lingerie, reclines on a table while a man sketches her portrait. In “Happy Birthday” she poses as a Lolita figure at a birthday party with an older man. In “Beg for Your Life,” a man is held at gunpoint in the incongruous setting of a living room. Rodowick said, “The use of [familiar] locations and architecture in [Nakadate’s short films] are very meaningful. These are exteriors and interiors you see across the country, but at the same time they’re very unique … because they have been carefully crafted by the people who live there.” The film “Good Morning Sunshine”—among the more controversial works—includes narration by Nakadate as she plays the role of a sexual predator. “I really valued that the power could go back and forth. At one moment you fear for the girl and at the next you fear for the man. For me the artist’s job is to ask questions and then answer them,” said Nakadate. Speaking of the men in her videos, she said “a lot of [them] said they’d tried to have lives with someone but found it ultimately easier to live alone.”

When Rodowick pointed out that “these [men] are precisely the profile of the man children are supposed to be afraid of—misfits,” Nakadate was quick to respond, “When all they’ve done wrong is not marry and have children. You wouldn’t say the same thing about a woman who didn’t have children. My work asks the audience to challenge what they think about these men.”

She went on to say, “Whether we get married and have children or not, we are all that guy. The idea that if you get married you are safe [is] all crap. The bottom line is we ... can all be alone.”

Nakadate’s video work, namely her feature films “The Wolf Knife” (2010) and “Stay The Same Never Change” (2009), are filmed with amateur actors. The films explore lost innocence in young women. According to Rodowick, the work concerns “something I think is rare to see: young women being put in situations where desire is concerned, where they feel empowered and active but also extremely fragile.”Lambert-Beatty notes one of the reasons why the films are so engrossing: “everybody is constantly self-constructing and performing.”

Nakadate recognizes that her work is controversial, but she does not see that as a downside. “Of course there’s been criticism ... The process of making [work] is the most important thing. I think it’s valuable when art allows argument and wrestling—it’s a good thing both for [art] students and for people who love art.” She added, “It’s an honor that I’ve been at the center of so many arguments. It means [my art] is relevant.”

Lamunière says there is more to the works in “Say You Love Me” than first meets the eye.  “The viewer’s initial impression is that Nakadate dresses and acts provocatively to manipulate her fellow actors, [but] if viewers spend some time with the videos, I think they will see that the artist is not simply exploiting sexual desire, but rather exploring the complicated emotions associated with feelings of longing.”

Nakadate put herself in many uncomfortable situations when making the films, but she concluded, “I think a lot of really important work is terrifying to make ... when things get scary or challenge you, it means you’re onto something.”

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