By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
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By Jessica Dawson
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For a young artist whose past works include videos of herself dancing in her underwear with middle-aged men who have picked her up in parking lots, Laurel Nakadate's current exhibition, "Strangers and Relations," is uncharacteristically un-polarizing.
Consisting of 20 large-scale color portraits of friends of friends and distant maternal relatives whom Nakadate found by matching her DNA with others on genetic discovery websites like 23andMe, the show attempts to map a portrait not only of the artist herself, but also of America in 2013. "I shot hundreds of portraits of these strangers, these descendants of American history," she wrote to the Village Voice. "Each one of them is the result of a million little chances, a million plot twists that allowed them to end up here, standing before the camera."
This particular plot revolves around Nakadate, who over the course of two years traveled 37,000 miles in 31 states to photograph hundreds of people. All but three of the subjects in the exhibition are connected to her maternal bloodline in the past 300 years. Nakadate—whose father is Japanese—claims that in the process of meeting her distant cousins, she discovered that she was related to descendants of slaves, Mayflower pilgrims, and the colonial feminist Anne Hutchinson, whose own immediate family was massacred by a native tribe in what is now Westchester County. It would be misleading to say that the work forms a portrait of modern America. Nakadate's subjects might have descended from the original settlers, but with a few exceptions—the arrestingly pretty black girl in Akron, Ohio #1 (2013)—they are all white, attractive, and relatively fit. Missing are the first-generation immigrants, the handicapped, and this country's morbidly obese.
The images themselves are gorgeously composed. Shot at night, against landscapes that betray no specific place, they are illuminated only by ambient light and the ray of a single flashlight. "When we are lost in the dark, we use flashlights to find each other," Nakadate says of the lighting. The effect is unsettling—you feel as though you are witnessing each person in the moment before they are beamed up to the UFO hovering just above the frame.
Subjects were allowed to choose what they wore—by doing so, they reveal their personalities. In Coleman, Alabama #1 (2013), a young redneck with a matching red beard clutches a hunting rifle across his body, which he has clad in overalls and camouflage. An aging blonde woman in West Palm Beach, Florida #1 (2013) wears a T-shirt with a unicorn decal, and is surrounded by miniature Shetland ponies. A doctor with a handlebar moustache, a stethoscope, and a white jacket grins like he's posing for a business card in Portland, Oregon #1 (2012). In Carolina Beach, North Carolina #1 (2013), a buxom young woman in a white dress and black fuck-me boots turns her eyes upward, angelically; behind her, the moon rises over the black sea.
The urge, while walking around the exhibition, is to draw physical comparisons to Nakadate, who is herself quite striking, with pillowy lips and a Maxim girl physique. Ultimately, none of the subjects really resemble this distant relation of theirs—but they do draw you in. Is the terrier that the stylish older lady is holding in St. Louis, Missouri #1 (2013) wearing an LGBT pride rainbow tag on its collar? And what did the man in the Ralph Lauren Polo terrycloth bathrobe and cowboy boots in Tyler, Texas #2 (2013) say when he first laid eyes on Nakadate? ("Well I'll be damned"?) In each photograph, there's a story waiting to be invented.
Nakadate uses herself as a starting point to capture the universal, a quest that, ultimately, is supremely self-centered. Still, there's something both endearing and relatable about the project. If there were a Facebook group devoted to your bloodline, wouldn't you spend some time clicking through the images?