Laurel Nakadate: Strangers and Relations

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.

West Palm Beach, Florida #1 (2013)
© Laurel Nakadate/Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
West Palm Beach, Florida #1 (2013)

Location Info


Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

535 W. 22nd St.
New York, NY 10001

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Chelsea


Laurel Nakadate: "Strangers and Relations"
Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
535 West 22nd Street, sixth floor
Through June 29

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?

My Voice Nation Help

bravo, dodgeiam. i was going to point out many of the same errors but you have done it before me and with perhaps even more eloquence. i love and respect laurel nakadate's work and am excited that she has a new show up. like most art it should be experienced in person but that does not seem to be the case here, which is a real shame and the critic, not the artist, is the one who appears to be a real sham (notice my clever play on words). keep up the good work, ms. nakadate.


Part Two:

Anybody who bothered to look at these photos for more than a minute or two would recognize that this is sheer bunk. For example, there are three subjects of African-American descent in the show, and while I'm impressed with how generously Ms. Walsh finds the subjects all attractive, there are a couple whose fitness would be much in question by any fitness expert. Morbidly obese is a hard thing to say about a person in a portrait (probably no scales at the photo shoots, right?), but I'm betting even as a middle-aged guy, I could outrun a bunch of them. The fellow with the wall-eye didn't come in for comment (that would require looking at him carefully), or the transgender lady (America's oldest transgender lady, I have heard), or the guy who weighs around 350 or 400. These subjects really mess with the thesis, so apparently they had to get left out of the argument. Either that or the author just didn't bother to look at the show OR any of the reproductions available online, like even the reproduction in her own article! Walsh, in this passage, sounds an awful lot like Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, debating Elizabeth Warren: "And AS YOU CAN SEE SHE IS NO INDIAN!" This bean-counting (or one-drop racism: anyone in the show with a drop of European ancestry is counted as white) in a show of photographs may establish identity-politics cred but, actually, as the artist is already Asian-American, it's not like she has an obligation to perform that function. Maybe it's the fact that a bunch of overweight white folks, a transgender woman, three African-Americans, a spooky little girl from Kentucky, and two babies, are all related to a person of Asian-American descent is what’s interesting. Is it somehow threatening that an Asian-American artist might, for just a second, not make work that is reductively about identity politics?

Some more errors? In the next graph, the woman with the not-Shetland ponies (actually miniature horses and a donkey, and isn't "miniature Shetland ponies" redundant?) is actually wearing a shirt that says "May the HORSE be with you," which is kind of adorable, and she also is afflicted with a certain tonsorial difficulty, which, and I’m going to risk being impolite, is not exactly consistent with the “attractive, fit” charge leveled by Ms. Walsh above, and that she would have seen if she asked the VOICE art department what image they were going to use in her piece. And then there's this: "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." Now, you know and I know that the phrase is actually "fuck-me pumps," and that "fuck-me pumps" have stiletto heels on them, and that this is therefore a dim-witted phrase. I think what Ms. Walsh means is that the young woman in question is merely wearing black boots. We used to call them “shit-kickers,” actually. There's nothing "fuck-me-ish" about them. It's Walsh who imputes the sexiness to this image, which is about as virginal and religious as an image could be, and Walsh does this imputing, because it's she who sells the corrosive women-hating line of reasoning in this exchange. Nakadate seems to love the girl in this image, makes her look radiant and perfect. Sometimes, you know, the thing you hate, you find everywhere around you--narcissism, sexual provocation—and this says more about you, writing the piece, than about the putative subject under discussion.

You get a bit more of this wide-of-the-mark stupidity in the next graph with the section about Nakadate herself: "who is herself quite striking, with pillowy lips and a Maxim girl physique." I have only stood in the room with the artist on a couple of occasions, but I think that "Maxim girl" probably best refers to, uh, Pam Anderson or Sofia Vergara, or someone like that. Moreover, Nakadate has expunged herself from this show, so this topic is, uh, totally irrelevant, and in remarkably poor taste, and it's only here because someone with an axe to grind (see paragraph one) wants to take a moment to do so, occupying the position of: woman hating on a woman. If Walsh were the bastion of keeping-the-world-safe-for-femininity that she sets herself up to be, she might, um, try investigating the reasoning going on in this body of work, instead of going on about the artist’s body, instead of proving so idea-proof, so tone deaf, in order that she might be holier than thou art. The "I'll be damned" comment about the gentlemen pictured in the terrycloth robe proves the point. The only person who is making this guy lecherous is Walsh. Nakadate gave him the benefit of the doubt, let him dress himself the way he wanted to dress, treated him, as with all her subjects (even in the videos, if Walsh ever happened to watch them), with respect, and compassion, and the kind of courtesy that you use on a family member you don’t know well. 

The bad vibes in this piece are the bad vibes from a writer who didn't bother to look at the work, didn't bother to check the facts, and can't really write very well, the kind of writer who is spending most of the time writing about herself online instead of really thinking about art. And most of all, she wants to hide behind ill-conceived and poorly-applied principle in order to attack another woman, which is just what culture wants women to do, hate on each other so that they will continue to be disempowered. You want to take your fill your days bitterness, meanness of spirit, petty infighting, and outright mendacity, when what you could really be doing is thinking a bit about art? Works fine for me. I think I'll go have another drink before breakfast and rest assured that me and my bros will continue to rule the world.

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