Laurel Nakadate’s work uses unassuming means to memorable effect. Oops! (2000) is a video of a young woman in a tank top and tight jeans dancing a choreographed routine while a man in late middle age dances (or stands) awkwardly beside her. It is mesmerizing in its ambiguity: is she making fun of the man? Which one is being exploited? Beg for Your Life (2006) shows Nakadate holding a gun to the head of various men while they perform the title action. Over and over, her work explores the power and beauty of events that teeter on the edge between anxiety and exhilaration. With her ten-year retrospective at PS1 in New York and various screenings and openings, Nakadate’s time is in short supply. I managed to wring this interview from her in record time before she jetted off to her next engagement.
Bean Gilsdorf: Your work explores the power dynamic between men and women. Is this a personal thing?
Laurel Nakadate: What it’s about, for me, is two people in a room and the discomfort and beauty in the space between them. There’s this idea that anything can happen in a room with two people: there are problems and concerns, implications…sometimes this person is at fault and sometimes that person’s at fault, but most of the time something beautiful can come out of the power struggle.
BG: You’re often physically present. Is the work biographical?
LN: No, it’s a construction.
BG: So you’re a stand-in?
LN: I’m an actor. I’m a performance artist or an actor in that scene. It’s not me, it’s some sort of hybrid with me in my body going into the space as a character. I definitely see it as a performance. It’s not Laurel.
BG: There’s so much risk involved. Do you ever feel frightened? And how do you move past that?
LN: I think there’s something thrilling about the unknown. I certainly feel like it’s work that challenges people to worry or not worry about the protagonists. But I’ve never done anything where I thought I was risking my life. I’ve made work that in retrospect seems that it was risky, or took chances, but when I made the work it was never about setting out to kill myself or get killed. It was always about this investigation. Now I look back at some of the work and I think, God, I was really lucky! But mostly I look back and I think I was really brave.
BG: The work seems very experimental and open-ended. How do you conceptualize what you’re doing when you’re about to go into it?
LN: It’s about telling stories that are difficult to tell, stories that are wily and winding, and what I love about them is that anything can happen, anything is possible and there can be any ending. It’s as complicated as any unknown, which we unravel through chance and creation and sorting through stories. I have a hard time categorizing things, I feel that it’s dismissive and not fair to the work. It’s performance-based work, and so by its very nature, experimental. And what I love about performance is that it can only happen that one time and that one way. You can try to recreate it, but it will never be the same and there’s something beautiful about that. But I find trying to label a piece of art as a specific thing problematic and reductive. Every painter has the right to say they are actually making sculpture, and every sculptor has the right to say they’re doing performance art. And every audience member has the right to read it as something else. Open and generous is where you have to be.
BG: A lot of your work seems dark, but you’ve also talked about how the act of being in a space with someone else is an act of love.
LN: I certainly see darkness in the work, absolutely, but I don’t think darkness is bad. I think darkness is lovely.
BG: And you’ve also talked about the work as an exorcism. Once you’ve done a performance, are you done with it?
LN: It’s always different. Sometimes you’ll do something and you’ll feel like it’s resolved, and sometimes you’ll keep pounding on that door. You can’t win, because if you don’t keep pounding on the door people say that you’re a one-hit wonder; if you do keep pounding, people say you’re narcissistic or obsessed.
BG: What are you working on now?
LN: I’m writing a screenplay and working on a book project. I’m also kind of babysitting the MOMA/PS1 show in the sense that I’m still talking about it a lot. It just opened, so it’s still really new and exciting for me. I’ve got a show of new work opening at the end of April. I’m just going to take the summer to work on the screenplay.
BG: Can you tell me what it’s about?
LN: It’s about adults, that’s what I’ll say now. Consenting adults.