“Fever Dreams at the Crystal Motel,” the title of Laurel Nakadate’s first show at this gallery, has a certain ring to it, like a Wilco CD or a Sam Shepard play. A cursory gallery scan may have led to the erroneous conclusion that her photography and video traffic in identity tourism, a coy subset of contemporary visual culture in which various constructed personae are mediated by presentation spaces, from the gallery wall to Facebook. In both still and moving pictures, Nakadate is the star of her own movie, a Western in which she plays herself in prolonged transactions of trust, desire and possession. But we care about her work because other “real” people are involved, which demands a nearly impossible judgment call: is she a naive but gifted adept of empathy? Or a patronizing voyeur?
“Lucky Tiger” (2008) is a series of seven unique, 4-by-6-inch color photographs of the limber artist in cheesecake poses, the prints smudged with the fingerprints of anonymous men Nakadate contacted through Craigslist. She met with them, inked their fingers and distributed the photos for their examination. In allowing evidence of their handling of the prints to be exhibited, they implicate themselves in a physical act of scrutiny.
Edgier than her still photography, Nakadate’s videos range from chaste solo scenes of acting out—periodically exposing her breasts from the window of a moving train, for instance—to lightly scripted dramatizations with nonactors. In Good Morning Sunshine (2009), Nakadate awakens three childlike female student types who, patiently coaxed by the artist, compliantly strip down to their underwear. Movies from Psycho to Animal House have contributed to the mythification of the motel and dorm room as sites of voyeurism, which Good Morning Sunshine exploits. It makes for unnerving viewing, like watching a tape from a sex crime unit’s video library.
Equally complex and timely are Nakadate’s new videos about exorcism. In Little Exorcisms (2009), the artist urinates on a sidewalk, for some viewers a reenactment of an early scene from The Exorcist (1973), for others simply another inebriated bar-hopper caught on camera. In Exorcism in January (2009), she assists a battered-looking older man—he is featured in several other works that were on view—with an exorcism she has staged, joining in on a chant of expulsion as he flaps his arms. Elsewhere in this collection of short works, the same man reminisces aloud about a pet dog while he gingerly binds Nadakate, curled on the floor of his cluttered bedroom, with rope.
The original Exorcist achieved its huge success at a time of oil supply shocks and global financial downturn. It played up the preadolescent as monster and fed a growing public fascination with the occult, which tends to emerge in periods of societal anxiety. Whether we regard Nakadate as a shamanistic sprite—a permanent resident of the “Crystal Motel”—or as a studied wild child, operating in an art market tolerant of any behavior by physically attractive individuals, she bears watching.
Photo: Laurel Nakadate: Exorcism in January, 2009, C-print, 30 by 40 inches; at Leslie Tonkonow.