The first video I saw by Laurel Nakadate was in P. S. 1 ’s “Greater New York” show in 2005. I was immediately struck by the scene in which she appeared weeping on a New York City rooftop, dressed in a Girl Scout uniform. Behind her, a column of smoke spilled forth from the burning Twin Towers. As inconceivable as it seems, Laurel shot that footage on September 11. Watching it, I knew I was witnessing the work of a real artist.
Next, I saw Laurel’s videos featuring a succession of socially inept middle-aged men, many of whom she got to know because they approached her in the street or hit on her in parking lots. She acts out strange encounters with these men in her dingy apartment or in theirs: they listen to each other’s hearts with stethoscopes, for instance, or dance to Britney Spears. Critics have an easy time dismissing her work as exploitative. But these pieces are poignant and complicated, and, above all, they offer a picture of something real: the experience of being hit on by losers and old men—or even just admired from afar. When you’re a young woman, and beautiful, all eyes are on you. Can you capture that experience? Can you collaborate with the people who hope to watch you and, instead of being the object of desire, redirect their desire toward making art? Just to spend time with Laurel, the men in her videos become artists of sorts. They want to participate. “Can we make art?” they ask her. She’s very kind to them. I think she’s giving them a little sunshine and mystery.
Even the results of her solo appearances can yield just as powerful a picture of real life. For the photographic series “365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears,” she documented herself crying every day for a year. The snapshots capture what it’s like to be in the troughs of depression. And if she’s naked or half dressed in many of these photos, perhaps it’s because we are often naked or half dressed in our rooms when we’re crying.
Besides, the nudity in this series makes for interesting photographs. Doesn’t each of us secretly want to see everyone else naked, just for a minute? Young flesh in particular is so desirable. In Laurel’s video Good Morning Sunshine, she approaches adolescent-looking girls asleep in their beds and, with lines like “show me your sleepy feet,” gradually coaxes them into undressing. This video makes many viewers uncomfortable, but Laurel’s not waking up thirteen-year-olds. These are nineteen- to twenty-one-year-old women who look young. The result is a complicated picture of voyeurism, and right now Laurel’s the only one creating it.
Oddly enough, my heart sank when I first saw Mika Rottenberg’s videos. She was my student for two years at the School of Visual Arts. She began as a phenomenally talented painter, and when she switched to making video art, I thought, She’s trying to fit herself into the dialogue rather than doing what she’s good at. My entire philosophy of teaching is based on the notion that when an artist finds a certain process really effortless, that’s probably what he or she should choose to do. So often, students take the opposite tack; they have no use for the skills that come easily to them. I assumed Mika was like every other ambitious young artist, trying to move into video art merely because painting was so denigrated. I was really quite hard on her as a result. “You’ll have to convince me that you’re a video artist,” I remember informing her. Not long after, she started building the elaborate constructions featured in her videos and the equally impressive installations that house the monitors displaying her footage. Suddenly I saw that she was an exceptional video artist. I had to take back all my criticism and encourage her work, though I hope she still makes drawings, because she has such a great gestural hand.
Where Laurel’s art veers uncomfortably close to real life, Mika’s is replete with metaphor and allegory. Her actors are people she finds on the Internet who do one thing exceptionally well, whether it’s growing their hair to Rapunzel-esque lengths or making a living as fetish workers beloved for their corpulence. Mika’s art celebrates these actors and their work. Her protagonists transform their bodily excretions, via whimsical assembly-line processes, into consumable products. In one piece, red-lacquered fingernails become maraschino cherries. In another, a bodybuilder lets his sweat drip into a hot frying pan. If viewers find these scenarios repulsive, that’s not Mika’s intent—I feel pretty sure of it. She just has a clear, fresh, idiosyncratic vision of the world, and she’s faithfully carrying out that vision.
Both these young artists create work that allows for multiple interpretations; neither one tells you what to think. But it’s interesting that Mika’s videos are, among other things, a paean to workers and factory labor. Because we’re almost all liberals in the art world, anyone who champions the working class will be applauded. Laurel’s art, on the other hand, is all about sexual imagery. Having been lambasted for making paintings in the 1980s that referenced hard-core porn, I’ve learned firsthand that women who try to own the creation of sexual imagery encounter a tremendous glass ceiling, one held in place as much by women as by men, as surprising as that might seem. So in a sense, one of these two young artists is automatically liked, and the other isn’t. I guess one could say that I want people to think about why they find themselves responding to Mika’s and Laurel’s art as they do.
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