December 30, 2011 | by Tallis Eng
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
When I was in high school, the few friends I had all lived in other states—the far-flung gains of various summer camps—which meant that I took a lot of long train trips on weekends. On these rides, I developed the habit of sitting next to a very specific kind of stranger: a middle-aged man who looked lonely. The goal was to find someone who’d talk nonstop. That was how I met Tom Malone: on the train from New York to Raleigh. Over the course of the eight-hour journey, he talked about everything from his government job to his pit bull’s separation anxiety. He told me he used to braid his ex-wife’s hair every night, back when they were married. He explained in detail the reasons Amtrak’s business model was bound to fail. He said my name a lot, and with formality: “Here’s the thing, Jean,” and so on.
I’d never felt safer in my life, sitting next to Tom—his belly like a life raft, and me nodding like a therapist. At one point though, he ruined the spell. He said, “You look exactly like that girl Lennon dated. What’s her name.”
“Yoko Ono?” I said.
“No, no, not Yoko Ono. Oh, darn it. May. May Pang? You know her? Lost weekend?” I didn’t know her. And I wanted us to go back to talking about him.
About five years ago, when I first saw the work of artist Laurel Nakadate, I could have sworn that she had cast Tom in one of her videos, which feature middle-aged, sometimes overweight, mostly white men who had approached her in the street or hit on her in parking lots. In return, she’d invited them to go home with her and act out strange one-on-one scenarios in front of video cameras. We see them shaking her inert body and yelling, “Wake up! Wake up!” or performing an exorcism, or sharing a birthday cake. In a scene from I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun (2006), her hirsute costar strips down to his loose-fitting underpants, while she takes off everything but her bra and panties. Then, with her index finger, she traces a clockwise circle in the air over his head. It’s a signal for him to spin around, which he does, while she watches, unblinking and tender.
Nakadate, who grew up in Iowa and received an MFA at Yale, has been alternately referred to as “ruthless,” “attention-grabbing,” and “provocative” (in the pages of Artforum, The Village Voice, and The New York Times, respectively). Her notoriety comes as much from her interactions with men, whom some see as desperate and therefore vulnerable, as from her general willingness to appear in her art nearly naked—in one photo she’ll pose beside a blue pickup truck wearing panties, a T-shirt, and a cowboy hat; in a video she’ll dance in the Utah desert dressed in shorts and a tie-dyed bikini top. Recently, she directed two feature films depicting scenes from the listless lives of young women. She appears in neither of these films, but then, as if to make up for her absence, she embarked on “365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears,” a 2010 project for which she took a picture of herself crying every day for a year.
I’ve heard people say that Nakadate’s male fans outnumber her female ones. Or they've pointed out that so many of the lengthy, in-depth reviews of her work—in Artforum, Art in America, Frieze, Modern Painters, The Nation, and The New York Times, for instance—seem to have been written by men. One colleague even told me, “You’re the only woman I know who likes Laurel’s work.” Actually, there are many others: her gallerist, Leslie Tonkonow, comes to mind, and Marilyn Minter, who curated a portfolio of Nakadate’s work in the latest issue of The Paris Review, and Mary Gaitskill, who wrote about her for the San Francisco Film Society.
It’s almost impossible for me to think of Nakadate’s art as made for anyone but women, if only because her self-portraits, the ones set in the Midwest, remind me unbearably of myself—and my friend Miya and the summers I spent visiting her in Scottsburg, Indiana. Her family had moved there so her father could teach Japanese literature at a local college. I loved Scottsburg: so full of parking lots at sunset and crickets at night. And the Berg-Tanaka household was an oasis of art catalogues, kachina dolls, and tea. In her parents’ bathroom, once, I found an old National Geographic with an article about Polynesia that led me to conclude that I resembled an Easter Island statue with seaweed on its head. I told Miya. “Actually,” she said, “you look more like a Thai prostitute.” We were fifteen. I remember that, around that time, she’d begun dancing a lot in public, in broad daylight—like, in a parking lot, or in the baseball field where we walked her family’s King Charles spaniels. When I see Laurel gyrating in the Utah desert, I can’t help but think of Miya swinging her hips.
I still don’t know why Miya stopped talking to me. Maybe it had something to do with the crazy prank we pulled together the last summer I visited her. It began with the weekend we went down to Louisville in her parents’ car to celebrate Miya’s new license. As we parked, we were approached by a woman with enormous sunglasses on her forehead. This woman explained that she worked for a director who was shooting a political ad later that day, and they were looking for extras to play students for a scene set in a classroom. She handed us a business card. It was embossed with the words RADICAL UNIT PRODUCTIONS followed by a Louisville street address. Before we could say anything, she drew a small map on the back of the card. “I’ll leave you to think about it,” she said.
Her directions led us to a warehouse with a tin roof and a huge loading-dock entrance. Inside, we found ourselves on the shadowy perimeter of a room. The space before us was lit up with blinding stage lights, and men navigated their way around cameras and dolly tracks, holding each other’s waists when they crossed paths, to avoid collisions. One of them noticed us and brought over release forms for us to sign. Then, at his direction, we went to join about twenty other kids our age, sitting along several rows of desks. We settled down next to a girl who kept turning around to the boys behind her and saying, “You’re both such morons.” “What!” they’d reply, their hands in the air. She was incredibly sweaty, this girl—her blonde hair had clumped into damp brown stalks along her forehead. She must have come straight from soccer practice or something, with her shorts and jersey.
Meanwhile, a man in a baseball cap stood up at the front of the set as if to make an announcement. But he remained silent, tugging at his cap and looking at the scene in front of him. As I watched him, it suddenly became clear: he was looking at Miya and me.
“Can I have you”—he pointed at me—“move to that side of the room?”
I did as he asked.
After several more seconds, he said:
“You know what? I think we have enough extras. Can the two of you”—now he gestured at me and Miya and then trailed off. “Thank you guys for coming, big time. It’s just—we need to keep the scene small. So there aren’t too many factors at once.”
Only after everyone turned to look at us for about five minutes did I finally realize, he wanted us to leave.
What happened next I still can’t explain. Back in Scottsburg, Miya came up with the plan and the camera (but I agreed to it). We pulled scarves and hats and blazers from her closet, and then her mother’s armoire. In the corner of her bedroom, in direct sunlight, she began taking photographs of me. After we went through a whole roll of film, she handed me the camera and I photographed her. We must have taken about fifty shots. There was one with me in purple lipstick and a turtleneck sweater, pulling up its collar along my jaw line. Another with her eyebrows penciled in to look like Frida Kahlo’s. Miya dropped off the film at the pharmacy down the street, and then came back with black-and-white photos printed at eight-by-twelve inches. Meanwhile, we’d made out a stack of envelopes to the street address listed on the business card we’d been given. Into every envelope went a single photo. Nothing else. To keep it mysterious, maybe a bit creepy—that was the idea. Over the course of that week, we mailed the envelopes one by one to Radical Unit Productions.
The rest of August went by. I returned to New York. Not long after that, Miya stopped returning my calls. I still have no idea why. Maybe she’d gotten tired of being the person I’d known. That winter, for her birthday, I sent her a flat-rate box that contained nail polish, caramels, and origami-tipped toothpicks I'd found in an Asian emporium in New York City. I called Miya’s house the day after her birthday to see if she’d received the present, and Mrs. Berg-Tanaka picked up. “Oh, Jean,” she said. There was a long pause, and her voice sounded sad. “Miya can’t come to the phone.” Then she asked, “Have things been well with you?”
That was ten years ago now. I was never all that upset by the end of our friendship. (Other things were on my mind. Right around then, I started dating the skinniest boy I’d ever met, a soccer whiz whose family moved to town from Peru.) But then, several weeks ago, I went to Laurel’s retrospective at P.S. 1. I watched the video Greater New York, and when I noticed myself crying a little, it was from remembering Miya, though she and Laurel look nothing alike. In one scene from that video, Laurel appears on a city rooftop, wearing a girl scout uniform. A big column of smoke billows forth from the skyline behind her. It turns out that footage was filmed on September 11, and the smoke was from the burning Twin Towers.
In an early review of Laurel’s work, Jerry Saltz mentioned she was half Japanese and made reference to her “slutty, back-alley exoticism,” but I have yet to encounter a single other review that mentions her race. Sometimes I wonder whether critics are politely taking their cue from Laurel’s press releases, which never seem to bring it up either. And then I wonder if Laurel’s silence on the topic has anything to do with what it’s like to grow up in America strange-looking and pretty in ways that go unspoken. You start having secret thoughts about your face. You start thinking it’s all in your head.
I have been so lonely and private about everything I’ve done. Meanwhile, Laurel has been sharing so much about herself: We know that she is someone who makes art by bringing home older men. She’s someone who thinks to dress up in a girl scout uniform and film herself next to the Twin Towers collapsing. She’s someone who has taken maybe four hundred photographs of her own face. As she puts all this on museums and gallery walls, I start to think she’s forgiving herself—as much as she knows how—for acting so inexplicably in the eyes of others. She understands: from a certain perspective, of course such a lovely girl would be compelled to play-act fake birthday parties with lonely men twice her age or to film herself dancing in cowboy boots on a porch in Iowa. But how do you go about forgiving yourself the way Laurel does?
Tallis Eng is a writer living in New York.