New York

Laurel Nakadate

For viewers who have struggled to untangle the wicked snarl of contradictions that animate Laurel Nakadate’s provocative and polarizing oeuvre, the artist’s recent show—her debut at Tonkonow and her first solo exhibition in New York since 2006—suggested one possible solution. A number of the works in “Fever Dreams at the Crystal Motel” are meant, according to their titles, to be thought of as “exorcisms.” Incongruous ecclesiastical overtones aside, this notion of a battle with tormenting spirits, taking place along a continuum from the ecstatic to the psychotic, does provide a useful way to think about the simmering sociosexual tensions that have fueled Nakadate’s projects of the last half-decade, as well as to process the states of emotional extremity and moral ambivalence that they not only depict but, to their credit, also manage to stir in viewers.

Offering a denser and more heterogeneous range of material than her last gallery appearance, the compelling “Fever Dreams . . .” included two groups of photographs—one, a suite of medium-scale C-prints shot during the making of the video work on view; the other, titled “Lucky Tiger,” a series of four-by-six-inch snapshots depicting the artist in a variety of suggestive poses that were covered with smudged fingerprints produced when Nakadate and a series of men she found on Craigslist inked their hands and then passed the images back and forth. The show was centered, however, around three viewing setups, one monitor-based and two that used large wall projections, each presenting a sequence of looping videos of various lengths. For these works Nakadate once again enlisted a skeezy amateur choros, an array of men whose piteous condition is only amplified and elaborated by the disturbing scenarios into which she coaxes them. But they are less central here than in her recent work, making the artist herself, if possible, even more the star of the show. Nakadate’s weirdly galvanizing, inexplicably poignant performances—vamping in a desert, in a rainbow bikini top, to Bruce Springsteen (or in front of a ireworks display to Gnarls Barkley), exposing herself over and over again in the window of a moving train, or tenderly kissing a limply acquiescent bunny rabbit in the sapphire light of an anonymous motel room—evince an intensified conceptual self-sufficiency, one delivered with such complete confidence and overweening charisma that it hardly needs a cast of sounding-board oddballs to confirm it.

Which is not to say that Nakadate has gone it entirely alone. Exorcism in January, 2009, for instance, most closely recalls the artist’s previous unheimlich experiments in interpersonal dysfunction as she and a sad older man take laconic turns “casting out” each other’s demons in various rooms of his cluttered, dimly lit home. As is often the case in Nakadate’s pieces, lines of agency in the relationship are deformed and disrupted—in her various interactions with the man (the only person with whom she physically shares the screen), her character hovers somewhere between call girl and calmly competent visiting nurse; she’s an alien interloper oozing aggression, compassion, and raw sexuality in equal overwhelming measures. Yet despite the constant reiteration of the power inequalities between the two (always a primary focus in any Nakadate work), this relationship—a weird cocktail of sadness and titillation—somehow begins to read less as exploitative than as therapeutic, in both directions.

For those who wonder if these awkwardly unbalanced battles of the sexes aren’t becoming something of a too-easy trope for an artist with such extensive intellectual resources and performance chops, “Fever Dreams . . .” points toward several new psychodramatic directions. In the most unsettling of these, Good Morning Sunshine, 2009, Nakadate is an unseen presence that invades a series of young women’s bedrooms, sweet-talking them out from under the covers, and down to their underwear, with a succession of empty platitudes (“You know you’re the prettiest girl, don’t you?”) delivered in a singsongy cadence that exerts a creepily mesmerizing effect on the viewer, just as it seems to on the sleepy alt girls at whom it’s directed. Meanwhile, other pieces—like the most free-form of the various videos, Little Exorcisms and Fever Dream (both 2009), with their bizarrely watchable sequences of visual and emotional non sequiturs, ranging from strange forest rituals to goofy superhero role-playing—read like experimental templates for a range of new approaches. Some of it works, some of it falls flat, but Nakadate knows she’s got us watching now—waiting to see what might happen, wondering which demon of hers, and ours, she’ll wrestle with next.

Jeffrey Kastner