Laurel Nakadate speaks

“A lot of really interesting work is terrifying to make.”
—Laurel Nakadate

Laurel Nakadate (pictured above in “Lucky Tiger #63,” 2009), a New York artist who studied at Boston’s Museum School (BFA 1998) before going to Yale, spoke Nov. 17 at Harvard’s Carpenter Center, where her exhibit “Say You Love Me” is on view through Dec. 22, 2011. Below are excerpts from her talk.

“I grew up in Iowa. So I think when you grow up in the middle of nowhere in a landlocked place, you always think everything is happening some place else.”

“When I was going to summer camp in north Iowa when I was probably 7 years old, we drove by a man who was living alone in the woods. … My dad said he’s a hermit. He’s living alone. He wants this. … I think I was so struck by that moment, by that man. … The people who choose to be alone without a family, without children.”

“I documented the lives of girls at Wellesley for four years. I was taking Bill Burke’s photo class at the Museum School. I was just figuring out what it meant to tell a story with a camera.”

“Even if you’re in over your head, if you keep making pictures you’ll figure it out.”

The “The Seven Sisters Schools” photos (1995–99) include parties with women in various states of undress. “I grew up in a small town in Iowa and I never imagined women’s schools would have these types of parties.” [Pictured above: "Twister."]

“With the Wellesley work, the women’s school work, there was this sort of awe of everything they had … coming out of lower middleclass Iowa.”

“I didn’t really identify with the Wellesley women.”

“The work was made right at the head of girls culture sort of blowing up. … It was a time in women’s lives when they were really proud of their sexuality, and really proud of the power they had.”

“For the longest time after the women’s school project, I just wanted to use myself because a lot of the criticism I got was: where are you?”

“I danced with strangers. I had fake birthday parties. … I started making a series when I traveled around the country making fake pin-up pictures.” [Pictured above: "Exorcism in January, 2009.]

“When I was in that first man’s apartment dancing, I was thinking: this is exhilarating; this is really terrifying.”

“None of my family members knew what I was doing because when you’re 22 you don’t tell your parents.”

“A lot of really interesting work is terrifying to make.”

“I chose music that really mattered to me at the time I was making the work. … I’d often let the men choose the music.”

“I’ve always been really interested in the way pop songs can get you through really hard times in your life and bring you back again.”

“A lot of the men said they tried to have lives with other people but they decided it was better to just do it alone.”

“I met these men because I was lonely and I was wandering this Home Depot parking lot.”

“I don’t think they’re all innocents in this.”

“Every single one of those men approached me first. … I met them out in the real world and they asked me to spend time with them.”

“For me going into other people’s homes with a camera is figuring out what they have and what they don’t have. … And then we can figure out about their lives and their desires and their dreams.”

“I was always trying to reference the everyday girl becomes the sex object, and how do you deal with the everyday girl acting up.” [Pictured above: "Lucky Tiger," 2009.]

“My work asks the viewer to look inside themselves and ask what it means to me a single man in his 50s without children.”

“I don’t really draw a line between myself and these men.”

“I think it’s important not to draw lines between us and the rest of the world.”

“I very much identified with those men and I didn’t think we were from other classes.”

“I’ve had to work very hard to feel like I really belonged anywhere.”

“What I really valued in the early videos was that the power could go back and forth. At one moment you can feel for the man. Then at one moment you can feel for the woman. So you never know where to stand.”

“It’s about you don’t know where to stand, you don’t know where to feel comfortable.”

“With the men, they all knew they were being videotaped. … Certainly if someone [in the piece] has problem with something I’ve made, I’d never show it again.”

“I think it’s an honor that I’ve been at the center of many arguments because that means the work is relevant.”

“One of the very difficult things to do is document performances in an interesting way.”

On her first feature film “Stay the Same Never Change” (2009): “Everything in the film is scripted but all of the actors are found through open casting calls, chance encounters, Facebook, Craigslist.”

“I think there’s something really amazing about people who can’t keep it together even when they’re supposed to keep it together.”

On a pair of dogs (pictured above) that were supposed to play dead in the film: “These two dogs represent a quarter of my budget for the entire film. … You’d look over and one’s tail would be wagging.”

“Failure is your friend.”

“This idea of trusting the world will take care of you when you have no budget is a good lesson.”

On her “365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears” (2010), a year-long series of daily self-portraits documenting herself weeping: “After seeing a lot of people on Facebook looking happy, I decided I’d spend part of everyday being sad.” [Pictured above: "February 9, 2010" from her series "365 Days," 2010.]

“This is the hardest performance I’ve ever done. … It’s really hard to cry everyday.”

“I had to be in the crying project because to ask anyone else to do it would be abusive.”

“I think the melodrama becomes sort of slapstick after a while and that’s intentional. … I mean the idea is ridiculous. It shouldn’t have been made. Thank God I did it.”

“I wanted to make pictures that spoke about the various ways we make and share photographs” in the Facebook era.

“We’re living in this era of Facebook status updates. Everyone understands how quickly a photo can be deleted.”

Karl Baden, one of her Museum School teachers, has been photographing himself each day for 25 years. “Karl, I was thinking about you when I was making this project. … I had so much respect for you for doing that project. I only had to do it for a year. But I had to cry.”

On the “Star Portraits” that she’s now working on: “I go to a very dark, beautiful location and ask anyone and everyone to meet me there. … I see these as being about meeting strangers and I see these as places where kids hang out, because generally kids only hang out in the middle of nowhere at midnight.”

“I couldn’t see these people in front of the camera when I took the picture. I could only see them through the camera because, of course, the camera can remember more than we can remember.”

“I’m waiting for great things to happen. … That’s the agenda. Anything can happen and I’ll photograph anyone who comes.”

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