Power and vulnerability feature strongly in the work of Laurel Nakadate. Image: Laurel Nakadate, Lucky Tiger #1, 2009.

Nakadate’s Fever Dreams Heat the Screen

Sean Uyehara February 23, 2011

Laurel Nakadate’s work exposes the power of vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to both be in jeopardy and have something valuable at stake. Adolescent girls, whose desires and sexuality are so often worrying, sometimes even forbidden, are especially vulnerable.

Nakadate’s stories overturn familiar rituals and familial structures by self-consciously presenting the performative nature of her characters’ identities. The girls in her movies walk a precarious edge, alternately open and impervious to the beauty and menace of the world. They flee danger, follow whims and flaunt their bodies. They pose and wear thick lipstick. They invite looks. And they deflect them. Nakadate’s works travel through eddying, dangerous pools of girlish identity, signaling the way things are destined to fall apart and fade away. This is just one way into Nakadate’s films, of course. Her work also offers an allegory of the creative process. The power dynamics between her and her photographic subjects is always on display. And their meanings rely on the blurry border between fiction and nonfiction.

If you are a pessimist like me, you would say that some of the consequences of modernity have been the erosions of trust, ritual and narrative—all things that have traditionally been used to contain the potential chaos of adolescence. You might see Laurel Nakadate’s work as being especially adept at portraying the confusion and melancholy that accompanies those erosions. She was kind enough to speak with us by phone.

SF360: How is making films different than making photos?

Laurel Nakadate:  I don’t think they are that different. I just think there is a different duration of the shoot. I think I use the same skills. When you are working in a feature narrative format, you are going to be under the gun and suffering.

SF360: Most of your photos seem to be self-portraits. Is that a fair statement?

Nakadate: There’s actually a significant amount of photos of other people, but a lot of my early work featured me with a stranger. In those I would ease myself into character, into some story.

SF360: When you use yourself in your work, does it create a confusion for others, even your friends, that these are pictures of yourself—that you are not playing a character?

Nakadate: No, I think it’s pretty obvious that I am playing a hybrid of myself and a character that I’ve created. I think most professional actors and performance artists create characters like this.

SF360: You have used social networks like Craigslist, for instance, to find the characters you work with. But, it seems like this process predated some of the more prominent social networks.

Nakadate: Yes, finding people from the real world has been important to me. From early on, before Craigslist and the use of cell phones or mainstream use of the internet, it was very important to me to meet people in real life, because so much of my work was about trying to forge connections to strangers, and the failure in that, but also the greatness of that attempt. As technology changed, and we had things like Facebook and other ways to find people online, I started to tap into that as a kind of venue or forum for finding people. But, I have found that finding people in the real world is a better way for my projects, and I no longer go to Craigslist or Facebook or any of that really.

SF360: Often on these social networks people are portraying someone who they are not.

Nakadate: That’s why meeting people in the real world is so much better. The Internet is a different animal. It’s fine for they way the people use it, but meeting people in the real world is much more important to me.

SF360: When you meet these people, are you already playing a role, or do you start playing your role only once the camera turns on?

Nakadate: Whenever I meet people the situation is different. There isn’t really a set answer for that. Sometimes I’ll meet someone through a chance encounter, and we’ll work together and then end that immediately. Sometimes, I’ll meet someone, and they’ll be in my work for a number of years. It’s just like meeting someone under normal circumstances. I am different with everyone that I am with, because each of them is a unique individual.

SF360: In the video Good Morning Sunshine, it seems that you are handholding a camera and directing girls to disrobe. The power dynamic in the video is unsettling and strange. How did you decide to frame that situation?

Nakadate: For me the dynamic is like that between a teacher and student in a way—because it features direction of adolescent girls. So, I see it as a direct tie in to The Wolf Knife and Stay the Same Never Change. The video is about the power dynamic between director and actor. In that way, it’s not unlike many other short videos I have made where I ask older men to take on or repeat certain actions.

SF360: Christina (in Good Morning Sunshine and in The Wolf Knife) looks a lot like you.

Nakadate: It’s funny you say that because if you were to see our faces next to each other, we really don’t look alike. But, everyone says that, so there must be something that we share. I think it’s that childlike face with brown eyes and dark features. But, she’s half Puerto Rican and I am half Japanese.

SF360: So, that wasn’t a self-conscious decision.

Nakadate: Oh my gosh, no. No, not a conscious decision. And, it’s hilarious to me that it becomes part of every conversation [about The Wolf Knife]. But, it’s flattering. I mean, I think Christina is beautiful. So, if anyone thinks I look anything like her, it’s a compliment.

SF360: And, you found Julie Potratz [the co-star of The Wolf Knife) through Craigslist, right, originally, for Stay the Same Never Change?

Nakadate: Yes, I found all the actors on Craigslist in Kansas City for Stay the Same.

SF360: And, now she’s in The Wolf Knife. Is she a star?

Nakadate: She should be a giant star. But, I think that’s up to Julie. If someone wanted to put her in a bigger movie that would be great, because she’s incredible. And hopefully, in my next film, I’ll be able to cast her again. I think she’s concentrating on being an artist, but I think it would be interesting to see her in other films.

SF360: What are you working on now?

Nakadate: I am writing a new screenplay, just had a show open at PS1, have a new show on April 28 at Leslie Tonkonow, a video installed at the Standard Hotel in LA, a bunch of group shows and the screenings in San Francisco.

SF360: It does seem like everything just blew up for you right now.

Nakadate: It’s weird, everything is happening at the same time, which is wonderful and amazing. My career has been about 80 percent this busy for awhile now, for about five years. I am not sure if I can keep this pace up—but, I am pleased that this is happening, of course. It’s just that I need to keep up my obligations and make these shows and create art and eat. I think I need to just make art instead of talk about making it.

The San Francisco Film Society presents a multiplatform presentation of the work of American multimedia artist Laurel Nakadate, February 23–March 2. Fever Dreams features theatrical screenings of Nakadate’s two feature works February 24, the presentation of a number of her shorter videos in nontheatrical venues beginning February 23 and a collectible poster featuring her photography in the February 23 edition of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. More at KinoTek is supported by a generous two-year grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.