It’s easy to feel unsettled by the work of artist Laurel Nakadate, whose photos and videos often feature herself, an attractive woman, doing strange things, such as crying in public or hosting fake birthday parties with older men. While provocative, her art is ultimately a tender comment on loneliness and the lives of young women. It earned her a retrospective at MoMA PS1 last year titled Only the Lonely, and her latest work, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, is out now as a hardcover book. Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco discusses with Nakadate how she approaches her work and finds inspiration for her controversial pieces.
FRANCO: Tell me about your new book. It’s 365 photos, right?
NAKADATE: Right. I forced myself to cry every day for a year and photographed it. I started because I’ve been interested in social media and the ways people lurch out and try to connect with the universe. I saw my friends updating their Facebook pages every day, like “I’m happy today,” “My kid took his first steps,” “Things are going great.” All 4,000 of my friends on Facebook were happy every day, and I was thinking, Well, that’s great, but I don’t buy it. So I considered what the opposite would be, and it was just to have a public breakdown every day.
FRANCO: At some points one thinks, Wow, this girl is living her life totally in public.
NAKADATE: Yeah, I was. One day I was at the top of the Space Needle, and obviously other people were up there too. It was one of the moments when I had to touch that “trigger” I’d developed to make myself cry and just push it. People started backing away, but I knew I had to do it.
FRANCO: And nobody was worried about you?
NAKADATE: No, they just thought I was weird. You can’t really jump from up there, so they were probably thinking, She can’t hurt herself; let’s just leave. I thought that proved the point of this performance. In general, people don’t want to talk or think about sadness. Sadness and loneliness, in our society, are unspeakable embarrassments.
FRANCO: I found when I was looking at the pictures, and adding them all up, it was really working. It was hard to look at your face after a while.
NAKADATE: I think what’s working is that they draw you in for some reason, but then they cause this emotional imbalance and repel you. In my work I’ve always been interested in the way things can draw you in, then repulse you and then make you look within yourself to untangle the problem you’re witnessing.
FRANCO: That reminds me of the first pieces of yours I saw, your dances with strangers.
NAKADATE: Right, that was called Oops! I had just started graduate school at Yale. I was 22, living alone for the first time, and I felt really lonely. I just wanted to go out into the world and meet people, so I started walking around New Haven and talking to people. Then I decided I would take my camera with me and ask guys I would meet in the parking lot of Home Depot or around my apartment building if I could go home with them and make pictures. I re-created childhood activities, like dancing to pop music, with these men who’d never had children or wives in their apartments. That interested me because when you ask someone to do something they’ve never experienced before, they come up with interesting ways to do it.
FRANCO: Those situations made you really vulnerable. There’s a false sense of security when one is behind a camera, but you make the viewer aware of that vulnerability because you’re in the images.
NAKADATE: Absolutely. It’s also important to remember this was pre-internet, pre-YouTube. Facebook started around 2004, and that was a turning point, when mainstream America began the daily contribution of images from our lives. I think of YouTube as the folk art of our generation because people are creating these images from their lives and posting them online for all of us to share. That really is folk art; it’s the art that folks make.
FRANCO: In your work you immerse yourself in these intense, life-consuming pieces. How do you live as an artist?
NAKADATE: I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and I remember thinking I never wanted to have a serious boyfriend there because he would hold me back. In college I would drive out to wherever I was photographing, make the work, sleep in my car and then drive back to Boston and develop the film. It had to be the most important thing to me, and I put it in front of everything. That may be a really dysfunctional way of living, but I always put my work in front of everything else. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m trying to find a balance there. It’s important to have people you love in your life and to invest in the lives of others who support you emotionally and are there for you. But I think there was a period in my life when I didn’t care if I was alone. I just wanted to make art.