You Dirty, Worthless Slut

Jen Schwarting
You Dirty, Worthless Slut



Laurel Nakadate, still from I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun, 2006. © Laurel Nakadate. Courtesy the artist.

In her single-channel video I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun (2006), Laurel Nakadate faces a man in his living room. He takes off his shirt, and then she takes off hers. He takes off his shorts, and then she takes off hers. Raising her arms, she begins to conduct the man’s performance, and he clumsily pirouettes. As he rotates, we take in his bloated physique: his beer gut, the scabs on his back, his droopy underwear. He is not aroused, not quite embarrassed—he seems perplexed, a little dizzy. Slowly, she holds up her palm and mouths the word “stop.” With this command, Nakadate reverses their roles, and before the man raises his arms to respond, she locks eyes with the camera and gleefully twirls against the wall, showing off her flawless figure.

In Beg for Your Life (2006), a white-haired man stands in the foyer of his home and describes the time his very first love left him. Channeling his rage, he sits down on the floor next to Nakadate to enact a telephone-sex call. Speaking into a tin-can-and-string phone, he asks her, “Would you like to come over?” And then, “We can lay on my bed and I’ll tie you up. I’ll take a curling iron and stick it up your ass. Would you like that?” Nakadate sweetly agrees. In another scene, Nakadate drops candy into a bottle of Pepsi as her disheveled companion snacks on cookies across the table. The soda erupts into a geyser, providing the obligatory cum shot.

Bizarre flirtations quickly careen into a string of casualties. Nakadate makes a series of hapless men beg, “Please don’t kill me” as they kneel before her at gunpoint, in their living rooms and at the edges of their own beds. One man giggles and encourages Nakadate to move the gun up his neck to take better aim. Despite Nakadate’s best efforts at domination, it is clear who has the upper hand—the men can’t even pretend to feel threatened. So Nakadate turns the gun on herself, determined to execute her crime of passion. Setting out on a cross-country road trip, she repeatedly enacts her own murder before unsuspecting passers-by. She clings, dying, to a bewildered tourist sightseeing at Mount Rushmore. She sprawls, dead, awaiting discovery by a hiker at the edge of the woods. In a slo-mo finale, Nakadate is flanked by a motorcycle gang on the side of the road. She faces the camera and shoots herself with a cap gun. Fake blood pours out of her mouth as she falls onto the pavement, writhing. Her skirt flips up around her waist, and the bikers grin widely, breaking into applause.



Laurel Nakadate, still from I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun, 2006. © Laurel Nakadate. Courtesy the artist.

Together, these tragicomic episodes make up a fantasy within a documentary, realized by the skewed logic of reality television. Nakadate has an MFA from Yale, but on-screen she takes her cues from a pantheon of teen pop idols. Dressed in girlish half-shirts and bikini tops, she projects the ill-fated innocence of Britney Spears’s “Oops”-era schoolgirl, the vacuous blankness of Paris Hilton’s sex-tape starlet, and the saucy stance of Jessica Simpson’s gun-happy Daisy Duke. She feigns delight as she poses like a young model for the camera—backed by saccharine love songs—further amplifying the fashionable affirmation of a prescribed female role.

While Nakadate convincingly portrays the troubled object of desire, the middle-aged men who star opposite her seem hopelessly typecast as low-life losers: the greasy trucker, the shut-in, the dim-witted cashier. But these guys are not actors. They are lonely bachelors—from Nakadate’s Iowa hometown or towns visited during her road trips out West—who approach her on the street, soliciting attention. Instead of the usual brush-off, Nakadate responds to their propositions and come-ons, and follows them back to their run-down homes. But any lascivious acts her suitors had imagined are abandoned once Nakadate sets up her camera and persuades them to perform in fantasies of her own.



Laurel Nakadate, still from Beg For Your Life, 2006. © Laurel Nakadate. Courtesy the artist.

I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun and Beg For Your Life run like R-rated outtakes of “The Simple Life”: scenes that went too far. What happens when a nervy, privileged pop-tart drops down into the lousy lives of working-class men? Unmediated by Fox and tinged with the threat of violence, Nakadate’s take is amazingly unsettling. The videos, both screened in the winter of 2006, confirmed the whip-smarts manifest in previous efforts—at Danziger Projects in Chelsea and in P.S.1’s “Greater New York” show—that gave rise to Nakadate’s art world visibility. But the hype led to a troubling consensus, as critics seemed to misinterpret her influences and misconstrue her intentions. Nakadate’s videos, and her attitude, were described in the press as “narcissistic,” “cruel,” and “manipulative,” even as her intentionality was brought into question. Ken Johnson’s allegation in the New York Times that “Nakadate may not fully understand what she is doing” epitomized these self-contradictory efforts to condemn the artist’s methods while at the same time diminishing her agency.

If there’s one thing that repeated viewing of her work demonstrates, it’s that Nakadate understands exactly what she’s doing. Her exploration of the media-defined structure of power and desire draws directly from the tradition of performance and feminist art, and the confusion and acrimony surrounding her work stem in part from the continued misunderstanding of that tradition. Even Jerry Saltz, who distinguishes himself as a profeminist critic, poorly positioned Nakadate in his Village Voice review, “Whatever Laurel Wants,” attributing to her work the legacy of the Pictures artists Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, and Barbara Kruger. Their progeny is actually the other female standout from the “Greater New York” show, Tamy Ben-Tor—an artist who performs a shape-shifting cast of outrageously offensive characters. Transforming herself completely through a regimen of costumes, wigs, and prosthetics, Ben-Tor’s sensational imitations owe much to Sherman and the tradition of staged representation.

Nakadate’s erotic self-construction is certainly concerned with the conditions of representation. But unlike Ben-Tor’s outré transformations, the character Nakadate plays is almost indiscernible from the artist herself. Sporting cute clothing that’s just slightly tacky, and natural hair and makeup, Nakadate’s on-screen persona blurs into a plausible reality, making the boundaries of her performance—and her misbehavior—all the more difficult to apprehend. Rather than mining the territory of Pictures, Nakadate’s work revisits the feminist art practices of the late 60s and 70s—when artists, emboldened by the era’s direct-action politics, challenged dominant power structures and located their performances in the public realm. Think back to Valie Export, who in 1969 walked the aisle of an arthaus theater in Munich, the crotch cut completely out of her pants. In a photograph following the action, Export holds a machine gun above her exposed genitalia in an unapologetically plain assertion of the relationship between violence and the objectification of women. Or Adrian Piper, who, in her Catalysis series, rode the New York City bus in ordinary clothing with a hand towel shoved in her mouth or gum on her face— performances where ambiguous public activities were used to provoke audiences already unnerved by the shifting landscape of gender and race.

Valie Export, Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969/2001. Courtesy the artist and Patrick Painter Editions.

But the most direct of Nakadate’s precursors may be Hannah Wilke. In 1976, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she performed The Large Glass: a striptease that could be seen through the window-like pane of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Addressing the history of the male gaze, but flaunting her own criminally beautiful image, Wilke’s critique was purposefully complicated by the pleasure audiences took in looking. If the viewer felt conflicted—or even manipulated—that was entirely the point. When Export posed with a gun, she looked unambiguously ferocious. When Wilke did the same, she looked like she had just floated off the set of Charlie’s Angels. For years, Wilke was dismissed by male and female critics alike for making work that too equivocally walked the line between authenticity and parody. It was only after her tragic death that her keen pop sensibility and coruscating wit were recognized for their remarkable prescience.

Wilke’s demonstrative striptease, realized more than thirty years ago, pushed up against her generation’s specific societal and sexual taboos. Today, the question of sexual representation is further complicated by the conditions of the digital revolution, with its liberating possibilities for self-invention and its gross inundation of celebrity news and pornography. Young women have unprecedented power to invent and distribute their own image, through the phenomenon of the blog or the personal networking site, but most still conform to a hyper-sexualized subjectivity promoted by the models in the mainstream media. A current video advertisement on MySpace features an adorable, Asian-American teen curled up on her bed. The ad simulates a pixilated, laptop cameraeye view as the girl lies before her computer, typing in skimpy pajamas. Running Chap Stick over her lips, she smiles, and we notice her long hair swept forward, barely concealing ample cleavage. She giddily pulls the bedcovers over herself and fades to black. The ad targets the impressionable teenage girl, but is a nearly undisguised inducement to the internet predator as well. It is to these insidious present-day social dynamics that Nakadate’s art speaks loudest.

In this post-feminist generation, reactions to Nakadate’s videos suggest an alarming lack of awareness of the history of inequality and the struggle to control female subjectivity. The issue is currently under debate in the Institution, where Nakadate has been on the art lecture circuit screening her work to college students. When I interviewed her, Nakadate described to me a surprising and discomfiting reception. Some students have become so offended by the work that they’ve walked out. One student, to express the extent of his disapproval, overturned a desk and walked out. The confusion extends from students to established critics. When Jerry Saltz described the power relationships that Nakadate orchestrates between herself and her subjects, he wrote, “If a young male artist preyed on women this way he’d risk being kicked out of the art world.”

Is Laurel Nakadate preying upon men? A friend in my Brooklyn neighborhood called me late one night after a man, trying to chat her up, had followed her from the subway to her doorstep. She asked me, “Did he actually think I was going to say ‘Hey, why don’t you come upstairs and screw me?’” Nakadate attributes the origin of her exploits to precisely such encounters. Most of the episodes in I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun begin with Nakadate being approached by men in various insecure locations at night. Perhaps a man who preyed upon women would get kicked out of the art world, but what would his work be parodying, anyway?



Laurel Nakadate, stills from A Message to Pretty, 2006. © Laurel Nakadate. Courtesy the artist.

Nakadate captured this scenario in an extreme form in her most recent solo exhibition at Danziger Projects, “A Message to Pretty” (2006). On one side of a two-channel video, a succession of single men ranted about lost love and hypothetical revenge. In contrast, the video on the opposite wall showed scenes of Nakadate in a series of different hotel rooms, in her underwear, pretending to be fucked. It was initially titillating, but then awkward and even a bit boring, like bad porn. If Nakadate was faking it, the men were the real deal, spouting invectives from the contemptuous (“You dirty, worthless slut”) to the obscene (“I’ll shit down your mouth”) to the terrifying (“I’ll cut your arms off”). The piece was shocking and powerful, but lacked the undercurrent of collusion between the artist and her co-stars that made her other works so distinctive. Nakadate may have felt the need to spell it out and point directly to objectification by becoming nothing but a fantasy to consume. Still, her feigned nymphomania was far less transgressive than their violent outpourings. And just in case you missed her point, next to the gallery door was a bowl of keychain flashlights, to arm yourself on the way out.