Laurel Nakadate gives a command performance at ACAC

The well-established artist explores the sexualization of femininity with photos and video

Laurel Nakadate: Photographs, Video & Performances, now on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, highlights the well-established artist’s recent work. In the last three years alone, Nakadate has shown a 10-year retrospective of her work at MoMA PS1, earned an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival for her feature-length film Stay the Same Never Change, and another film, The Wolf Knife, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

Nakadate’s art focuses on voyeuristic tendencies, particularly those aimed toward young women. While stating that women are frequently objectified is not novel or shocking, it is undeniably relevant, particularly in this heated election season. The overwhelming scope of women’s issues often transfers into artwork quite clumsily, the themes too broad and blatant, the tone generally admonishing. Nakadate’s movies and photographs, however, are portraits of vulnerability that thoughtfully consider the scrutiny and sexualization women experience in their lives.

A broad collection of photos and videos comprise the ACAC exhibit. Some works are excerpts from past series, such as 365: A Catalogue of Tears, in which Nakadate photographed herself crying once a day for a year. Though these images are the show’s least intellectually stimulating, the concept’s simplicity effectively translates the cerebral artist’s fascination with intimacy and the nature of performance.

Taking up the gallery’s large, central room, the 365 series creates a foundation for the more esoteric works that border the room like peepshow booths in the back of a sex shop. In the three-minute film “Say you Love Me,” a middle-aged man sits on a bed, looking out of sliding glass doors toward a glimmering body of water. A few seconds in, Nakadate walks into view on the balcony, looks at the man through the glass, and lifts her dress up as the words to Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” kick in. She poses and sways as the man orchestrates her movements, raising and lowering his hand like a puppeteer to indicate that she do the same with her dress.

Adjacent to “Say You Love Me,” the film “Good Morning Sunshine” shows the artist rousing teenage girls from their beds. From behind her handheld camera, Nakadate sweetly persuades each of them to strip. Nakadate makes her requests for a sock or shirt to be removed sound like trivial, unassuming favors. As she coos, “You know you’re the prettiest girl, right?” over and over, followed by, “Just let me look at you,” the girls’ resistance crumbles until they’re left in their bras and underwear. It’s devastating to see how well the lame lines work: First, because all women have heard some variation of this “C’mon, it’s not that big a deal” shtick from men, and second, because watching the film quickly becomes an act of voyeurism, making the viewer feel that the girls are disrobing for his or her benefit.

Feminist art of the ’90s, such as Kiki Smith’s sculptures of practically faceless ladies with their internal organs exposed, tended to simplify individuals into a representation of all womankind. Nakadate represents a generational shift in female artists who prefer to explore pathos over politics. Her subjects, both male and female, are humanized to a point that would seem pathetic, if not for the extreme isolation of the worlds Nakadate creates. Within these small scenes, she effectively constructs an aversion to the watchful gaze cast on women. And instead of being punished for it, we are asked to watch and to empathize.