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All About Meeeeee!

DiverseWorks showcases the video of self-absorption.

Laurel Nakadate's art really irritates me, and I still can't decide if that is a good thing or a bad thing. You may have heard about her — she's the young, attractive artist who lets creepy, lonely old guys pick her up and then films her interactions with them, a premise that has "mutilated corpse found in woods" written all over it. But aside from her decision to put herself into shady situations, Nakadate's art brings up a host of other issues.

Nakadate is part of a growing number of young artists making video work about/using themselves. It's part of the 21st-century zeitgeist. Where teenagers used to goof around in front of the mirror, they now goof around in front of Web and video cameras. And they share it via a variety of social media sites. Often this stuff isn't the kind of thing that anyone other than the teenager, and possibly her best friend, would find interesting. But artists are tapping into this impulse, with some making interesting work, and some, not so much.

For "'Now that I'm by myself,' she says, 'I'm not by myself, which is good'" at DiverseWorks, curator Rachel Cook has pulled together four of these artists, all in their early thirties, and presented their video works. The exhibition title could easily pass for a Twitter update, and Cook clearly has her finger on the pulse of something.

Okay, Laurel Nakadate...
Okay, Laurel Nakadate...
...and Wynne Greenwood, we are looking at you.
...and Wynne Greenwood, we are looking at you.

Nakadate's work puts the "A" in awkward. In her filmed interactions with these guys, often in their grubby, dank apartments, she has them play various roles — they stiltedly beg for their lives as she points a pistol at them, pretend to beat her up or howl like a dog. The guys are bad actors and obviously feel uncomfortable, but they are just so thrilled to have this hot chick paying attention to them, they'll do anything. Nakadate is frequently scantily clad in these encounters.

So what is going on here? Nakadate is turning the tables on the traditional assumption that these creepy old guys would be exploiting the young girl. You pretty much feel that she is exploiting them. A young woman using her beauty to make people do what she wants: Is it subversive, or is it retrograde? Isn't she doing the same thing to the art world?

Kudos to Nakadate for having her way with the art world, but when it comes to individuals, that's a different thing. In a 2006 interview in The Believer, Nakadate expressed empathy for the guys she makes do her bidding. But she's still exploiting their loneliness, their pathetic need, and that's a pretty shitty thing to do to another human being. It's not that far off from making a crack whore give head for a rock.

The guys are absent from some of Nakadate's more recent work. In the 2009 piece Little Exorcisms, it's full-on narcissism — that, or a dead-on simulation. The artist films herself in her Amtrak train compartment, caressing herself, flashing her tits to the desert landscape. In other scenes she pees or poses and strips outdoors. In the Believer interview, Nakadate characterized herself as an actress in her own films. And this is where things get slippery. Basically, the video snippets seem juvenile, something a teenager, enamored with herself, would make to try to be shocking. Is that who Nakadate is, or is it the role she's playing?

There is a coldness and a distance to everything Nakadate does that separates her actions from an ill-advised YouTube post by a 15-year-old exhibitionist. As problematic as I find it, I can't dismiss her work, but I can't bring myself to drink the Kool-Aid either.

Brian Bress's work is decidedly less ambiguous. With artfully bad props and worse makeup, he's playing a host of roles. Each is a riff on a type; it's like sketch comedy in which the writer, costume designer, makeup artist and set designer quit after the first day on the job, and the actor's determined to go on with the show all by himself.

Bress mugs for the camera in white greasepaint, a blond wig, pearls and a shapeless blue dress. Clad in a lavender shirt and loud tie, he splutters, "I fucking don't know anything!" as he "waterboards" himself, blood and water running down his face. He scowls and slouches around in a grubby shirt; he costumes himself to blend into his sets. He spews out his inner weirdness full force, riffing on some things we're familiar with and others we'd never imagine.

It's engaging and exuberantly strange. This is someone you want to watch making faces in the mirror.

People may be infinitely fascinating, but we are not always the best judges of what is interesting about ourselves. In Yuki Okumura's 2009 video Daydream Believer, commissioned by DiverseWorks, a camera follows the artist through his day. A skinny kid who looks like he's 12, Okumura talks on his phone in the subway, walks down the street, eats sushi, drinks tea, has dinner with friends, sings karaoke, goes to sleep, gets up, takes a shower, brushes his teeth, works on the computer, makes little exacting colored-pencil drawings (on view), visits his gallery and has his photograph taken. It's really banal stuff. The fact that the video was shot in Japan makes it nominally more interesting. In the hands of a skilled documentarian, that kind of cinema verité thing can become powerful. Here, who cares?

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