All About Meeeeee!

Okay, Laurel Nakadate...

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.

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?

But here's the tricky thing about art video. You have to watch the whole freakin' thing. It's not like a painting or a sculpture — you can figure out pretty quickly whether it's worth spending time on those. Video requires a time commitment; walk away halfway through, and you might miss something. Or you might sit through the whole thing and end up really pissed off, wanting that half hour of your life back.

Thankfully, I ended up watching all six minutes of Okumura's Daydream Believer. (Okay, it's only six minutes, but there's a lot of video in this show). After more footage of this self-absorbed kid's fucking boring day, the video "skips" and things go all Matrix. An outlet appears in the back of Okumura's head. In a scene shot in the empty DiverseWorks gallery, curator Rachel Cook and an assistant "unplug" the artist from a video player. Hey buddy, your hip little art star existence was all an illusion — welcome to Houston! It's a witty, masterfully redeeming and self-aware scene.

Even with successful work, watching video of people making art about themselves wears thin after a while. It's worse when the results are unsuccessful, as in the case of Wynne Greenwood. In Peas (2007), the artist constructs a figure using video and a giant paper doll-like cardboard cutout.

The video shows Greenwood lying back and resting on her elbows, her shirt pulled up. She has drawn a face on her belly and placed a pillow next to her body to extend the drawing field, inking a torso to go along with the face on her belly. She creates the lower half of the body with giant cardboard hips and legs. A square is cut out of the crotch of the cardboard, and a video of an actual naked woman's crotch is shown in the opening. Lovely, a twat-cam. The artist has drawn little cartoonish faces around her (?) pussy, which appear and disappear.

All the while, there is some kind of intermittent, tearful dialog going on with the artist and her stomach, or is it her pubic hair? The audio snippets I could catch ("If you have a problem with that then that's your jerk...what's the problem here") did nothing to redeem or improve the piece. The way Greenwood's using video and sculptural elements is intriguing, but conceptually, I can't see that this holds much appeal for anyone other than the artist and maybe those viewers in the market for naked-crotch video.

People have probably always been self-­absorbed, but never before has it been so public, so widespread or so acceptable. Sometimes it seems like a whole generation has been told by their parents, "Honey, everything you do is wonderful, of course everyone wants to know everything about you!" — and believed it. The self can be rich artistic fodder, but you've got to have some sort of objectivity. Just 'cause it's interesting to you, does not automatically mean it's interesting to other people.

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