Photography has a fraught history with the idea of “truth” or historical veracity—its connection to any “truthiness” of the past has been shaky at best since its inception over a century ago. In her most recent exhibition at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects in Chelsea, Laurel Nakadate uses photography to recreate a past that never happened and never will. Titled “The Kingdom,” the show centers around a series of 34 photographs depicting the artist’s mother, Mary, holding Nakadate’s infant son, Theo. Mary, who passed away in 2016, was never able to meet her daughter’s son. To achieve these impossible photographic moments Nakadate hired anonymous online Photoshop technicians to place images of her son into images with her mother, the only direction being to put Theo into Mary’s arms. The anonymity of the hired collaborators gives the work an element of chance and references Nakadate’s relationship with death and grieving: that it is out of our hands and we are “not responsible for how things go.”
The exhibition also includes a decommissioned pay phone and another series of photographs, titled “City of Stars” and “Executive Order 9066,” respectively. “City of Stars” invites gallery goers to pick up the phone receiver to listen to recordings of voicemail messages that Mary left Laurel. The looped recordings repeat the words “goodbye” and “I love you,” giving the artist’s mother a literal voice in the show. “Executive Order 9066” relates to the American internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which Nakadate’s father experienced for 180 days. The photo series shows daily images of Theo during his first year of life, Nakadate’s act of daily photographing paralleling her father’s daily imprisonment.
City of Stars
Mixed media with audio
39 x 17 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches
Laurel Nakadate attended Yale in the early 2000s and enjoyed early fame for her video work, which often dealt with sexuality and vulnerability. While attending Yale she began a performative video project initiated by unknown men hitting on her. Instead of ignoring or turning down the offers Nakadate would agree to return home with them where she would then record a short performance. These performances ranged from mock birthday celebrations, complete with cake and candles, dancing and singing to Britney Spear, to posing as an underwear model. Throughout 2010 the artist completed a year-long project where she cried in front of her video camera once a day for the entire year.
“The Kingdom” is a departure from her previous work since it features her family as the subjects rather than herself. While the tone of the work is overtly somber, there are glimmers of wry humor in how the unknown Photoshop technicians went about their task. In one of the images baby Theo is placed in the arms of Nakadate’s grandmother instead of her mother, and in another Mary’s arms have been slimmed down as per retouching norms. For Nakadate these small “failures” are an important part of the work. Initially the photos were her attempt to realize a lost experience—her mother meeting Theo—but the images fail to provide that experience. This shows that although photographic technologies allows us to alter representations of the past, they fail to grant us the ability to remake it.