The Weeping Breviary

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Excepting the crocodile, whose tears were long thought to be a strategy for luring in sympathetic prey, there is no animal but the human animal who weeps, and none that weeps regularly, and none that weeps to express keen feeling, and none that weeps to express remorse, and none that weeps to comfort itself to sleep. And so it’s fair to think of the human animal as the weeping animal. Let’s leave aside the special cases. Let’s leave aside those who inadvertently weep when eating, having recently recovered from Bell’s palsy. (It’s true!) Let’s leave aside those who appear to need to weep when appearing on television cameras so as to lend seriousness to their politics. Let’s leave aside the weeping Japanese women who are catering to a Japanese porn fetish. (It’s true! Japanese weeping porn!)

 
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Let’s leave aside even those who weep gratefully, as this too is specialized, and less common, when you get right down to it, than weeping in which the weeper is sad, forlorn, regretful, lost, lonely, bereft, grief-stricken, adrift, or full of pity for the suffering of others. Sadder tears are commoner, because sadder experiences are more routine than those in which we are surfeited with gratitude.

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Laurel Nakadate’s "365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears" provides an abundance of substantiation for the argument that forlornness is the commonest of feelings, the most human of feelings in this our weeping animal, for it purports to catalogue an entire year, 2010, in which the artist wept every single day and managed in the process, somehow, to turn on a camera and to shoot herself performing this elemental task. Every day. Just as if she were flossing her teeth, getting out of bed, eating, brushing her hair, or getting dressed (though it is true, on the basis of the photographs, that sometimes Nakadate wept before or without getting dressed). Weeping, in this narrative account, is a daily activity for Laurel Nakadate, because forlornness and brokenness and grief and loss are daily activities, and the one leads to the other for the weeping animal, the day leads inexorably to weeping, and weeping, further, is the marker for the passage of each diurnal interval.

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What, you might ask, do 365 photographs of a young woman weeping mean? What does weeping on this scale mean? What, effectively, does constant weeping mean? What does weeping at the drop of a hat mean? Weeping in buckets? What do buckets of tears mean? And do they have to mean something, or can they just be? Like a bend in the river? For an artist who courted notoriety by videotaping herself dancing and performing with men she met on the street, and who thus took risks, who reveled in a certain amount of risk-taking, and who in the execution allowed herself to be reengineered into an object of fantasy for these lonely persons, the weeping photos are indisputably a dramatic transition, a new subject, with substantially different resonances. The Nakadate of the earlier work is an exhibitionist who, nonetheless, has mixed emotions about being the fetish object and about the power of photography to turn subject into fetish, and fetish into power nexus, but who relishes the energy thrown up by mixed feelings. The earlier Nakadate implicates the audience in the ritual consumption of fetish, invites male viewers to get closer to their own shame, and, in the process, collaborates with the lonely persons who people her videos, coming in this way to know them. She gathers in their inmost difficulties, in the process feeling what there is to feel — even as the camera leaves all contradictions in place, woman fetishized/woman empowered, beauty celebrated/homeliness celebrated, loss idealized/loss transcended, photography as documentary medium/photography as medium of constructed reality, and so on.

The artist of "365 Days," on the other hand, is an artist who has stripped away the collaborators and the apparatus, until what remains is the pathos associated with the work and not much else. In "365 Days" the artist, the fetish, the feeling, and the aftermath of the image are all simultaneous, the feeling of being a woman, the feeling of being an object, the feeling of making art about these feelings, the feeling of art itself, these are apparent in the reifications and limitations of the photograph, so that the image and the aftermath of the image do a dance of simultaneities. I am showing you myself, and I despair of your reaction to this image, which is not myself, the photos remark, or Don’t watch, or else I will cry, which really ought to embarrass you, or, This is intimate, and you should not be seeing it, and you are ruining it by seeing it, all of these dilemmas worth weeping over — if you are a weeping animal — and this construction of paradoxes, this reveling in contradiction, in the contradiction at the heart of documentation, is made again and again and again by Nakadate in this weeping year, in ways labored, premeditated, and absolutely on the fly, while many other things were (to speak factually) taking place (a movie was being finished, an art exhibition was being mounted, classes were being taught), so that the photographs are excisions from the year in question, and a selection of what is important in these days, an interpretation of the calendar, rather than the calendar itself.

Which raises the taxonomic questions: What kind of work is this work? Is it really photographic in the traditional sense? Is it documentary? Or is it something more? This work, I would argue, is more than photographic residue. This work is a performance, a yearlong performance, mostly taking place, as it turns out, in three places: in the artist’s very small apartment in Greenwich Village (in which she works especially hard, over the course of "365 Days," to find new corners, new spots, new lighting conditions, so that at the end of the journey, we feel we know intimately the modest confines of her living space, we feel we have experienced its relentless smallness), in hotels, and aboard commercial airliners. The artist, on the basis of the documentation, is in an almost constant state of flux, on jets, or in anonymous rooms, and always miserable about traveling, and since, again and again, we are thinking about the excising, about the narrative implied outside of the photographs, it’s not hard to linger over the idea of the other people on the jet when Nakadate is busy photographing herself weeping at 1:38 A.M., somewhere over Lawrence, Kansas, let’s say. Such is the project. The performance is the ritual, which is the purgation of such feelings as: sadness, forlornness, regret, loneliness, grief, or humility. And the ritual is the performance, and the performance is the work, and the performance exists because you, the audience, require it, because you too are sad, forlorn. Purgation allows artist and audience to feel better, or so Aristotle might have said. Or: Purgation creates an environment in which more purgation is always necessary.

Are there aspects of the artist’s biography that make it especially easy for her to weep in this way? Are there aspects of the artist’s biography in 2010 that make this year an especially good weeping year? Is 2010 a better year for weeping than, say, 2008, or 2011? The ritual of "365 Days" does not include a great volume of biographical markings, nor does it explicitly reward biographical inquiry, although if one is in search of narrative, there are hints, tidbits of realism, of worldly movement, of conflict, tectonic shifting, certain landscapes that one might point to and might attempt to decode, repetitions of interiors (besides the artist’s apartment), so as to construct or infer a story of the year, and, in fact, this invitation to infer implies one of the further questions about "365 Days": Why a series of photographs to document the performance rather than a series of videos? Or one continuous video? A plausible explanation would be that the artist is simply a gifted photographer, and the beauty of these bordered instants is seductive. But another explanation would adhere to the notion that the implied narrative, the fragmented narrative, makes room for the viewer, makes room for transferential exchange, and the emptying out of unwarranted biographical certainties implies that only the tears are memorable or important in the year 2010.

To put it yet another way: In these photos the artist is always alone. There is not another hand, not a strand of hair, not another shadow, not another human being, except in very occasional extreme distances, and there is no conversation taking place, and thus no kind words, no witticisms, to leaven the dread. There is only solitariness. We can assume that Laurel Nakadate did, in fact, have some consort with human beings in 2010, but those interactions are not part of the performance. The weeping animal is mostly alone and is best when lonely.

These are also photographs, as opposed to artistic statements in other media, because these kinds of photographs — haunted, intimate, excessively revealing, and completely isolated images of young women — are one compelling story of femininity now. This is the story on the Web, in millions upon millions of blogs, and Facebook pages, and online sites advocating activities both wholesome and dangerous. The bulk of these online photographs of strangers, these accounts of self, are bad, are awkward, dimly lit, haphazard, consumer-grade, hopeless, and Nakadate plays with and against this constructed femininity; she includes the bad photos of herself, the ones where her eyes are nearly swollen shut, where the running makeup does not look like what you might find in the fashion photos of the ’90s; there are running noses, inflammations, unsightly grimaces, things out of focus. Nakadate likes bad images, even if she is also entirely capable of aestheticizing her weeping photographs, so that her outstretched body looks like the murder victim captured by Weegee, or so that her curled-up physique is like a deposition from the Renaissance, a Caravaggio, excepting that in this refraction Mary has breasts effulgent, as if to taunt those who would merely select for the fetish qualities of an image and who are thereby brought near to their shame. Among precursors of art history, Nakadate borrows therefore from both sacred and profane; from the performances of more recent performance art history, she also borrows — from Yoko Ono, Vito Acconci, and Marina Abramovic; from the television of recent years Nakadate borrows from the cheapness, the tawdriness of so-called enhanced reality programming, which is to say that this weeping happened, but the tripod was often set up and waiting beforehand, and the subject of the photos (in this case the photographer, too) invited the intrusion, despite the fact that she probably ought to have run screaming in another direction. Just like on "16 and Pregnant." Just like on "Teen Mom." Just like on "Hoarders" (the show about collecting mania). Just like on "The Biggest Loser" (weight loss as emblematic American activity).

The cataloguing of para- and intertexts above neglects, however, to remind you about the pathos, neglects to mention again that the weeping animal actually weeps, because the weeping animal cannot do otherwise, though in many cases it wishes it might. The weeping animal is felled by its sympathies, because its compassion is not evolutionarily sound, unless perhaps the weeping animal is a mother. The weeping animal, as in Wittgenstein’s private-language argument, makes the one undeniably perceptible human utterance, the cry of pain. Though the weeping animal, in the main, is worthless to the masses of featherless bipeds because it is standing around gazing at all the disaffiliation when what it should be doing is killing and eating its antagonists, raping, pillaging, accepting government bailouts, socking away profits in offshore accounts, it is so human, just the same, in its frailty, its genuineness, its separateness, its estrangement.

Nakadate’s year of suffering, her calendar, her breviary, is a recognition of a shared language of regret that yokes us together, therefore, and a recognition that this regret and loss are somehow beautiful, no matter how they look. The beauty is after the fact, a posteriori. Together in one place, these works by Nakadate have a lingering and brutal thrust, in the way that collections of human reiteration are always overwhelming, because the sheer amount of tears that fell, in this calendar of 2010, is enormous. Gallons perhaps. Hard to feel that we are worth all this, but Nakadate performs her tears — at us, with us, for us — nonetheless. And in the process, the aesthetic process, the personal process, the human process, something like redemption is introduced into this creative exchange. A sort of redemption becomes conceivable. Even likely.

"The Weeping Breviary" originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' March 2011 Table of Contents.