Last week, the Ackland Museum of Art opened an exhibition of 10 photographs by the photographer, filmmaker, and video and performance artist Laurel Nakadate. Part of the Ackland’s permanent collection, Ten Performances from 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, is also an excerpt from Nakadate’s 2010 durational project during which the artist photographed herself crying every day for a year. 

Presented as a set of large-scale chromogenic prints wrapped around a small gallery, the photographs are eerily timeless immersions in the intimacy of another. They feel like fever-dream riffs on the endless online search results for “best places to cry” or exemplars of “Sad Girl Theory” years before it was popularized.

Reflecting on the project more than a decade later—in between teaching, directing the MFA program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, and continuing her own artistic projects—Nakadate spoke with INDY Week about visual representations of grief, body autonomy, and the stories we tell ourselves through social media.

INDY WEEK: Hi, Laurel. Where are you right now?

LAUREL NAKADATE: I’m in Boston. It’s a nice winter day where it’s a little bit wet and cold. But it can always be worse, right?

At least it’s not snowing! But I don’t know how you feel about snow.

I’m from Iowa, so snow is OK. Last winter, we had a ton of snow for a couple weeks. And they just piled it all up into these massive sculptures at the side of the street. I spent a lot of time walking around, marveling at the beautiful icebergs in the middle of Boston.

Did you document it?

As a photographer, it’s impossible for me not to document things when I see them. I’ve always had that impulse to record the thing: to make it real or to acknowledge that it existed.

It’s connected to the [365 Days] work, which came out of the idea of the selfie. Late 2009 was the first time I heard the term “selfie,” and it was from a teenage girl. She said it so naturally and with such ease. [Taking selfies] was a way to be seen; it was a way for teenagers to create their own photo booth and document themselves within a language they owned. I really latched on to that and felt something big about it. I was in that stage between childhood and adulthood when you’re still swimming in both worlds.

I was also thinking about the way we used photography and social media in the late aughts. People seemed really happy: we had a great year, we went skiing, everything’s perfect, and we have this cute dog. I didn’t feel that way inside. I didn’t have a great year; nothing was going right, and I didn’t have a dog, you know? I wanted to participate in sadness and grief and put those images on social media and, through the tools of performance and photography, to put that story right up against how everyday consumers of social media were using photography.

Back then, social media wasn’t really a container that could hold that emotional spectrum or ambivalence.

It was a greeting card. I never felt that the greeting card I could make was the one people wanted to receive. The project I made is sort of the anti–greeting card of the internet.

The first month of my project was actually really hard. I had to find prompts from pop culture to figure out how to get [the crying] done. But as the project progressed, I felt like I could cry about anything. It became so easy. I could literally stand in front of people and just start weeping.

Today you can see so many visual expressions of crying on social media, from the more dramatic and theatrical to the more mundane.

“Theatricality” is a really interesting word. In the theater, people are always experiencing grief and speaking about grief because we go to the theater to learn something about who we are. So of course there would be crying or grief because that’s part of the human experience. But [in 2009] the internet was not fully part of the human experience, not something we identified with in a human way.

Your work has always centered self-portraiture and performances of the self. How did 365 Days evolve from your practice at the time?

I did all this documentary work in undergrad about girl culture of the late 90s— documenting parties, documenting youth culture. That was my generation and my peers, all participating in the incredible girls’ culture moment of the mid-90s—Ani DiFranco, Bikini Kill, riot grrrl. But I felt really complete with that work.

Around the time I started graduate school, I went to my grandparents’ house in Oregon and was shown a photograph of my [Japanese] great-grandmothers, who were brought to America as picture brides. The chance strangeness of that—of being chosen to come to a country based on your physical attributes—was really fascinating to me. So I started going out and making pictures with men I met through chance encounters, and I started thinking about the chance involved in how we build a life with someone.

I was also thinking about the way Asian American people are viewed in photographs and how we historically have not been able to document ourselves. My father spent the earliest part of his childhood in a concentration camp, and his family was not allowed to document themselves, because cameras were illegal for Japanese Americans during World War II. It was important for me to document myself as a mixed-race American person and to be able to tell this story about myself. Even if it was a constructed narrative built out of chance encounters with people I didn’t know, it was still a conversation about my body and my self in those spaces.

I think some people didn’t get the work. People weren’t seeing their own bias against a young Asian person building a narrative around her own experience and her relationship to whiteness. A lot of people early on were like, “How dare you insert yourself into the lives of these men if you’re not going to marry or date them? What gives you that right?” 365 Days was another opportunity for me to look at myself, to place my body in the frame, to be recognized by the camera.

I was thinking about this aspect of your work because I just saw the comedian Kate Berlant’s one-woman show that’s up in New York. The fulcrum of the show is [Berlant’s] performance of her inability to cry on cue. 

And the whole theatrical experience is mediated through a live filming of her face; she keeps approaching the camera trying over and over again to cry. She tells the audience that the process is incomplete until we see visual evidence of a tear coming down her cheek.

In 365 Days, the photos don’t always hinge on this visual evidence of a tear. In constructing these images, how did you decide what to show or what not to show?

I knew I wanted there to be a variety of the before, during, and after of crying: the full spectrum of the experience. If every single shot was just of my crying face, that would have felt like a scientific study of crying. I also wanted the pictures to be beautiful: meaning, I wanted them as photographic images to hold together. I also wanted to think about the spaces that I was in. In the series, you really travel around the world with me. Being able to stand back and see more of a hotel room or a bed or a truckstop—seeing the context for where my body is—is also important.

I did re-perform this piece in 2020 on Instagram (@365_tears). I photographed the book in square format for every day of 2020, letting the light from 2020 interact with the surface of the print from 2010. 

Was this re-photographing project incidental to the beginning of the pandemic?

I started on January 1, 2020, with the idea that it was the 10th anniversary of 365 Days and I wanted to think about the ways the internet had changed in that decade. I also wanted to meditate on these past iterations of ourselves: how pictures of ourselves change over time. A picture can have many lives and a project or performance can feel very different a decade later.

It did keep me company through 2020 because it ended up being this time of being stuck inside. And it was something that I could do every day. So it was a way to keep thinking and keep looking from inside my home.

You teach students. Do you see connections or resonances between what you were working on around that age to what young artists are interested in now?

I feel like it’s a given now that you can be vulnerable as a young artist. The work I made in 2010 was really vulnerable work. The internet was not ready for me to post it then. If I’d done this work in 2010 in art school, I would have had to unpack the whole thing. Now, I think people would just be like, “Well, I wasn’t feeling happy, so I made this picture.” There is so much more permission now. Or there’s less stigma around speaking about grief.

Earlier in my career, I did a Q&A. And someone said to me, “What gives you the right to use your body in this way?” I was so young that I actually was trying to unpack it and answer the question when the answer should have been, “Why don’t I have the right to use my own body?”

Or like, “What gives you the right to ask me that question?”

Right. But I couldn’t even turn it at that moment. I think when people take away our rights, sometimes we’re confused about what’s happening. Thinking back now, that person literally was trying to separate me from being in control of my own body. And it’s hard not to feel like it was really wrapped up in the intersections of race and gender. I look back now in horror over those kinds of questions and the ways I could and couldn’t defend myself.

In some ways, I feel like the best teaching I do is actually just letting the work be there for other people and be a way to grant permission for people to tell their own story. [In showing 365 Days in various museums and galleries], I’ve gotten letters from students who have talked about their own experiences with grief at a really young age. Thinking about the sorts of things I’ve done while on this planet, that feels important: the idea that I’ve given other young artists permission to be in grief.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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