Under the Stars with Laurel Nakadate

Is blood really that thick? Artist Laurel Nakadate, whose body of work explores relations with strangers, decided to investigate. Curious about her genetic link to others, she took a DNA test to track down distant relatives on her mother’s side. Her maternal kin, photographed at nighttime in remote areas, are the subjects of “Strangers and Relations,” Nakadate’s third solo exhibition at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, opening Saturday.

A genome is more than a cluster of molecules to Nakadate: “It’s a map that connects me with others on this planet, and it’s a mystery, a list of clues, evidence of lives lived.” She started by cold-emailing relatives describing her concept, but wary her request was a bit peculiar. “It’s a strange project,” she says. “[It’s like] ‘Hi, I don’t know you, but we are related, and I’d like to make your portrait! Oh, and I’d like to meet you at night, under only star and moonlight.  Oh, and the darker the location, the better.'”

Still, she still found a handful of willing participants, 17 of whom are in the show. Nighttime meetings were important, she felt, because “the night sky has remained all but unchanged” since America was colonized, making for a unifying shroud. The setting also lends a quiet, surreal aesthetic to the images. “It provides a backdrop of mystery,” she notes. “There is something profound about standing in the middle of Southern Arizona, right on the Mexican border, under a blanket of stars.”

Nakadate traveled 37,000 miles over 31 states to meet her subjects. “I slept in some of the strangest, saddest motels, I’ve ever stayed in… I saw a lot of abandoned storefronts, boarded-up houses, and empty lots,” she remembers. “Half the time, my GPS didn’t even know where I was.” But the lonely journey helped put the project in context. “It speaks about America in 2013, and that heavy feeling of being alone in the middle of nowhere, while still trying to make connections with strangers,” Nakadate explains.

 “The act of looking into the eyes of each stranger was powerful,” she said. “I’m sure I will not speak to some of them again…I am okay with that, though. Perhaps the distance between us is also important.”