by David M. Roth
If you’ve ever seen Elvis on a tortilla — or heard the polyrhythms of Elvin Jones cascading off falling cornflakes — you’ll understand Nina Katchadourian. Like a lot of artists, she entered adulthood without abandoning what she calls “rigorous play,” the exercise of imagination that enables kids to see and hear things adults can’t. A mid-career survey, aptly named Curiouser, organized by Veronica Roberts, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, traces the free-range character of the artist’s discoveries and inventions. Few exhibits of conceptual art in recent memory have taken us down so many fascinating wormholes.
Included are a “talking” popcorn machine; imaginary maps; a genealogical “tree” of all the characters over the past century who’ve been invented to sell packaged foods; videos of the artist trying to assume (and be rid of) her parents’ foreign accents; book collections grouped to create profiles of their owners; documents of the artist’s interactions with insects; and photos made on airplanes.
The latter, thanks to viral dissemination, have made Katchadourian justifiably famous. Over the years, she’s taken hundreds of international and cross-country flights and made thousands of images, transforming the cramped quarters of airplane seats into flying studios. Using a smartphone to surreptitiously record still shots and movies from the vantage point of tray tables and bathrooms, she created a body of work that calls to mind spirit photography, the Surrealism of May Ray and all manner of “set-up” photography. Her fiendishly simple method is to lay bits of food onto the pages of in-flight magazines before clicking the shutter.
Long, rectangular crackers set on edge and photographed from a high angle, for example, yield the Twin Towers in miniature. An airplane wing, shot from a window seat, forms interlocking geometric patterns: a ready-made El Lissitzky. Pretzel shards placed on a photo of a highway simulate a meteor shower, while a bent lemon peel on a picture of a baseball diamond conjures the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. My favorite is a photo of a fox sprinkled with sugar. The animal appears to be exhaling one of Matisse’s dancers in the form of a thought balloon. Katchadourian also found that by holding magazine pages up to the light she could invest the contents with vaporous auras, suggesting supernatural events. Spectre (2012), which has light blazing down the center aisle of an aircraft, could have come straight out of Ghostbusters. Efforts such as these trace to Alfred Stieglitz’s notion of equivalents: the idea that abstract shapes – you if you look long and hard – can mimic all manner of tangible, real-world things.
Early in 2011, on a flight from San Francisco from New Zealand, Katchadourian found ways to extend the idea. By wrapping her head and face in paper towels, toilet seat covers and Kleenex, she credibly re-created the gestures, facial expressions and clothing of Flemish paintings. The authenticity of the series, Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style (2011), was further enhanced by the artist's acting, her obvious fatigue and by somber backdrops, made of a black scarf, a red shawl, an orange travel blanket, and sometimes, wrote the artist, "just an unadorned wall illuminated by the lavatory's own anemic lighting." The images, a marriage of selfies and art-historical appropriation, pay homage to Northern Renaissance portraiture and to Cindy Sherman’s female typecasting. The artist subsequently made music videos wearing the same getup. In these she convincingly lip-synched to songs by AC/DC, the Bee Gees and Queen. Of the three performances shown, her version of the David Bowie/Freddie Mercury cover of Queen’s Under Pressure is the clear standout, hilarious for the pout and snarl summoned in a bathroom at 50,000 feet.
Accent Elimination (2005), featured at the Armenian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, showcases a different aspect of Katchadourian’s performative side. In videos running on six monitors, the artist can be seen attempting to rid her parents of their native accents and acquire them for herself with assistance from a speech coach. It’s complicated. Her Turkey-born father speaks English, Arabic, French, Turkish and Armenian; her mother, born in Sweden, speaks English, Swedish, Spanish and Finnish. Erasing their hybrid accents proved impossible. The artist, who was raised in Stanford, Calif., fared better. With instruction and diligence, she pulled off credible imitations of both parents’ accents after previously sounding, as she put it, like “caricatures of Russian spies.” Apart from the linguistic gyrations involved, what jumps out most prominently from this piece and from another video (The Recarcassing Ceremony, 2016), is relationship between Katchadourian and her parents. From the warmth of their interactions, it's clear that their support formed the intellectual and emotional foundation from which Katchadourian’s omnivorous inclinations grew.
One of the most compelling (and also somewhat vexing) parts of the exhibition is called Sorted Books. The artist culled them from private homes and libraries and arranged them into carefully curated piles, which she photographed. The series makes concrete our inclination to profile people according to what's on their bookshelves. Problem is, if you're unfamilar with the books and/or the authors pictured you're left wanting. However, with a little knowledge, some these exercises in intellectual voyeurism satisfy. For Kansas City Cut-Up (2014), the artist photographed the library of William Burroughs, selecting titles that correspond to the topics touched on in the author’s most famous work, Naked Lunch (1959). Collectively, they indicate that the novel is not, as is commonly believed, a collage of incoherent fragments assembled by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac from the floor of the author’s apartment, but rather, the product of Burroughs’ research and drug-addled imagination.
If there’s a larger message to be taken from Sorted Books, it’s contained in the opening picture in which two titles — What is Art? and Close Observation – are cannily paired. The latter, in particular, serves as both the artist’s mantra, and as advice worth heeding as you tour the show, particularly at the beginning where a series of maps are displayed. They appear to present the globe as we know it. But close inspection reveals the continents to have been cut apart and rearranged, an act of political parody and geologic sabatoge that raises the contentious issue of borders. Nearby, Songs of the Islands: Concrete Music of New York (1996/1998), comprised of clumps of discarded audiotape scavenged from across the city, enables viewers to don headphones and listen to the assembled scraps. Don’t bother trying to match the sounds to the neighborhoods from which they were plucked. It’s a mock exercise in cultural anthropology, more of a testament to the notorious unreliability of cassette tapes than an indicator of local tastes. It's feints like this, toward serious investigation, that make this, and so much else in the show, engaging. Another example is Mended Spiderwebs (1998) in which the artist documents her attempt to repair broken webs with red thread, only to find that overnight, the spiders had undone her work and replaced it with their own. The pride of the arachnid! Who knew?
Not everything in the exhibition fares as well. Operation of the aforementioned Talking Popcorn (2001) machine – rigged to turn the sound of exploding kernels into a semi-intelligible audio feed – was confined, for wholly understandable reasons, to limited hours (Fridays, 12:30-1:30 pm), thereby preventing me from learning how bits of Morse code the artist once picked up on a shortwave radio from ships at sea could be heard as “speech.” Likewise, The Genealogy of the Supermarket (2005), a “map” of 98 characters created by American companies to hawk food products, functions mainly as a parlor game, the apparent object of which is to link faces to product names. No doubt, there’s a higher purpose lurking in this, maybe even the seeds of a doctoral dissertation, but I can’t tell you what it is.
Like a lot of conceptualists these days — Tacita Dean, Nigel Poor and Daniel Bozhkov are three that come to mind — Katchadourian sifts the fantastic from the quotidian. By directing playful queries at things we think we know, the artist, like Alice, makes us “curiouser and curiouser.”
# # #
Nina Katchadourian: “Curiouser” @ Cantor Arts Center through January 7, 2018.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.