Nina Katchadourian just may be something of a national treasure. She’s an idea-driven artist with visual flair, one whose refreshingly idiosyncratic works employ humor and antics yet have a deeply serious streak. They also don’t look or behave, to my mind, like anything else around.
As a young artist (working together with artists Steven Matheson and Mark Tribe) Katchadourian sorted hundreds of cars by color in the parking lots of Southwestern College in Southern California (for one day, the red cars went in one lot, the white ones in another, the blue and yellow ones in still others). She has used red thread to mend torn spiderwebs on a Finnish island, arranged the iconic figures on supermarket products to form a sprawling family tree, turned car alarms into exotic bird calls, and projected — on her front tooth — a ten-minute excerpt of an archival film chronicling Sir Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing 1914 South Pole expedition in the ship Endurance, while trying very hard to keep smiling, a feat of endurance in its own right.
Katchadourian’s video installation Accent Elimination (2005) was a signature work in a group exhibition in the Armenian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, which won the Golden Lion for best pavilion of all, fittingly on the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey.
Katchadourian’s father is Armenian and her mother is from the Swedish minority in Finland. For Accent Elimination, assisted by an accent coach and in dialogue with her parents, she sought to mimic their distinctive, hard-to-place accents, while they in turn tried to smooth out their accents by mimicking their daughter’s more standard English.
The results are hilarious — for instance, Katchadourian trying to sound out, over and over, her last name in the exact pronunciation of her father and then her mother — but also complex. Immigration, the status of minorities, the centrality of language to identity, and also, however implicitly, the state-sponsored Armenian genocide (which the Turkish government continues to deny to this day) all course through the work. In the midst of considerable humor, you recognize the intense, inquiring connection between daughter and parents.
Katchadourian’s distinctive vision and eccentric oeuvre were showcased in her acclaimed mid-career survey exhibition, Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser, which originated at the Blanton Museum in Austin in 2017 and was reviewed here by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin. It then traveled in 2017 to Stanford University’s Cantor Center, and in 2018 to the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University.
Both vision and eccentricity abound in Katchadourian’s wonderful exhibition Ification, her first with the increasingly noteworthy Fridman Gallery. The show is weighted toward the copious photographs in Katchadourian’s ongoing Seat Assignment project, all taken with a cell phone aboard airplanes while she was flying to far-flung destinations, and all using, in novel ways, whatever was near at hand — from the photographs found in in-flight magazines to snacks, napkins, sugar, seat belt buckles, drinking straws, paper toilet bowl covers, a lemon peel, and the reflection of the overhead light and sunlight on glossy magazine pages.
Since 2010, when Katchadourian began this body of work, she’s turned the downtime of tedious, long-distance flights (movies, sleep, melatonin, zoning out) into the uptime of concentrated, marvelously inventive art-making. Her studio has been, say, seat 43A on a flight to Helsinki or seat 31D on a flight to Berlin. It has also been the airplane’s bathroom.
The most famous part of this multipart project (because it has long since gone viral and inspired countless imitations) is Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, from which four photographs are included in this show.
Katchadourian locked herself into a tiny airplane bathroom on a long flight from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand. Employing toilet bowl covers, paper towels, tissues, an orange-red shawl, and an airplane seat headrest protector, among other items, for her period garb, she convincingly transformed herself into makeshift female figures evoking various Northern Renaissance paintings, often sporting impressive headdresses. You also don’t register at all that she is in a restrictive bathroom.
There is nothing cheesy about these elaborate selfies, taken before selfies became a global craze; instead they are riveting, lush, solemn, richly communicative, and also a total riot. Katchadourian not only fashioned her bare-bones accoutrements into splendid outfits, but she also adopted different personae. She’s a prayerful supplicant in a hooded black robe and white head covering with her eyes upturned toward the Lord (“Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style #6,” 2011) and a sober, upper-class woman in an opulent red gown and chunky white headdress (“Lavatory Self- Portraits in the Flemish Style #8,” 2011). While traveling across a great distance, Katchadourian also became a time-traveler of sorts, insinuating herself into a milieu from centuries ago while infiltrating a particular branch of art history that she adores.
A great thing about this exhibition is how it fleshes out the whole scope of Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment project, expanding substantially beyond her much-lauded Flemish photographs. Hunkered down in her narrow seat, staging and photographing items on her tray table, perhaps with a sleeping fellow passenger beside her (one component of Seat Assignment features surreptitiously taken “spy” photographs of her snoozing seatmates), Katchadourian is irrepressibly creative, finding surprising possibilities with the most quotidian materials and images.
She angles her camera so that the objects she places atop magazine images meld with their backgrounds, forming a seamless, yet oftentimes startling, whole. In “Mountain Climbers (Apple)” (2011), a tiny winter hiker traverses a snowy trail somewhere far out in the wilderness, while a massive red apple, as in the biggest apple ever, an apple as big as a towering mountain, looms above the trail. It couldn’t be more bizarre, but it looks wonderful. In several of the photos, Katchadourian’s objects function as hypothetical public sculptures — seven peas, for example, in a column forming a Brancusi-like sculpture in an exquisitely manicured lakeside garden (“Topiary,” 2012) that is both completely ridiculous and totally charming.
As you encounter the various works (45 are included in the show), you realize how much Katchadourian’s mediated and manipulated mini-worlds and vignettes connect with the big and, especially in these times, very turbulent world out there, beyond the constricted airplane seat and the little airplane window.
Landscape is a prevailing theme — not lovely landscapes, but rugged, threatening and convulsive ones, the exact opposite of the inviting vacation spots that dominate travel magazines. A skier blithely descends a slope oblivious to a cascading avalanche — it’s actually Katchadourian’s half-eaten sandwich — just behind him (“Skier,” 2014). A landslide (it’s made of crumpled pretzels) appears to have slammed onto a freeway and tumbled under a bridge (“Pretzel Landslide,” 2010). Nature is unpredictable, powerful, and possibly dangerous.
Some of the works in this series are near-beatific (but also humorous and absurd) especially those that Katchadourian calls “High Altitude Spirit Photography,” alluding to 19-century spirit photography and esoteric spiritualism. While most of her Seat Assignment photographs are made by placing an object on top of a found image, she makes these by capturing glare on the image’s surface.
In “Rapture” (2011), a young man and woman, standing on a beach in a saccharine stock photo, are blasted by bedazzling light, perhaps Katchadourian’s version of the “light from heaven” (in the King James version of Acts 9) that stunned Saul on the road to Damascus and changed him into the Apostle Paul.
Others are downright harrowing, tapping into the stress of being trapped in an airplane hurtling along at 570 mph. A Delta airliner trails a thick plume of black “smoke” (actually black fuzz) from one of its engines (“Engine Failure,” 2011). Incandescent light at the back of an airplane cabin suggests a supernatural visitation but also a terrifying explosion (“Spectre,” 2012). Somehow, Katchadourian is able to turn a black Norwegian UBR Regular II parka from a magazine ad into a scary, hooded terrorist, photographing it in front of a “Safety on Board” instructional card (“Safety on Board,” 2012). Absurdist humor and palpable anxiety cohere.
The exhibition begins with talking popcorn, Katchadourian’s doctored version of a popcorn machine, in which a hidden computer translates the sound of popcorn into Morse code, which in turn becomes spoken gibberish; you can also reward yourself with a bag of popcorn while listening (“Talking Popcorn,” 2001). The original version suddenly self-immolated during a 2008 exhibition; its mangled carcass is displayed in another room.
Here, Katchadourian went to town with the first machine’s final, agonizing words, among which are “QOCRTETI NEIIHF HEMTLEEXRA CE SA CFII FAUSE.” She enlisted experts. An opera singer, familiar with tragic death scenes, sings the lines of gibberish. A poet/lawyer compares them to the last words of death row inmates. A birth and death doula focuses on grief, empathy, and acceptance, acknowledging Katchadourian’s very real grief following the “death” of her talking artwork which once called her “mom.” Katchadourian excels at investing commonplace, inanimate things with vitality and soulfulness.
A star of this exhibition is downstairs; it’s Katchadourian’s enchanting, totally funny, and profoundly touching video, The Recarcassing Ceremony (2016), commissioned by MASS MoCA which is where I was first mesmerized by it to the point of tears. Documentary interviews with her mother, father, and brother; archival audio recordings and photographs from her childhood; and the restaging of an elaborate game with Playmobil figures, which she and her younger brother Kai played for years, combine in a video that is at once exuberant and elegiac.
In a nutshell, sister and brother invented two huge Scandinavian families with names, social roles, and character traits for every little Playmobil figure. They invented a people, a culture and, as Katchadourian’s father puts it in the video, a “mythology” entirely on their own.
Then, one summer, disaster struck. At a northern California beach, Kai was tugging Matti Båtsman and his son Steve (two of the Playmobil figures) in a plastic boat along the bank of a river that emptied into the ocean. The boat got caught in a riptide, capsized, and was swept out to sea. Kai Katchadourian waded in trying to save the Playmobil figures and could easily have drowned; he and the whole family were traumatized.
A year later he and his sister created a “recarcassing ceremony,” in which they transmuted the souls of Matti and Steve into new Playmobil bodies; sensing the importance of what was about to transpire, their mother recorded the ceremony on a cassette tape. That’s what you hear in this enthralling video as the soundtrack to Nina Katchadourian’s restaging of the ceremony on a beach, many years later: the childhood voices of the two siblings with their much-practiced Scandinavian accents.
That first recarcassing ceremony was the last time Nina and Kai Katchadourian would play their Playmobil game; she was moving into adolescence and would leave it behind, much to her younger brother’s sadness (which he recounts in the video).
What’s also amazing about the video is how it functions as an origin story for both Nina and Kai. Far from being daunted by his traumatic experience with fierce waves and a riptide, Kai Katchadourian would learn to master them, becoming a world-class windsurfer.
And far from abandoning free-spirited imagination and play, Nina Katchadourian would eventually redirect both into her very remarkable art.
Nina Katchadourian: Ification continues at Fridman Gallery (169 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 31.