Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 8, 2018
Veronica Roberts, ed. Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser Exh. cat. Austin: Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, 2017. 144 pp.; 138 ills. Hardcover $34.95 (9781477311516)
Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, March 12–June 11, 2017; Stanford University Cantor Arts Center, September 15, 2017–January 7, 2018
Installation view of Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser, Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, March 12–June 11, 2017 (photograph © 2017; provided by the Blanton Museum of Art)

Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser is the first mid-career survey of the work of California-born New York–based Conceptual artist Nina Katchadourian (b. 1968). The exhibition explores ten major bodies of her work that include video, photography, sculpture, and sound art, addressing themes such as language, translation and interpretation, mapping and classificatory systems, sound and silence, awkwardness and the absurd, with a serious playfulness that has become the artist’s trademark. Organized by Veronica Roberts, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, the exhibition is both intellectually stimulating and aesthetically powerful, displaying some of the artist’s seminal projects at a scale and through a lens never presented before. The curatorial approach and installation, as well as the accompanying exhibition catalogue, are Conceptual works in their own right. The catalogue is the perfect complement to the survey. Quite significantly, and offering a great insight into the artist’s practice, Roberts wrote her catalogue essay on Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment series, in which photographs and videos were produced in airplanes, exclusively in flight between takeoffs and landings. In addition to Roberts’s contribution, titled “Seat Assignment: Art in Airplane Mode,” the catalogue includes another major essay, “Seriously Funny: The Art of Nina Katchadourian,” by Jeffrey Kastner, and fifteen shorter essays by artists, curators, academics, art critics, and a psychoanalyst (each introduced by the artist herself), along with an interview of the artist by Stuart Horodner.

The title of the exhibition is clever, awkward, and thought-provoking and can be interpreted in at least two different ways. Coined by Lewis Carroll in 1865, the word curiouser first appeared in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice was so surprised by the strange circumstances in which she found herself that she (through Carroll) made up a word, using it in the expression “Curiouser and curiouser,” which came to mean “increasingly strange.” As demonstrated in art-historical precedents such as Dada or Fluxus, exploring art and absurdity through creatively reframed ordinary gestures can uncover truths and have therapeutic potential, especially as a response to today’s tense and fractured sociopolitical climate. The second interpretation of the show’s title would be that the term serves as a kind of job description, not unlike painter, photographer, or a printmaker, identifying Katchadourian as a “curious-er.”

Indeed, the starting point for Katchadourian’s artistic practice is her infinite intellectual curiosity about layers of natural and human activity, about the apparently trivial and mundane objects surrounding us. She has explained that her process is based on John Cage’s definition of the artist as someone who is merely paying close attention (Nina Katchadourian, artist lecture, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, October 25, 2010). She likes zooming in on the invisible until it becomes visible. Her manipulation of ordinary materials is done in a playful yet rigorous way, based on charts and classificatory systems, senseless hierarchies and absurd taxonomic systems. Constantly trying to find logic in illogical and absurd situations, she reminds us of the laborious process of Sisyphus, pushing his rock up the hill, repeating the action over and over with remarkable rigor and self-determination. In his 1942 philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus saw in the absurd hero who finds meaning in his effort an existentialist metaphor for the human condition: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien [New York: Vintage Books, 1991, 91). Curiosity and playfulness require more time, space, and action (the three Aristotelian unities of drama) than we give them room for in our fast-paced twenty-first-century lives. Katchadourian is as observant and open to possibility as a child. Her art is ludic, and her play is self-conscious: she takes the process of play seriously, attaching self-designed and self-imposed rules, rigor, and commitment to it. She tries hard to find things that she can then generously share with the viewer, “extracting marvels from the mundane” (14). The viewer visiting the exhibition experienced the thrill of a scavenger hunt, as one became an active player in a participatory game. For example, in Sorted Books (1993–ongoing), part of the exhibition’s interactive “Reading Room,” viewers were invited to follow the artist’s instructions and create their own book-spine poetry. Art becomes an exercise in thought and imagination, an intellectual, conceptual, aesthetic, or philosophical form of mental gymnastic. In this way, Katchadourian brings the microscopic and the macroscopic together, in order to reinvigorate our curiosity and to question what deserves our time and attention.

One of Katchadourian’s strategies is to work with materials that are near to hand, free or close to free, and constantly re-answer the question: “What else could be done with what is here?” This productivity under pressure is best exemplified in her iconic series Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style (2011), produced in an airplane in the time frame of a fourteen-hour flight from San Francisco to Auckland, when limited time, space, materials, and privacy generated abundant results. Another example can be found in the artist’s absurd orchestration of music videos titled Under Pressure (Seat Assignment project, 2010ongoing), in which she lip-synched songs, in costume, in an airplane restroom; the videos preserve the spontaneous feeling of an event happening in the moment.

Katchadourian is naturally drawn to things that are awkward and do not quite add up. Humor is useful as a hook, as a Trojan horse that allows access and gets the viewers to feel welcome. Her strong interest in awkwardness and failure brings a charming, moving, and poignant human tone to all of her projects. She is constantly questioning our certainties and uncertainties in communicating or miscommunicating with the world, in reading and misreading, in translating and mistranslating, in interpreting and misinterpreting. In her project Accent Elimination (2005) she worked with a speech improvement coach in order to both “neutralize” her parents’ accents and learn to be able to imitate their intonations more efficiently. Her Armenian father (raised in Lebanon) and her Finnish mother (from the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland) become protagonists of a family drama in a comically thought-provoking way, performing dialogues first in their old accents and ultimately in their new accents. Accent Elimination engages accents and history and the scrambled nature of family in America and globalized world. This project spoke to me at a visceral, elemental level, bringing up multiple belongings instead of a unique identity, highlighting people’s willingness to assign “otherness” based on first impressions, and raising questions about the melting pot and assimilation.

Kinship and families play a key role in Katchadourian’s artistic practice. Two wall-size projects, constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed at the museum by the artist, look like oversize genealogical charts. In Paranormal Postcards (2001–ongoing), Katchadourian used postcards from around the world as an art material by altering some of their familiar images with delicate red threads that appear to connect key elements. After all, text and textile have the same etymology relating to weaving, the thread being the common element of writing and weaving. In The Genealogy of the Supermarket (2005–ongoing), Katchadourian interrelated the familiar images of characters from common products, such as the Quaker Oats man, Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and the Jolly Green Giant, into familial groups. She even makes sure to add local characters for each remaking of the project, such as the figure from Earl Campbell sausages for the venue in Austin.

Katchadourian’s art contains numerous autobiographical elements with which viewers can associate. Her first-person storytelling involves her childhood, travels, and discoveries, rigorous play, and curiosity sparked by her family. In the artist’s own words, the actions of “Observing, Repairing, and Maintaining” were an integral part of her childhood (conversation between the artist and the curator at the Blanton Art Museum on the day of the opening of the exhibition, March 11, 2017). A deep love of nature coupled with obsessive observation skills accompanied her on excursions into the forest during summers her family spent in the Finnish archipelago, where she learned the names of plants and birds, listened to what was present, monitored nature, and measured weather and changing conditions. These experiences gave birth to some of her most eccentric and absurd works: Mended Spiderwebs (1998), in which she tried to repair destroyed spider webs; the Humiliated Mushroom (1998), for which she used colorful tire patches from a bicycle-repair kit to amend fungi; and her more recent The Recarcassing Ceremony (2016), in which she engaged in a game with her brother using Playmobil figures to miniaturize the world and learn how to see it at another scale.

This is a poignant survey of the work of an artist who is invested in the world in thought-provoking ways, who prefers to work with less than more and who, as a contemporary absurd heroine, uses serious playfulness and the hook of humor to bring thought, laughter, and joy to her viewers. One must imagine Nina Katchadourian and her viewers to be like Camus’s Sisyphus: embroiled in daily struggles—yet happy!

Anna Tahinci
Professor and head of Art History, Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston