Making Me Understand: Nina Katchadourian

Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or artist means to me right now.

Nina Katchadourian went viral sometime in the past year or two. Maybe you’re not recalling her by name. But if I tell you that she was the face in and the brain behind these brilliant airplane Lavatory Portraits in the Flemish Style, then maybe that starts to ring a bell for you? When I learned about those, I knew I’d need to know more.

Last night, I had the chance to hear Nina present her work at the Brooklyn Museum. She was an engaging speaker as she took us through a survey of her work over 20+ years. Like her collaboration CARPARK which routed cars parking at a college to parking lots by color for one day – an aerial photo reveals what she said she unexpectedly found most delightful, the places where the system broke down, like the white car in the red lot. I’ve always been a fan of minimally confrontational public art, so this project was easy to love.

It turned out that the lavatory portraits are part of a longer series of works called Seat Assignment, which began when Nina decided that her flight from LaGuardia to Atlanta would not be time idly wasted, but time to explore the environment and make art out of it. She has been on over 180 flights since starting the project in 2010, and she is constantly adding to it. I love this commitment to not wasting a moment, even in spaces that are aggressively anti-creative ones. I also love the series Buckleheads, which shows us how to surreptitiously surveil our seat neighbors.

She spoke about another early project, Accent Elimination, that also resonated with me. In it, she and her parents (who speak heavily accented English) try to learn to speak with each others accents. She mentioned last night that she had never been able to replicate her parents’ accents, which is something I had also noticed in myself. So here my kinship with her began to deepen.

Nina has also collaborated with nature in surprising and hilarious ways. Last night, she spoke about her Mended Spiderwebs Series. I loved hearing about how the spiders rejected her contributions outright. She didn’t try to recreate the spider’s web in any authentic way – she used starched red thread. I don’t think she realized the spider would reject her work, the first time she did it. But it did, and she incorporated it into the piece. Her entire project was achieved in order to be rejected. It’s refreshing to hear about something like this, inhabiting as I do now a life in which the entire point is not to experience rejection (of my medication). Also a good reminder to stop censoring ourselves and keep working on stuff and not fear rejection (… by spiders, at the very least).

Towards the end of Nina’s presentation my jaw dropped as a moment of total coincidence happened, the way things used to line up last year when I was on Decadron and these crazy things seemed to happen all the time. This month, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Nina’s work entitled “Floater Theater” will open. This piece investigates and celebrates visual floaters, those things that float across your field of vision (which are actually little clumps of stuff on the jelly-like vitreous humour between your eye’s lens and the retina). I couldn’t believe it, because I’ve spent the past ten months worrying about crap in my vitreous and dealing with floaters (as side effect of my cancer meds). In fact, just the other day on this blog I wrote about getting the clean bill from the ophthalmologist, but I still have one floater which isn’t going away, not for a long time, and how I’ll just have to deal.

By this point I thought I was having some weird mind-meld with this artist with whom I felt so much kinship. And then she talked about a piece that is going up just a few days from now, at MassMOCA, as part of an exhibit about wonder called Explode Every Day. She’s making a film called “The Recarcassing Ceremony,” and it’s all about Playmobil figures she and her brother had as kids, and reenacts a ceremony they held to replace two figures which had drowned with two new ones. Playmobil figures are very much a part of my daily landscape. They are almost always underfoot, when they aren’t all arranged in a group for a concert or sitting on blocks that are bus seats or right on the floor outside my bedroom waiting for a train.

Following the lecture, even though a Q&A might have been fun (or deathly boring, as those things sometimes turn out), instead museum staffers dressed as flight attendants came down the aisles (the seats were arranged in two columns of four with a center aisle, reminiscent of a plane) offering us airplane items: mini bottles of water or cans of Clamato, packets of honey roasted peanuts, biscuits, lemon or lime wedges, coffee stirrers, plastic cups, and magazines. (I selected a Christie’s catalog because there were no mags.) We each had a board under our chairs that served as a tray table.

We got to work. At first I was totally, totally stumped. I didn’t need to top Nina’s brilliance, obviously, but I wanted to make something that made me happy. I tried using the lime but it wasn’t cooperating. I ate the lime, thinking the peel would be useful. It was sour, but maybe the jolt of Vitamin C was what I needed. First I opened up the peanuts and started halving them and then I found an image that would work:

Poseurs (Honey Roasted Peanuts Meet White Cliffs)

The peanuts are trying to blend in, to look as impressive as these white cliffs in Brittany. They aren’t quite managing. (Because they are honey roasted peanuts. Which in my estimation is one of the worst snacks ever.)

Then I found another image and it was time for a tribute to one of my early experiences of the avant garde, the film Un chien andalou. I thought of the iconic scene with the razor blade across the eye as I tried to balance the coffee stirrer on its side on the picture which was sitting on a board on my lap.

Homage to "Un chien andalou" (coffee stirrer)

I mean, I know it isn’t much. But then, this is Nina’s point: It doesn’t take much to look at what surrounds us in a different way. To turn something slightly, maybe only 15 degrees on its axis, and see what happens. I’m so relieved to be reminded of this.

Today is decidedly not going as planned. I was supposed to ride six or seven laps of the park on my bike today. Instead, I woke up dizzy again. I’m back in bed. It is a beautiful day, and I should be out, but I’m in bed. However, the lecture last night, and the tiny burst of creativity it brought to me, are keeping me from total despondency. Perhaps in another hour I’ll be able to prop my head up. If so, I’ll get my laptop and give that long-suffering essay another go.

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