Nina Katchadourian at Cecilia Brunson Projects, London
Flying elicits a smorgasbord of responses. Most people’s reactions tend to languish somewhere between fear and boredom; for some travellers, being buoyed thousands of feet in the air free from the constraints of place and familiarity, provides the perfect opportunity to reflect; for others the spatial confines and the close proximity to strangers renders the tubular metallic structure of the aircraft a confessional box; whilst for the more lusty there is always the lure of the mile high club.
Rarely though, has flying ever facilitated prolific amounts of creative output – let alone work that is both conceived and executed inflight. Nina Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment at Cecilia Brunson Projects is a body of work that attests to such an example. Katchadourian, a Brooklyn based artist, has been making installation, sculpture, photography and sound and moving image work for over 20 years. Seat Assignment is a series generated from over 100 flights clocked up since 2010. Here the most mundane of objects and airline paraphernalia, ranging from seat belts to the rosy, saccharine images from inflight magazines and ubiquitous airline snacks constitute the raw material for Katchadourian’s investigations.
The exhibition comprises a selection of photographs from the series archive as well as Flight Log a 15-minute digital slide show made up of hundreds of photographs, made entirely with aid of her camera phone and in flight materials. So prodigious has the output of the artist’s airbourne explorations been, that she has assiduously categorised the work with appellations from the generic to the specific to the bizarre: Landscapes, High Altitude Spirit Photography, Creatures, Athletics, Disasters, Top Doctors in America. Subsets of this series have yielded Self Portraits in the Flemish style, which garnered much coverage, and Sleepers, sidelong perspectives of her immediate passenger taken unawares at the moment they fell asleep.
It is ironic (and perhaps symptomatic of the work’s appeal) that limitation – a key component of the work – has enabled such a fecund outcome. That limitation, which manifests itself in Katchadourian’s other works, could be perceived as a kind of logic; a starting point predicated by a set of variables, determined by the artist, yet also dictated by the vagaries of chance. By imposing her own logic or order, a new reading or interpretation of the objects is effected. Take, for example, the image of the airplane flying majestically in the sky, evoking the glory and romanticism of the golden age of flying. Despoiling this picture of perfection are coils of smoke created by lint placed just below the wing of the aircraft. The result of this contrast is instantly gratifying, acting as a kind of one liner, yet there is also a deeper underlying observation: one which exposes our physical vulnerabilities, and our fears about flying, as well as the hubris of mankind’s belief in the supremacy of technology.
This notion of a devised logic to effect a new meaning is also evident in Katchadourian’s other long-standing series Sorted Books in which she arranges libraries and personal collections so that the titles on the books’ spines relate a meaning or an idea; and Talking Popcorn, a sound sculpture in which the sound of the popping corn is translated into Morse Code.
At the gallery’s single exhibition room, the photographic images seem to create a kind of meta-narrative – one of wit and woe, of irony and tragedy, of observation and perception. Some ideas are stronger than others; others exist solely as quick-witted visual puns. I particularly like Topiary (2012), the photograph of baroque manicured gardens decorated with a line of peas. The absurd and senseless decoration highlights the already senseless and painstaking efforts to instil order and create a specific aesthetic in nature, which is beyond domesticating. I am reminded of Edward Leer’s limericks in his Book of Nonsense. Both Leer’s limericks and Katchdourian’s works are driven by invention, an innate sense of curiosity and touch of the absurd. Yet, there is a profundity in both artists’ work: there is a sense of intense observation, of seeing the world differently and of infinite possibility.
Leer who was a prolific artist, poet and illustrator wrote his first Book of Nonsense in 1846. In the poems, he plays with words, creating neologisms, devising phrases and verses that seemingly have little purpose beyond that to dazzle and delight and to luxuriate in his strange illogical logic. Leer’s limericks were also a wry and witty comment on Victorian society and provided and an antidote to its stifling moral codes.
Katchadourian plays with images and objects creating visual puns with topsy-turvy meanings. The accepted and the obvious are turned on its head with her new reordered logic. Her images make bare our society’s obsession with the image, the fallacy of the photograph’s authenticity, and that belief that nothing is real, unless it is documented.
In the technology-fuelled frenzy of society, where we are forever trying to keep abreast with its incessant feeds of news and communication and imagery, it is almost impossible to switch off. Never is this more evident than when flying: we are inundated with in-flight entertainment and communication systems, shopping, magazines, snacks and alcohol to keep us occupied. Our feelings are deadened or as Fredric Jameson described in Postmodernism, the de-centered (or non-autonomous self) subject is ‘liberated from feeling’, where feelings are ‘free-floating, impersonal and tend to be dominated by a kind of euphoria.’ It seems to me that Katchadourian in her airbourne escapades attempts to escape this condition. By limiting herself with time and materials and relying on trenchant observation, she is at her most productive.
Nina Katchadourian, Seat Assignment, Cecilia Brunson Projects through to May 24, 2014