Toilet paper hats, seatbelt selfies, and a performance by the Bee Gees normally don’t strike one as elements of an art exhibit, yet these are among the materials that make up the work of Nina Katchadourian in the BYU Museum of Art’s exhibition Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser. This mid-career survey of the artist brings a taste of the vibrant contemporary art scene of Brooklyn to students and locals of Brigham Young University, providing a unique change to the museum’s western-focused collections.
The exhibit focuses on Katchadourian’s ability to use a wide array of mediums including video, photography, sculpture, and sound installation to mine the creative potential of the world around us. As Katchadourian states, this interdisciplinary approach seeks to find a world that “lurks within the mundane.” The success of this creative process is found in the artist’s ability to combine ingenuity and humor, finding artistic possibility in the mundane and a revitalization of the way we see our surroundings.
Consistent to this approach is Katchadourian’s practice of creating art outside of her Brooklyn studio, including in libraries, forests, parking lots, and, most notably, airplanes. Finding it difficult to deal with how often traveling took her away from the studio, Katchadourian made the decision to see if she could create art on the plane, using only materials readily at hand.
One series in particular, Seat Assignment, showcases Katchadourian’s creativity with limited space and materials. Working between armrests, Katchadourian transforms items from her carry-on bag, in-flight magazine, and whatever snacks come down the aisle, and then captures her creations on her iPhone. This already constricting process is amplified by a very important, self-imposed rule: “Sometimes I dip into what I have brought with me, but I do not pack my bag with props for the project. I stick to things I would naturally have with me on a flight.”
This unique situation allows for the creation of striking works such as “Pink Volcano,” an altered found photograph with an unusual color scheme, and “Pretzel Meteor,” which uses crushed up pretzels and a magazine photo to create a whimsical scene of pretzel mayhem.
Perhaps the most striking products of Katchadourian’s time spent on planes are the works in her series Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. As the title suggests, Katchadourian’s series explores her ability to create Flemish-style portraiture in an airplane lavatory. Inspired by the artist’s spontaneous decision to put a tissue paper toilet seat cover on her head, the series focuses on “selfies” taken of the artist in airplane lavatories, using a mixture of toilet paper and other personal belongings that re-create 15th-century Flemish portraiture. The similarities to Flemish style in her work of iPhone selfies are rather outstanding from far away, as it is not until close inspection that the audience realizes it is simply a woman with toilet paper piled upon her head. . This humorous juxtaposition between the real and the fanciful is the epitome of Katchadourian as an artist, and speaks to her inventive nature.
Pushing the boundaries of her surroundings even further is a series of videos containing the same toilet paper-clad Katchadourian lip-syncing to the music of AC/DC, the Bee Gee’s, Freddy Mercury and, notably, Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 duet “Under Pressure.” The latter challenges both the audience and the artist as Katchadourian finds the balance between being humorous and genuinely moving. In text accompanying the exhibition, she says the video has both personal significance — “the title alludes to the many kinds of pressure [she is] under in the course of the project” — while also creating a moving fantasy “of the interaction between the characters . . . as a lovers’ quarrel, with one character acting distant and cold as the other one begs to be given one more chance.” This duality of meanings provides viewers the opportunity to find for themselves the significance of the works, and how their interpretation fits along with the artist’s own intentions.
Though Katchadourian’s imaginative works may come across to some as simply a series of silly bathroom-stall selfies, there is a great amount of depth to be found behind her unique ability to blend wit and resourcefulness of materials that finds meaning in the world around us. As BYU Museum of Art educator Lynda Palmer says, “Many artists throughout the ages have insightfully reflected the currents of their day, and Katchadourian is no exception. While humor is intrinsic to her art, she often employs it to reveal us to our 21st-century selves. In this exhibition, we come to see our world more clearly in unexpected ways, and find ourselves laughing at the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our contemporary lives.” Conceptually rich while surprisingly accessible, Curiouser is a breath of fresh air to be found at the BYU Museum of Art.
Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser, BYUMOA, Provo, through Aug. 11.
Carly is a recent graduate of Brigham Young University with a BA in Interdisciplinary Humanities and a minor in Art History. During her time at BYU she studied history and museum work in London and Paris and is currently interning at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City.