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How to Make Art at 30,000 Feet

For nearly a decade, Nina Katchadourian has made images on airplanes using only a cell phone and found objects.

By Ellen Pong

Nina Katchadourian, Topiary, 2012, from Seat Assignment, 2010–ongoing
Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery

Overlooking a seaside courtyard of ornately manicured hedges and potted shrubs, Nina Katchadourian’s Topiary (2012) pictures meandering garden-goers on a sun-drenched summer’s day. From a lily pond at the center of the scene springs the focal point of the image: a towering, Brancusi-like form of stacked green spheres. The “sculpture,” as the artist confirmed at a talk she recently gave at Fridman Gallery, is actually a row of green peas that Katchadourian was snacking on during one of many flights she’s taken over nine years of traveling between exhibitions, professorial positions, and her home bases of New York and Berlin.

Nina Katchadourian, Dancers, 2012, from Seat Assignment, 2010–ongoing
Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery

Using rephotography and found objects, the artist makes the most of the mundane. Drink napkins, airplane food, in-flight magazines, paper toilet-seat covers, and countless near-silent hours spent sitting stiffly upright become the fertile grounds for Katchadourian’s series Seat Assignment (2010–ongoing), a body of absurdist cell phone images made exclusively while flying on airplanes. This series was on view in the artist’s recent solo exhibition, Ification, at Fridman Gallery in New York. It was presented alongside video, audio, and sculpture works that are equally amusing—including a functional, Frankensteinian popcorn machine that speaks with the assistance of a custom-written Morse code translation program (Talking Popcorn, 2001). Ification framed a thoroughly entertaining experience of Katchadourian’s diverse art practice, reminding us that an exhibition is never really a “show”unless there’s popcorn involved.

Nina Katchadourian, Ascension, 2013, from Seat Assignment, 2010–ongoing
Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery

Deadpan and parodic humor deftly manipulate otherwise unimpressive objects and imagery in Seat Assignment. The result is a bootleg canon of art-historically (mis)informed images, hung à la the nineteenth-century salon. In Ascension (2013), a tissue-haloed dog climbs into bed using a ramp marketed for elderly pets, eagerly welcoming a long and peaceful rest. In an intimately sized portrait titled St. Edward (2013), a downward-gazing Edward Snowden dons a similar napkin-shred nimbus. Katchadourian now categorizes the expansive series according to recurring themes, many of which draw from art and photography genres—Landscapes, Athletics, and Proposals for Public Sculpture—and others that don’t (among them, Buckleheads and Sweater Gorillas).

Nina Katchadourian, Centaur, 2012, from Seat Assignment, 2010–ongoing
Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery

Appropriating images from SkyMall, travel magazines, and whatever else has been abandoned by prior passengers, Katchadourian defies reasonable doubts against the artistic possibilities of cell phone photography, advertisements, and literal garbage. The images in Seat Assignment, as low-resolution as they may be, are sharp depictions of the artist’s intuition for a playfulness that resists being tired. Operating in a conceptual mode reminiscent of John Baldessari’s dot paintings, they provoke viewers to see the ordinary anew by making evident all we take for granted in our everyday visual field. They could even stand in response to a hypothetical Yoko Ono instruction poem:

Collect a piece of sweater lint. Throw it into the sky.

1964 summer

Nina Katchadourian, Pink Volcano, 2011, from Seat Assignment, 2010–ongoing
Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery

For as much as the series can be viewed as a set of individual images, it also can be read as the documentation of a performance. When asked how other passengers react to her process of making images, the artist recalled that over the estimated 275 flights she’s taken in the past nine years, only three people have ever inquired about her work. Whether disinterest or politeness undergirds these numbers, Katchadourian’s insistence on the airplane-as-studio is nonetheless a quiet provocation of business as usual, raising poignant questions, as the artist herself has mentioned, on the fraughtness of post-9/11 air travel. Within a space colored by the rhetoric of paranoia, anxiety, and terror, what does it mean to make lavatory self-portraits in the Flemish style?

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in Flemish Style #13, 2011, from Seat Assignment, 2010–ongoing
Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery

Katchadourian carves out a rare space for humor in the often tedious worlds of both airplanes and galleries. The images in Seat Assignment are not particularly complicated or technically sophisticated, but they forego these traits for a self-awareness and transparency made all the more refreshing by their context. Because while we often look to art as an escape into alternate realities, Katchadourian’s images are only momentary illusions. They ground us in the presentness of paper waste, dry pretzel snacks, and unflattering airplane lighting, but they also insist on the expansive potential for joy and pleasure amid the smallness of these everyday mundanities.

Ellen Pong is the editorial work scholar at Aperture magazine.

Nina Katchadourian: Ification was on view at Fridman Gallery, New York, from February 24–March 31, 2019.

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