How do you keep yourself together when everything around you is broken? I’m not the only writer who hasn’t been able to focus on writing ever since the election. I’m not the only person on permanent high anxiety, who wakes up everyday dreading the fresh hell the news will bring, who compulsively checks Twitter, while hating Twitter (and Facebook) for its complicity in installing a monstrous right-wing/Christian fascist/white nationalist/oligarchic puppet regime in the White House. Everything is broken, and I can’t fix it. I want my life back, I want my country back, I want my kid’s future back, I want all our kids’ futures back. Like everybody else, I’m tired of fighting on so many simultaneous fronts. I’m tired of seeing that loathsome piggish face and reading his imbecilic tweets. I’m tired of watching cowards sell our democracy down the river. I’m tired of being tired.
But yesterday was a pretty good day, because for a couple of hours, I managed to get lost in the joyful, brilliant and deeply, satisfyingly eccentric world of interdisciplinary artist Nina Katchadourian. Her various works and projects span photography, performance, sound installations, taxonomies and charts, sculpture and video. But the unifying theme is, well, unity. She takes broken things and repairs them; she sorts, orders and categorizes; she tries to make sense of what might at first appear to be nonsense. Wandering through her solo survey show “Curiouser,” at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, is like entering a lost Eden, where everything is whole again, and nothing is inexplicable or out of our control.
I (belatedly, I know) first came across Katchadourian a year or so ago when photos from her “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style” were being shared around Twitter. For this series, Katchadourian photographed herself in airplane bathrooms, using her phone’s camera, the available harsh bathroom light and whatever props were on hand to turn herself into a Flemish master’s subject. (See photo above.) Toilet paper became a frilled collar, a black scarf became a depth-adding background, a neck cushion became a merchant’s headdress. The wittiness and astonishing creativity of these portraits stopped me in my tracks on Twitter. Seeing Katchadourian’s deadpan, dignified gaze hanging in stately rows on the Cantor’s walls magnified both the humor and the singular vision of those photos. Looking around at the handful of my fellow museum-goers, I could see that everyone’s delight matched my own. (If you get to this show, watch the accompanying “Flemish Style” music videos. I won’t spoil them. Enjoy.)
“Lavatory Self-Portraits” is part of the ongoing project “Seat Assignments,” in which Katchadourian uses her in-flight time to make and photograph mixed-media works out of materials at hand, which include in-flight magazines, snack food bits, sugar, salt, and pepper from dinner tray packets, etc. Some of the results are dreamy, like the white puff of sugar sprinkled onto a magazine photo of a wolf, so that it becomes frosted breath or the visual representation of a howl. Others are giddy, like those in which she pokes her finger through magazine photos, so that the digit becomes an ominous part of the composition. As a nervous, claustrophobic flyer, I love Katchadourian’s in-flight work, because it’s all about grabbing back control of an uncontrollable situation through carry-on-bag self-sufficiency; there’s also a healthy undertone of mockery at (and transcendence of) the dehumanizing aspects of flight.
Repairing brokenness is a recurring theme throughout “Curiouser.” The poignant photo series “Mended Spiderwebs” documents Katchadourian’s efforts to fix holes in webs using red thread, efforts that were always rejected by the spiders. Elsewhere in the show, a moving, yet often darkly hilarious video tells the story of Katchadourian and her younger brother’s elaborate fantasy life centering on Playmobil figures; as we hear audio from one of these childhood play tableaus, which the adult Nina has spliced into a re-creation of the doll-centric scene, we realize that what we’re watching is the kids’ attempt to make sense of their own terrifying, Playmobil-related near-drowning experience.
My favorite piece on the “broken” theme was the breathtaking “Songs of the Island: Concrete Music from New York” (1996-98), for which Katchadourian collected bits of discarded, unraveled cassette tapes found littering gutters and caught in subway grates, then cleaned them up and spliced them together. The final work is a mix tape which you listen to through headphones while consulting the large map of New York City upon which Katchadourian has numbered and pinned the bits of tape to the places they were found. The mix tape is hypnotic and vibrant, a scratchy melting pot of snippets of reggae, salsa, Indian pop, punk, R&B, country-rock, old-school rap, metal, Vietnamese, all unidentified (though I think I caught James Brown and Gladys Knight). There’s also a bit of an NPR interview with a psychic and a strange recording of an “All in the Family” episode with what sounds like a parakeet chirping in the background. The jumble of music, noise and cultures, and the lives it conjures, felt comfortable to me. Here was my world. It hasn’t disappeared.
I loved all of “Curiouser,” but the half-hour my companion and I spent raptly giggling over “The Genealogy of the Supermarket” was probably the happiest I’ve been in a long time. This ongoing work, begun in 2005, is a family tree of advertising characters, some instantly recognizable, others obscure, that takes up an entire red-flocked wallpaper wall. Here are faces that have greeted generations from supermarket aisles and kitchen cupboards, faces that are so familiar as people that you sometimes have to stop and think about which product they represent, all thoughtfully ordered by marriage and offspring. In Katchadourian’s reasoning, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are siblings, the Green Giant and the Land o’ Lakes Butter Maiden are married and the parents of the Argo Corn Starch maiden, and Mr. Clean and the Brawny paper towel guy got married and adopted the Gerber Baby and the Sunbeam Bread girl.
In “The Genealogy of the Supermarket,”as in “Songs of the Island,” Katchadourian links objects that join us as modern humans, even though we might think that our daily experiences of them are uniquely intimate and personal. And in doing that, she reassuringly shows us the connecting lines across race and culture, class and era, that make us family.
Maybe we’re not beyond repair after all.
(“Curiouser,” which was curated by Austin’s Blanton Museum, runs through Jan. 7, 2018, then moves to the Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA in April, 2018. Nina Katchadourian will appear on Oct. 19 at 6:30 at CEMEX Auditorium at Stanford, followed at 9 p.m. by an “On-Hold Dance Party,” audio made by Katchadourian from music played while waiting on-hold. For more information on “Curiouser” at the Cantor Arts Center, click here.)
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017