Nina Katchadourian is a sculptor, graphic designer, photographer, performance artist, video artist, sound artist – but more than anything, she is an artist with an insatiable curiosity and the perseverance of a marathon runner when it comes to running with an idea. In her first exhibition at the Pace Gallery, “Cumulus”, she offers seven projects that are funny, sometimes even laughing. But don’t let this fool you: Underneath the playfulness are some pretty basic questions about how we organize knowledge to understand our past and present.
The artist, who lives in New York and Berlin, is a conceptualist at heart, but in the imagination of Eleanor Antin, with whom she studied at the University of California in San Diego in the early 1990s, and not in the dry seriousness of Sol LeWitt. But like LeWitt, she’s a fan of making a proposal and pushing it through endlessly. Some of the jobs at Pace began in the earliest days of her 30+ year career. Many have not been shown in New York since their first iterations. others are making their New York debut.
“Paranormal Postcards” was conceived 20 years ago when, during a stopover at Oslo Airport, Katchadourian decided to sew a thread onto a postcard and connect the hands of a person depicted on a fjord to each of the cruise ships sailing in the water. in a way that created a mysterious empathy among them. Since then, the artist has been collecting postcards from her travels and repeating the gesture to where she now has hundreds of embellished pictures.
Every time the piece is installed, she reorganizes her collection, with dotted red lines connecting the cards on the walls of the gallery, creating a taxonomy straight out of a Borges short story.
In a group, lighthouses and towers as well as the torch of the Statue of Liberty are connected with boats. In another case, hot air balloons are attached to the floor with red embroidery floss.
Then there are the museum postcards on which the hands of the castaways are tied in a reproduction of Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” to the white flag of one of their lots, waving to a tiny ship on the horizon. The hands of Balinese dancers, Ganesh statues, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Giacometti sculptures play cat cradles. The intricate nets suggest strange, sometimes unfathomable undercurrents in otherwise anodic images.
“Paranormal Postcards” is part of the travel log, part of exploring the often arbitrary way we classify and categorize information. The idea is at the heart of another project on the Sorted Books show that Katchadourian has been working on since 1993. The point is to create found poems from the titles of books that she finds in people’s personal libraries. The version at Pace was created this year at the invitation of the Isamu Noguchi Museum.
“What is modern sculpture? / Brancusi / Noguchi / Marcel Duchamp / Why Duchamp / The third dimension” reads a stack – perhaps suitable for a collection by the famous modernist sculptor. “That time of the morning / Oh, my aching back / Your prostate” / The unfashionable human body, on the other hand, offers a little too much insight into Noguchi’s handling of the difficulties of aging.
“The Genealogy of the Supermarket” (2005-) is partly a taxonomy, partly a family tree. The ever-growing piece consists of the faces that adorn food products, from the Hair for Men type to the Red Baron from Deep Dish Pizza to the stoic grandmother depicted on the label of Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp.
Again, Katchadourian uses the obvious authority of data visualization – it’s on a chart, so it has to be true – to create putative relationships between characters whose origins span time, space, and culture. (For every installation on his tour, Katchadourian scours the local markets to add them to the clan.) By displaying these portraits in thrift store picture frames and hanging them on ornate red wallpaper with faux flakes, she takes them out of the field of product design and trade and lodge them tenderly but firmly in our own families and homes.
Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and the kneeling Indian on Land O’Lake’s butter appear, although their pictures are mounted behind semi-opaque Plexiglas to indicate their “death” – they have withdrawn from their respective companies due to a changing sensitivity to racist stereotypes. Babies move from blonde and blue-eyed to racially ambiguous babies – the attempts of advertising to appeal to an increasingly diverse customer base. “The genealogy of the supermarket” may begin as a one-liner, but ultimately functions as a snapshot of contemporary attitudes.
Elsewhere, a gravure titled “Lucy’s Sampler” (2020) shows how complicated the concept of family can be, especially after the war. The image is an exact translation of an embroidery pattern made by a young girl orphaned in the Armenian Genocide into printing. She was adopted by the artist’s grandparents and, as Katchadourian explains in a text below the picture, became her “bonus grandmother”. Katchadourian’s awesome reproduction of Lucy’s gestures becomes a touching recognition of her origins.
The sharpness of “Accent Elimination” creeps up on you. The six-channel video was recorded in the award-winning Armenian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale and has been exhibited in New York for the first time since then. On one side three monitors show the artist, her mother and her father, each speaking from scripts of their parents, in which their origins and their encounter are described.
But here’s the phrase: everyone speaks with someone else’s accent. Katchadourian alternately emulates her mother’s Swedish-influenced Finnish accent and her father’s Armenian-Turkish-Beirut accent as her parents try to master their daughter’s flat American intonation. On the other hand, three monitors show the three working together with an accent coach to perfect the intricacies of the various pronunciations.
Your efforts are sincere – every artist should have parents as playful as Katchadourian’s. But they too crack occasionally during filming. Her laughter leaves behind everything that hangs in the background of her reports, including the generational aftermath of genocide and flight.
Like all of the works in the exhibition, the good-natured charm of “Accent Elimination” opens up deeper lessons on how the simple mapping of even the most personal or imaginative stories can illuminate our common culture, including the incomprehensible parts of it.
Nina Katchadourian: Cumulus
Until June 26th, Pace Gallery, 540 West 25th Street, Manhattan; tempogallery.com.