Nina Katchadourian’s current exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery is organized around a simple conceit: all the work was made while in flight, utilizing only the materials provided by the airline with the artist’s camera phone providing documentation. Making use of this otherwise lost time during the past two years on a staggering number of flights around the world, Katchadourian’s in-flight meals, neck pillow, glossy magazines, and fellow passengers become fodder for a series of humorous photographic and video pieces.

The ongoing project began in March 2010 on a flight to New Zealand. Preparing for Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s Visiting Artist Programme, Katchadourian had 22 hours of flight time from her home in Brooklyn to Dunedin. As an artist interested in the potential of the mundane to become interesting through the lens of her creative process, the project was a challenge to herself. Could she create work stealthily and with originality or would she succumb to boredom and cramped sleep?

The result (shown at Catharine Clark in its second iteration) is a mixed bag, with some of the interventions falling a bit flat. But these are outweighed by the many laugh-out-loud situations created with the most rudimentary of tools. The front room of the gallery, painted a rich red, is filled with small, faux-historical frames containing Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. In this hilarious grouping, Katchadourian ingeniously replicates frilled collars and headdresses with toilet seat covers, recreating art-historical poses with intensely concentrated expressions on her face. Without reference material, this series is a testament to the artist’s familiarity with that genre of 15th-century painting — the resemblances are uncanny.

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style #18-19, 2011.

Another highlight of the show is the 2-channel video Acca Dacca Diptych, also created while in Flemish costume. I cannot reveal the punchline for fear of spoiling the surprise, but the jarring juxtaposition of old world and new adds a layer of contemporary relevance to the exhibition as a whole. While many of the pieces offer irreverent takes on the contents of an airline cabin, they remain a part of that enclosed space. Acca Dacca Diptych transcends its setting and emphasizes the preposterousness of Katchadourian’s self-imposed situation: decked out as a burgher, sitting in a tiny lavatory for extended periods of time.

The gallery’s media room features Flight Log, a silent 10-minute loop of still images organized into categories such as “Sweater Gorillas,” “Window Seat Suprematism,” “Buckleheads,” and “Disasters.” In many of these, Katchadourian uses magazine images or her tray table as backdrops for sculptural interventions. Black sweater fuzz becomes ominous black smoke. Crumbled pretzels become rubble. Some of the images are redundant, with the same joke played out one too many times, but without fail a real zinger pops up and laughter erupts in the darkened room.

Nina Katchadourian, Excerpt from the High-Altitude Spirit Photography series, 2010.

An interesting element of the show emerges after the giggles subside. A large number of Katchadourian’s works touch on an unexpected spiritual aspect of flight. The Lavatory Self-Portraits mimic poses meant to depict the sitter as pious and dourly respectable. Rapture, a short looped animation, shows an image of a young couple on a beach, facing the water. By bending the magazine page, Katchadourian gradually engulfs them in the bright light of glossy reflection. Included in Flight Log is a series titled “High Altitude Spirit Photography,” in which the same trick is applied to other still images. Ectoplasm flies from mouths, heads sprout halos. Beneath the humor these works hint at the perceived danger of air travel. That far above Earth, it becomes a bit easier to imagine life on the other side. Katchadourian’s fellow travellers, asleep or zoned out, may really be avoiding these realities.

To date, the Seat Assignment project includes over 2500 photographs and videos, made on more than 70 different flights. As the collection builds, I can imagine additional connections and themes emerging from the works, with new groupings creating a greater variety of rallies against the stifling atmosphere of air travel. In the meantime, the current showing at Catharine Clark is a call to arms. If engaging and entertaining works can be made in the most limited of environments, Katchadourian proffers, what can we do when surrounded by so much?

Seat Assignment is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery through May 26, 2012. For more information visit


Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor, an artist and half of Stairwell’s. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.

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