How Nina Katchadourian Uses Airplanes as Her Studio
“I have two-and-a-half hours ahead of me,” she recalled thinking in a recent interview with Artsy. “Why does it feel like this time already doesn’t count?”
The multidisciplinary New York–based artist was repulsed by the pervasive sense of powerlessness in the face of air travel. Determined to maximize her time on the plane and remain engaged during what is often a numbing experience, Katchadourian developed a kind of game to create things throughout the entire flight—an expansive project that has come to be called “Seat Assignment” (2010–present). “As an artist, I’m always looking at what more there might be in our mundane, everyday surroundings if we pay it interest, give it a second look,” she said. She hadn’t brought materials with her, so she began playing with whatever was at hand on her tray table, and documented the results with her camera phone.
Two-hundred-and-seventy-five trips later, Katchadourian is still making the most of in-flight magazines, complimentary peanuts, and cocktail napkins. She’s created hundreds of compelling photographs—including those in the project’s sub-series “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” which became a riotous viral sensation—as well as video animations and a handful of surreptitious music videos filmed in airplane bathrooms. A good portion of the results from her creative experiment are now the subject of “IFICATION,” an exhibition on view at Fridman Gallery in New York through March 31st.
Even as the works have become more elaborate in the years since that generative 2010 flight, with repeating motifs taxonomized into sub-series like “Proposals for Public Sculpture,” “High-Altitude Spirit Photography,” and “Window Seat Suprematism,” the rules of Katchadourian’s game have remained the same.
“It’s important to me not to bring props,” she said. She insists on working with only what’s around her, and limits her activities to her lap, the tray table, or the bathroom. And though the quality of smartphone cameras has greatly improved in recent years, Katchadourian continues to use her older model, a device that “helps me look like I’m sitting there wasting time.”
The remarkably subtle and complex imagery that Katchadourian is able to conjure within these bounds stands as a testament to the creative power of constraints. Some of Katchadourian’s best work comes out of in-flight magazines, a family of publications central to her methodology. “I look through every single page,” she said, “beginning to end.” She enjoys shifting the scale of the picture to create an “odd” situation in which the depiction of a big space is confused by the placement of small objects on its surface.
Worthy examples of these photographs are endless. In Ascension (2010), an image of a small dog walking up an oddly specific (and so certainly SkyMall) ramp is adorned with a paper halo. In Topiary (2010), a line of peas adds the illusion of a monumental sculpture to an otherwise orderly topiary garden. In Skier (2010), an ominous sandwich seems to chase the titular skier down a slope. Katchadourian said that she delights in this “trick of seeing an image transformed at the same time that you see exactly what the materials are being used to do that.”
Sometimes the glare from an overhead light takes the place of foodstuffs, usually to dramatic effect. In Bather (2010), a central nude figure wades in a clear-watered grotto; the divine flare of light over his face renders the scene baptismal. These belong to the category of picture Katchadourian calls “High-Altitude Spirit Photography,” a title that nods to the distinctly Victorian tradition of capturing ghosts and other ethereal beings on the then-newfangled camera. Like most of her projects, the artist didn’t arrive at this aesthetic solution from an art-historical inquiry; Katchadourian simply took a picture that came out with a lot of glare. Rather than seeing a deficiency, she decided to use the intrusive light to her advantage.
“Play can be an extremely serious thing,” she said, but “it’s important to allow space for unmotivated play; sometimes you need to do something to figure out why you’re doing it.”
Sometimes, Katchadourian’s play becomes laced with fear. In the “Disasters” pictures, crushed pretzels neatly piled on glossy travel-magazine photographs of slick cities and island paradises transform aspirational scenes into ones of harrowing destruction. She has also made overt references to terrorism, which has a charged relationship to flying in the 21st century. Works such as Twin Towers (2011)—an eerie snapshot of two wafers balanced on a tray table—and Spectre (2010), in which an ominous glare cuts through an otherwise innocuous picture of the seat aisle, reveal the anxiety that is part and parcel with modern air travel.
“You’re in a metal tube with hundreds of people you don’t know hurtling through space,” Katchadourian said. The isolation of this experience intensifies with “people observing one another and being suspicious of one another,” an effect that “lurks in some of these pictures,” she said. Katchadourian notes that in all her time working on “Seat Assignment,” she’s only ever been asked three questions by the strangers sitting next to her, though part of this disinterest may be due to the artist’s stealth—she’s mastered the humdrum art of looking bored.
In her efforts to go unnoticed and not disturb her fellow passengers, Katchadourian frequently retreats to the lavatory, the only private spot on the plane. There, she creates the most famous works in the series, Flemish-style self-portraits composed “using everything in the bathroom except for toilet paper.” Despite their low-key effect, Katchadourian insists that the pictures are not selfies. Rather, they’re abstracted from their subject; liminal portals to another time and space—17th-century Holland, perhaps—created with mundane materials used un-mysteriously.
Still, in our conversation, Katchadourian returned to the idea of disturbing the flight attendants or her neighbors, and of maintaining the ordered balance of the plane in flight. She’s especially conscious of the time she takes in the bathroom, and attributes the inconspicuousness of her actions to her identity.
“There’s a way I get away with doing this project because I’m a white woman,” she said. “If you’re a Middle Eastern–looking man like my husband and you went into the bathroom for 15 minutes, there would be a problem.”
Despite well-publicized acts of racial discrimination from the country’s major airlines, Katchadourian still sees the magic of flight. “It’s the closest thing we’ve got to time travel,” she affirmed. “In the pictures, there’s a feeling of the wondrousness of air travel—the magic trick.”
In the early years of “Seat Assignment,” Katchadourian worked frantically on the plane (she famously produced two-thirds of her 2011 exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand while on the 22-hour flight there), but these days, the artist allows for “a lot of ebb and flow” in her productivity, admitting that on some trips, she doesn’t make anything at all.
One of her challenges now, she said, is finding new things to do. But the long-term evolution of the series still holds surprises for the artist. “Sometimes I’ve worked on projects for 10 years before I know what it is I’m up to,” she said.
Julia Wolkoff is an Editor at Artsy.