Monday, April 23, 2012

Homage to Nina Katchadourian

You find yourself on a flight. You’ve been condemned to hours and hours of boredom - sitting cooped up in your uncomfortable seat next to two strangers you’ve never met in your life. What do you do?

I know what I always do. I’ve had thirteen years of trans-Atlantic flights to perfect my routine. I try to strike up a conversation with my new neighbors, desperately looking for whatever it is we might have in common – that should burn at least an hour or two and make those awkward “sorry could you please get up because I need to use the bathroom” moments just a tiny bit less awkward. I also roam the aisles and dig into the snack basket the flight attendants leave out for restless travelers such as myself. I visit the business class restroom under the pretence that “I didn’t know” just for the thrill of it, and on occasion between my third movie and my second book I stand by the emergency exit door and wait for other economy class refugees to join my support group. In other words, these flights are a disaster and when my kids join me – these flights are hell.

Luckily for us contemporary art lovers, Nina Katchadourian, a wonderfully ingenious artist, is not one to give into the boredom and despair of the flight experience. I imagine she must have considered the temptation of giving into the comfort of a well-rehearsed routine. Instead she looked around her and found a hat, a shawl, a blanket, a white undershirt and plenty of seat covers, paper towels and Kleenex. With these simple objects she somehow came up with the concept of creating a series of self-portraits while in the airplane lavatory with her iphone. Sounds like a crazy idea with not much chance of success? Bad lighting and air turbulence had to be fought off with zeal, and an incredible and humorous series titled: “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, 2011” was created.

For over two years, Nina Katchadourian has been working on a project called "Seat Assignment," made while she is in flight, using only her cell phone camera and what she finds around her. The "Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style" are just one example of the many different art pieces she has created on planes—most of the time, while she's in her seat. Nina fearlessly dialogues with our far past, the golden years of the Flemish Renaissance, while in mid-air and with the aid of modern technology – what an unexpected path to understanding what has happened to the human race in the last 500+ years; and yet as technologically advanced as we have become, somehow we have remained unchanged. With a few accessories, we can all be magically transformed to appear, at least on a superficial level, to be Renaissance folk.

A few weeks ago I came across Nina’s work in an arts news article. I was blown away and immediately realized the incredible potential her work has to be a powerful teaching tool in my “Art History In Practice” program ( - what a great way to introduce Renaissance Portraiture and Contemporary Art at the same time! The mission of my program is to make art more accessible and help students realize their true artistic potential. In my mind Nina's work was both inspiring and challenging: could my students and I replicate the process and follow in Nina’s footsteps on a journey through time? I needed to see for myself this remarkable transformation and my art class is the perfect laboratory. As it turns out, I can and I did!

Last Friday at Redwood Shores Elementary, Mrs. Norman, her 3rd grade class and two highly dedicated and creative parent volunteers (Mrs. Josephine Cassidy and Mr. Ron Ozorio) were recruited by me to create a tribute to Nina’s work. We used our invisible time machine to go back to the Middle Ages to experience, first hand, the re-birth - the Renaissance. After sleeping with our livestock in the same mud covered hut, itching and scratching our fleas away with the plague at our door step, we were so relieved to witness the invention of the printing press, the birth of science, medicine, new art and literature and the discovery of many new lands including America. We knew we couldn’t stay for too long in the year 1500 AD, as our parents might worry. Before we left the Renaissance and headed back to our own time, we created our own self-portrait series in the Flemish style using a few accessories and lots of toilet paper, paper towels and toilet seat covers - worked! The amazing result will soon be published in the paper.

Upon our arrival in 2012, we studied the self-portraiture work of Cindy Sherman who paved the way, in a sense, to the recognition and appreciation of the contemporary female self-portrait. Nina’s series can be viewed in this context as a work in the tradition the Flemish Masters as well as in the tradition of the photographic self-portrait. What’s exceptional about this work is that she managed to reinvent this long-standing tradition. Thinking on her feet, improvising and unafraid she made me smile, and even laugh like I haven’t done in years. I promise to strive to be this courageous and child-like in my own work – thanks Nina! Nina's must-see series is currently showing in San-Francisco at the Catharine Clark Gallery through June 2nd. don't miss it!

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