Nina Katchadourian

Nina Katchadourian on her show at Fridman Gallery in New York

Nina Katchadourian, The Recarcassing Ceremony, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 24 minutes, 24 seconds.

The categories of work listed on Nina Katchadourian’s website include “uninvited collaborations with nature,” “charts and systems,” and “language/translation.” Stemming from these topics, the artist’s highly structured experiments often begin with found objects and absurd situations that she disentangles, only to find that they are part of the larger webs of identity and relationships. Her current exhibition at Fridman Gallery in New York, “Ification,” includes several of her best-known pieces in addition to The Recarcassing Ceremony, 2016, a video that revisits an old recording of a childhood game as a powerful lens onto familial relations, world-building, and mortality. The show is on view through March 31, 2019.

I’M AS INTERESTED IN TRANSLATION as I am in mistranslation. In moments where we are not sure what’s going on, we are so eager to understand that we throw all kinds of meaning into the situation to settle it down, and I think it’s interesting to see what we grasp at. In the installation Talking Popcorn, I translated the sound of popping popcorn, very strictly, using Morse code. The transcription doesn’t make any sense to read, but what we hear in it is really the thing I’m interested in. I had shown this piece a few times, but in 2008, the popcorn machine self-immolated. In 2019, I asked sixteen different experts from different fields to weigh in on the meaning of Talking Popcorn’s last words, and some people wanted to make a case for not interpreting the phrase—and they did it from an interesting ethical point of view, which was to say, “This machine is a stranger. We don't have to understand it on our terms. We could just let it be strange and speak its own language.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question in some of the work I’ve done with human–animal or nonhuman–animal relationships. There’s a great essay by John Berger called “Why Look at Animals?,” which makes the case that it might be better to let the animal be different from us rather than try to think of it as similar. In a related vein, the video installation Accent Elimination was part of a strategy of turning my parents into strangers. I’ve been observing for years how people approach them, become curious about their accents, and ask them a series of questions. In answering, my parents end up telling their life stories because their accents are complicated to explain. I asked them to each write a dialogue in which they mimic this cocktail-party-type conversation. In the piece, they say their lines as themselves, and I play the part of the interested person. Eventually you see us working with a voice coach to try to learn how to speak the lines in each other’s accents. It was a strangely psychological process. Watching the video, I can see my inherited traits even in my hands and nose, but an accent is somewhere between a physical and cultural attribute, somehow un-acquirable. It’s like a family heirloom that I can’t own.

Excerpts from an interview with Nina Katchadourian.

My ideas for projects often come from picking up on situations that are amusing, slightly absurd, and perhaps full of levity. They become bait to bring people in to talk about something else. Sometimes humor is the only way. I also talk about the word wonder; people think of wonder as positive, but I think it also has a lot of terror in it. We have to sometimes talk about the things that are the most painful, the most serious, or the gravest through these lenses, and I get really serious if someone thinks humor is just a joke. It’s much, much more, and that’s why it’s useful to me as an artist.

Play is a similar tool. It’s important, but it’s also not useful unless it’s hitched to rigor. I often begin work by following my nose and proceeding blindly, but once the piece is happening, I have to step back to decide what it’s really about. With a project as personal as the The Recarcassing Ceremony, for example, I needed to find a way to make this Playmobil game that I played with my brother as a kid into something that other people might care about. The video has all the elements of a total art disaster: childhood story, family story, sad plot, happy ending, and miniature people. But I think that piece is ultimately one of the most serious pieces I’ve ever made. It’s about death and how we contend with it as kids. It’s about having aging parents. It’s probably the only piece I’ve made where people sometimes leave the room laughing and crying. I was worried it was going to be hard to find a way of opening it up to bigger questions. I hope I got it right.