Crossing Brooklyn: Nina Katchadourian, Seat Assignment

Nina Katchadourian, Woodpile #1 (from the Seat Assignment series), 2014
Nina Katchadourian, Woodpile #1 (from the Seat Assignment series), 2014

Through January 4, the Brooklyn Museum will present a major survey of contemporary Brooklyn art, featuring more than one hundred works from 35 artists. Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond includes work in virtually every medium, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, linked only by place and by an engagement with the modern world. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be rolling out profiles of ten artists who appear in the exhibit.

Nina Katchadourian lives in Brooklyn, but she was born in Stanford, California, spent summers growing up on a small island in the Finnish archipelago, and in 2010 lived in New Zealand. She was there as the artist-in-residence at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she debuted Seat Assignment, an ongoing series of photographs, video, and sound works all made while in flight.

Katchadourian spends a lot of time on planes, and Seat Assignment began spontaneously on one of them, in March 2010. “It’s art made under circumstances that are very far from ‘the studio,’ and in a situation where art doesn’t seem likely,” she says. “What can you make out of nothing? What is out there in the everyday that is more interesting than we think?” The series has continued to grow over the last four-and-a-half years, with work from more than 125 flights to date.

The rules are simple but absolute: Katchadourian works spontaneously, using only her cellphone and any materials on hand, culled from airline magazines, in-flight snacks, tray tables, lavatories, her own clothing, and so on. These formal limitations require and reward impromptu creativity and, in Katchdourian’s own words, “optimism about the artistic potential that lurks within the mundane and curiosity about the productive tension between freedom and constraint.” We get portraits decorated with peanuts, collages, photos of airplane signage elevated into abstraction, and a photo series of airplane buckles. As Seat Assignment has grown, several diverse and discrete thematic categories have emerged: Landscapes, High-Altitude Spirit Photography, Buckleheads, Disasters, Provisional Shelters, Creatures, Window Seat Suprematism, Sweater Gorillas, Athletics, Top Doctors in America, Proposals for Public Sculpture, Sleepers, Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, Birds of New Zealand. To read that list is to mentally hopscotch across the daydreamy meanderings of the idle mind, a mental state anyone who’s been on a flight can recognize.

The most compelling art requires attention from the viewer, a total investment in the present moment. We look upon art in order to stop time. Seat Assignment collapses that distance in a unique way, by itself being of a particular, brief moment (or, rather, lots of particular, brief moments). These are not belabored works of art, but rather elemental artifacts of the mundane and the immediate. To look at them in a gallery is to be seated on a plane yourself, wondering what might be more interesting than we think.

Only a small selection from Seat Assignment will be on view during Crossing Brooklyn, but you can watch a video with imagery from the series here.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.


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