Having produced a diverse and irreverent body of artworks for the last two decades, Nina Katchadourian was the perfect candidate for Dunedin Public Art Gallery's 2011 Visiting Artist Programme. For Seat Assignment, Katchadourian transforms her downtime on airplanes into a period of artistic production. The exhibition at DPAG is the culmination of 12 months' worth of 30-odd flights on which she has generated a substantial body of in-situ installations, photographs and video works. The rules of engagement around this in-flight exercise are strict: she must work spontaneously with what she has at hand, and use only her camera phone, since "a proper camera would call attention to my activities and frame them as something artful. Using a phone just makes it look like a response to boredom."
It seems there wouldn't be much to work with in the confines of a plane. But airline magazines become sublime backdrops for the in-flight snacks that are photographed upon them; the tray-table transforms into a studio workspace for small sculptures; the series "Lavatory Portraits in the Flemish Style" are improvised and shot entirely in airplane bathroom. Even her sleeping co-passengers become the unwitting subjects of her portraiture. There is something subversive and very contemporary about her conceptually-driven methods, and yet as Katchadourian notes:
"The works that result often fall into three of the most timeless art historical genres: still life, portrait, landscape. The plane's interior is a landscape unto itself, one that exists between two other landscapes: the one the traveler has just left, and the one the traveler is returning to. The traveler might be dreaming of either of the latter, but usually, the traveler is not trying to fully inhabit either the landscape of the plane or the psychological space of the present moment. More often than not, a traveler tries to escape from the physical and psychological confines of the airplane and exist somewhere else for the duration of the flight."
Seat Assignment requires a complete investment in the present moment, the materials at hand, and faith and attentiveness to both.
"I often make art motivated by the mundane, but Seat Assignment has become a vehicle for me to put many of my deeply-held premises to the test. Is there always more than meets the eye? Is there really something to make out of nothing? Is it truly a matter of paying attention, of staying alert and optimistic about the potential that something interesting could evolve when challenged by boredom? Furthermore, what are the limits of my ability to think on my feet (or from my seat)? When will my creativity hit a wall, either from physical and mental fatigue, or simply because I can't care any more at that moment? How far will my own sense of decorum allow me to go in a public situation?"
For Katchadourian, six weeks in New Zealand provided a stellar opportunity, and the very means of getting here yielded the raw material for the show. With eighteen hours of flight time to get to Dunedin from her home in Brooklyn, she challenged herself to make the bulk of the exhibition en route, often working with guidebooks, touristic texts and her own preconceptions in advance of visiting an 'unknown' New Zealand. The Visiting Artist Programme provided a conceptual and logistical destination and timeframe for this project, and an important chance to select, edit and output a series of photographs and video footage from this ongoing project for the first time. ĘDuring Katchadourian's artist-in-residency, Seat Assignment moved from being an enormous, unsorted quantity of images and video to a fully-composed and delineated suite of artworks.
Seat Assignment is a response to limitations, psychologically and spatially, but it also carefully balances the anxiety of contemporary travel, particularly after September 11th, with a laconic and subtly disarming humour. It may change your experience of your next flight to think that while you are buckling up before the safety briefing, your seatmate could be an artist thinking about the sculptural potential of the onboard snacks, flipping with carnivorous enthusiasm through the requisite airline magazine, and plotting how to become thoroughly 15th-century Flemish in the 21st-century lavatory before another passenger knocks on the door.