Nina Katchadourian: The Poetics of Everyday Life
Feldman Gallery Curator Mack McFarland reflects on the subtle poetics and wordplay of Nina Katchadourian's Sorted Books.
Since 1993, Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project has taken place in locations ranging from private homes to specialized public collections. After sifting through a library of books, Katchadourian selects particular titles and groups these books into clusters so that the titles can be read in sequence. Taken as a whole, the clusters examine each particular collection’s focus, idiosyncrasies, and inconsistencies—a portrait of that library’s holdings. To kick off the Fall 2010 academic year, PNCA, in conjunction with the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Time Based Arts Festival, presented Sorted Books in the College’s Feldman Gallery.
As exhibition curator Mack McFarland, states in the following essay,
“Despite what may seem causal and random, Katchadourian’s selections and arrangements are quite considered,…she intends for the dissected and rearranged text, or in her case the rearranged library, to sustain a unique connection to its owner.…For instance, the book sorting entitled Reference was generated from the library of a gallery director and former eye surgeon turned photographer. The titles that arose read Dyslexia/October 57/October 75.”
The poetics of everyday life are so subtle and intricate that their beauty and bemusing ways are often lost, obscured by our advertising campaigns, text messages, sidewalk lobbyists, and near constant motion as we transit between built environments. It is a sincerely grand feeling when we see a thing of banality serendipitously transformed into something truly extraordinary. These shifts in perception, in the words of Lawrence Weiner, “… [change] the world in such a way that your previous conception of the way the world was, isn’t…the same.” This kind of perceptual change and a lyrical sensitivity to the familiar are central attributes of Nina Katchadourian’s work.
Katchadourian’s oeuvre is full of subtle poetry, be it the Mended Spiderweb series which documents “repairs” that she makes with red sewing thread to damaged spiderwebs (only to have her helpful gesture rejected by the web’s inhabitant), or the tongue-in-cheek Genealogy of the Supermarket, where she maps out a fanciful family tree of supermarket brand characters, such as St. Pauli Girl and Samuel Adams whose love child is the Brawny Paper Towels Man. The Sorted Books are her most verse-based works to date. Begun in 1993 and continuing today, the Sorted Books project has taken place in various locations from private homes to museum research libraries. While the location changes, the project’s process and presentation remain the same. First, a library is gleaned for titles, and then the books are arranged into sequences to be read from top to bottom. The arrangements are documented and exhibited as either photographs or actual book stacks. In recent years, Katchadourian has been expanding the Sorted Books project to include book sortings made by others who try their hand at her methods. For the exhibit in the Feldman Gallery + Project Space, Katchadourian is working with a local family to whom books are of prime importance. Tim DuRoche (writer/musician), Lisa Radon (artist/writer), Oskar, 16, Molly, 15, and Neville, 11, are sorting their own libraries, combining books from their individual collections to create a family self-portrait. The resulting book stacks are shown on shelves in the Project Space.
The pithy results of Katchadourian’s past sortings, (such as What is Art?/Close Observation), and their origins from a quotidian database, brings to mind delicately deliberate and condensed versions of cut-up poetry, which originated with the Romanian poet and provocateur Tristan Tzara. His DADA Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love included a recipe for creating cut-up poetry titled, To Make A Dadaist Poem. In this text, Tzara describes a method of cutting words out of a newspaper and placing them in a bag from which one blindly pulls out words one-by-one to form a poem. William Burroughs also championed this form, though he refined Tzara’s system by removing some of its randomness in favor of more controlled word placement. He defended his augmented use of the cut-up method in a 1965 interview with Conrad Knickerbocker for the Paris Review saying:
“Any narrative passage or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in [its] own right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images. Rimbaud images—real Rimbaud images—but new ones.”
Despite what may seem causal and random, Katchadourian’s selections and arrangements are quite considered, and like Burroughs, she intends for the dissected and rearranged text, or in her case the rearranged library, to sustain a unique connection to its owner. She often describes the Sorted Books project as a form of portraiture. For instance, the book sorting entitled Reference was generated from the library of a gallery director and former eye surgeon turned photographer. The titles that arose read Dyslexia/October 57/October 75.
The austere beauty and textual cleverness of her poetic arrangements often make the strongest first impression on a viewer, before giving way to the work’s photographic and sculptural form. Her earliest sortings were arranged vertically with the selected book spines supported on each side by backward-facing books. In these arrangements, Katchadourian utilizes the bookends as a strong compositional element, their peppered color fill the frame with long lines of papery texture. In 1996, she began stacking the books horizontally. This provided a more spare and legible image. Many of the photographs in the Sorted Books series are shot with a black background, removing the books from their familiar place of use and rest. At times, the books seem to float while at others they are grounded on wooden shelves. A very selective focus, with a shallow depth of field is used, pulling a viewer’s eye and mind into the texts.
As we examine Katchadourian’s word and f-stop choices, we must also consider the physical qualities of the selected books. Characteristics such as size, thickness, color, and typography are very important to the poetry of the sequenced titles. They work in concordance with it and impart a certain tonality or temperament to the way the phrases read. A Day at the Beach includes only white books, with the exception of Sudden Violence whose red text cuts the composition like a knife. The aesthetic choices of the Sorted Books series places them within the context of other sculptural stacks such as the now ubiquitous takeaway piles of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, or even more like the works of Tony Cragg and Isa Genzken, who both create chromatic towers from discarded wood and furniture. Cragg’s, and more so Genzken’s works are often constructed from items that would not normally be stacked together—bits of tinfoil, a lampshade, artificial plants. These works stand apart from the balancing stacks of Tony Feher, Daniel Eatock and Martin Creed, who like Katchadourian, are working with materials that are often found together in everyday life. Feher’s best-known stacked works involve arrangements of glass jars placed atop one another on the gallery floor. His post-minimal gestures bring a formal magic to his simple materials, stripping them of the history or baggage of found objects. Daniel Eatock employs a similar magic in his bookshelves balancing acts, such as Do Not Touch (counterbalanced shelves), or Shelves Supported by the Objects they Bear, which is a sculpture made from alternating cardboard boxes and white shelves. Both works are within the arena of post-conceptual practice and they each have a whimsical interest that would make an engineer chuckle.
Martin Creed also balances his stacked objects, though his works are more about area than volume: five different chairs are stacked largest to smallest, or brush strokes arranged fattest to thinnest, bottom to top, creating an simplified set of stairs. Of the stacking artists discussed here, Creed’s process is the most akin to Katchadourian’s because both demonstrate a proclivity for order. Creed is unmistakably delving into the layout of proportion, balance, and growth with his works, where Katchadourian’s taxonomies utilize shifting signal to noise ratios, mischief, and jest to reveal the hidden order and potential for poetry before our nose. With the Sorted Books, as in most good works of art, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.