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Artist Nina Katchadourian discusses importance of humor in art at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Courtesy of Nina Katchadourian and Catharine Clark Gallery

A Morse code-programmed talking popcorn machine, birdcall car alarms, spider webs mended with red thread and a life-size bronze moose statue with a cat perched on its back. 

All describe the work of multimedia conceptual artist Nina Katchadourian, who spoke at the Wexner Center for the Arts on Friday as part of the Artist’s Talks series. 

Katchadourian spoke about the importance and role of humor in her work and how humor in art often allows issues to be addressed that otherwise would be difficult to speak of or approach.  

“There are a lot of expectations of art still that want it to be this really serious, kind of old-fashioned endeavor where artists are supposed to speak to the things that are difficult and the inner sanctum of our souls, and I guess I would argue that there are a lot of ways to that place,” Katchadourian said. 

The approximately hour-long talk in the Film/Video Theater was focused on highlighting some of her various projects, including “Seat Assignment,” for which she created photographs, videos and audio using her camera phone and materials from the plane, such as seat buckles and airline peanuts, on 97 airplane rides, a piece called “Talking Popcorn,” for which she built a “talking” popcorn machine using a Morse code computer program, and “Natural Car Alarms,” for which she replaced three cars’ regular car alarms with exotic bird calls.

Jenna Schroth, a third-year in art and technology, said the Katchadourian piece she connected with the most was “Accent Elimination.” The project features the artist and her foreign parents working with a speech coach in an attempt to imitate each others’ accents. Katchadourian herself is from California, but her mother is from Sweden and has a Finnish-Swedish accent while her father is from Turkey and has an accent that sounds Hungarian to most people who meet him, Katchadourian said. The artist’s website describes the piece as “the tricky maneuvering between the desire to preserve the distinctive marks of one’s culture, on one hand, and to decrease them in order to seem less foreign.”  

“I really clicked with that one because my grandpa is actually from Hungary … so I understand dialect differences and him speaking that way and people always asking where he was from,” Schroth said. 

Katchadourian said she perceives art as “close observation” of normal things, and that this definition is also the motto by which she lives her life. 

Michelle Leonti, a third-year in art education, said she appreciated how Katchadourian is able to turn everyday, mundane objects into something more creative and artistic. 

“I think my favorite part was (“Seat Assignment”) when she took things on an airplane that you wouldn’t think of normally as being art, and she turned it into something interesting and humorous,” Leonti said. 

Katchadourian said she never intended to become a professional artist, although being an artist is the “best alibi” for everything she wants to do with her life. 

“I remember when I realized that this is the thing that no one tells you, that it’s this great umbrella term that you smuggle in so much under,” Katchadourian said. “You can go where you want to go, you can talk to the people you want to meet, you can research things you’re curious about and then you get to speak about them in the end.”

Katchadourian’s work has been exhibited both domestically and internationally, and her most recent project, a sculpture to be publicly displayed at a border crossing station between the U.S. and Canada, is expected to be completed in May. The sculpture will be called “The Grand State of Maine,” the title of the state song of Maine, and will feature a bronze moose and cat, as well as other symbols of Maine, including the state flower and bird.

She currently resides in New York where she is a professor at New York University. 

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