Nina Katchadourian

When I was seven, I wrote a biology book called The Human Body: The Incredible Machine. It was written with my best friend who lived next door, and she wrote the same book in parallel. We had been strongly influenced by a National Geographic special that was also called The Human Body: The Incredible Machine. It full of all kinds of unbelievable photography and stuff that I think was probably quite groundbreaking at the time. We had certainly never seen anything like that, and it opened up the body, literally, as this colorful, pulsing, incredible, vast site.

One of the things that I find pretty funny is that there’s certainly a lot of effort that’s gone into the drawing. There’s this drawing of the muscular and blood flow systems, and another one is just of the skeleton. You can tell where we’ve been trying to pay attention to the anatomy, and then there are parts where we really are wildly making it up. The skeleton really makes me laugh. It’s missing giant sections – the arms are just one big solid bone, it’s not articulated.

There are all these interactive moments in the book where we want people to do an activity, like blowing up a paper balloon, and then you stop blowing into it and that’s supposed to teach you about how a heart attack works. Sometimes when I look at these I feel sort of proud of it – it’s like a ‘zine meets some kind of interactive learning tool. It has some moments that I think are a little ahead of its time. It’s funny, we were sort of taking up the mantle of teacher. There’s this gentle voice of authority that’s also present there, even when we really don’t know what we’re talking about.

Many years later when I started making art, I got really interested in maps. In a solo museum retrospective that I have up right now, the very earliest piece is one of these early map works. I made it my senior year of college and it was made very, very manually, by taking a paper map of the world and cutting it up and rearranging it on another big piece of paper next to the original map, and sort of moving the whole world around and transplanting it onto this other piece of paper. I’m conscious of how early on, I was really interested in systems and how things fit together and maybe even in a funny kind of way, where two disciplines might meet – the desire to draw something or render something might meet the desire, from a scientific point of view, to understand that system.

It was such an amazing experience when I showed up for the installation of that show at the Blanton, because I hadn’t seen that map since I made it, and it was also the first piece I ever sold, so it’s been on this person’s wall since 1989, and it was not in very good shape. The amazing conservation staff took it out of its frame and set it up in their studio, and I had this incredible afternoon sitting there with little tweezers, picking up pieces of fallen map, bits and pieces of stuff that had just fallen off the surface and wound up in the gutter of the frame, and trying to figure out where it went. I had kind of forgotten the details of the piece – I was playing a lot with the language on the map and making up new cities and putting well known cities in unlikely places – and I had to revisit all the jokes that I made but that I didn’t remember anymore. It was so weird to have become a new viewer for something that I made. I felt like I was two people at the same time in that moment.

I was interested in systems and how things fit together, and where the desire to draw something might meet the desire, from a scientific point of view, to understand that system. 

I’ve also always really loved the form of the book. I took a class at RISD my sophomore year in college called Concrete Books, and it was about thinking of the form and the content of the book as deeply interconnected. These were experimental books, sometimes much more like sculptures than books, and that was my first exposure to any kind of more concept-driven artmaking. Going to college, I pretty much thought that art was about learning how to draw properly, and this connection between form and content that the book class showed me was such a revelation.

The first thing I made was a pair of books, and they were motivated by the incredibly interesting bathroom graffiti in the school. In the ladies’ room, there was this raging debate going on on the bathroom walls, and it was sort of in advice column format. One person would write a question, and someone else would chime in, and then other people, and the stalls were covered with these communications.  I remember reporting this to a male friend once and he’s like, “What? You guys write on the walls and offer each other advice?” And I said, “Yeah, what do you do?”  And he sort of looked a little bit embarrassed and said, “Well, it’s just really different.”  And then of course I had to find out what he meant by that, so I got a guy to stand guard while I went inside the men’s room one day and it was pretty different – like, there were these really sexual drawings of women upside down with their legs spread. It was just a totally different thing. I thought that these two spaces were so interesting to compare: my male friends had no idea what went on in the ladies’ room and none of my women friends had any idea what went on in the men’s room, so I made two books which were like a men’s room and a women’s room. They were really big and really physical and heavy. The front page was constructed like a bathroom door, so you would heave open this huge door and then there was this stall door was another page, and then there were all these unfolding pages that became like a big bathroom wall with all the writing that I transcribed onto these plastic sheets. It basically just duplicated the dialog that was going on in there. So it was a book but it was sort of also a space – two spaces that you could look at next to one another and contrast, and that provided access to stuff one normally wouldn’t be able to see, in both directions.

There is a box in my home studio that has endured every purge I’ve made over the last couple decades and it contains – I don’t even know if I want to call it art. It contains a bunch of ceramic objects that I made in a tableware class. I’d never worked with clay, and it was a wonderful class, but the stuff I made for that class was so hideous. The final project that I made was inspired by some traveling I had done in the Greek islands the summer before. I’d been visiting all these little white villages with narrow little alleyways between houses, and I had been so struck by that architecture and by the quality of light on these islands. So I made an entire set of dishes that were concentric plates. When you put the smaller plate inside the bigger plate there would be a sort of village wall along the outside of the big plate and then another one around the outside of the littler plate, and then between those two walls you would end up with this sort of alleyway. So this whole thing was like a Greek village you were supposed to eat off of. It’s actually pretty funny, because you as a human end up as this giant hulking creature pushing food around between these buildings. There’s something kind of Godzilla-ish and weird about it. I can’t quite bear to throw them away even though they’re really kind of awful and heavy and annoying to store, but they somehow were a certain place and time for me, and I’m sentimentally attached.

Sometimes you make things in order to figure out why you are making them. 

The advice I give to the students that I teach now, and I have to give it to myself constantly too, is to never talk yourself out of anything. You have to be willing to follow an idea through and not lop it off too soon. You have to sort of make that leap of faith – to follow it a few steps down the road and see what else it might become.

Related to that, it has been really important for me to realize that ideas, when they begin, are often these little gradual kind of seeds, and you have to let them take root. It’s good to be sort of protective in the early stages of something. I think this is sometimes a problem with art pedagogy: we’re encouraged to talk about our ideas and discuss them really early, and sometimes ideas aren’t ready for that kind of scrutiny. I think it’s better to hold on to them and be private about them. Another thing I’ve often said to students is that sometimes you make things in order to figure out why you are making them. And so in order for it to get to that point, you have to let the thing come into the world enough that there’s something there. So be gentle and protective of your fledgling idea.