It’s a truism universally acknowledged that one should not judge a book by its cover. Bypass garish neon fonts, stunning photography and the high flown hyperbolic praise that turns out to be from the author’s mother, and delve into the words before forming opinions. It’s the only way. Or maybe not. Indeed artist Nina Katchadourian seems to argue the reverse in her project Sorted Books. For a constantly evolving series that has continued to grow for more than twenty years, she has travelled to libraries across America and the world, creating teetering word sculptures that, through reconstruction of the Dewey Decimal system and playful juxtaposition make jokes, tell stories and ask provocative and pithy questions. From an alternative history of the universe passing from Great Balls of Fire (by Ron Padgett) to Civilisation and its Discontents (by Freud) to pondering what kind of art Picasso would have created in the Primitive era, these book portraits are both poetry and records of libraries past; pertinent and poignant in an age of digitization, as physical books retreat to cyber shelves.
Here, we speak to Katchadourian about her wide reaching project, discussing how the books in her collections morph from libraries to piles, and why she’d like to ban the word “whimsical” from any journalist's description of her work.After working on the project for a long time, do books lose their status as readable objects, becoming more a form of shape, font, single words etc?
I always think of the books as sculptural, and try to work with the physicality of the books as much as possible – this is as meaningful an element as the text is, but I never lose track of what the written matter means, of course.
Integral to the process of Sorted Books, and some of your other series, is the rearrangement of everyday objects to create new meaning and order. You've said "the world is a malleable place" – is your art a study in restructuring/ordering the world?
Often, it just takes a small shift, reframing, or reordering of something in the world that we encounter everyday to totally change it. And I like to work in this zone a lot, yes.
It seems that humour is integral to your work – is doing works that amuse you a key consideration in your process?
I never try to make work that is funny. That's never the point or the goal. That said, I don't mind humour as part of the approach to the things I am interested in and want to put in front of others. Humour is a great hook; it often brings people in and makes them feel oriented. Once that has happened, you have an opportunity to take the next step.You've said that you question the popular idea of there being only a fine line between 'fun' and 'frivolous', that work that is funny, isn't any less serious or considered. However, your work is witty and wry, and has an opportunistic, natural, impulsive feel – AKA your airplane bathroom images taken on an iPhone. Would you object to these adjectives describing your work? Do you feel they undermine their seriousness, or are they a considered facet of the work itself?
What I've said is that funny and frivolous are not the same thing, and that people often mistake the two. I feel very strongly about this. Just because you've laughed or been amused doesn't mean you are "off the hook" from having to think, or even from having to think about your reaction to why you found something funny.
The adjectives I find myself most irritated by of late are "whimsical" and "quirky," both of which I actually find very condescending and dismissive. "Whimsical" seems to suggest there was no intent, no agency, and no goal in mind; this is very different from saying that spontanaeity can be an important part of art-making, which I think for me it is. But the implied "Whoops! I just made this!" in the words "whimsical," and the implication that there is something rather slight and inconsequential about it is problematic. Incidentally, can you think of the last time you heard a man, or a man's work, described as "whimsical?" I can't.Do you collect anything personally?
Yes: books that are true accounts written by shipwreck survivors, and in general, a lot of books on maritime themes.
What do you have coming up next?
In April, I'll be exhibiting parts of "Seat Assignment" (my project made while in flight) at Cecilia Brunson Projects in London. I have had work in a travelling show that just wrapped up its stay at Turner Contemporary in Margate and then Norwich Castle Museum, and that show will open at De Appel in Amsterdam in June. I'm also headed to visit a very strange group of grey whales in Baja, California together with a friend and collaborator who is a historian of science. We don't know what we'll make with or about the whales yet – we have to meet them first.
Text by Tish Wrigley