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Greg S. Flood


Art Writing

Nina Katchadourian’s ‘Sorted Books’

Nina Katchadourian 'Indian History for young Folks', 2012; c-print (12.5 x 19 inches), Image courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery and the artist

On a recent trip to New York I made an appointment to view the Chelsea location of the Catharine Clark Gallery. On my arrival I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by artist Nina Katchadourian, whose solo show ‘Nina Katchadourian Sorted Books’ I had come to see. When we got inside, I was surprised and visually delighted by what I saw on the walls.

For some 20 years Nina Katchadourian has been mining the libraries of both public institutions and private collectors, selecting out those with titles of interest. She then clusters them together to form poetic groupings of words that make the viewer/reader think about deep and profound meanings. Some examples of groupings include ‘Kinds of Love/Ecstasy/Sensation/Distemper’, ‘Primitive Art/Just Imagine/Picasso/ Raised by Wolves’, and ‘A Day at the Beach/The Bathers/Shark 1/Shark 2/Shark 3/Sudden Violence/Silence’. The grouping is then photographed to create a document of the arrangement and later printed for display. From there the books are dispersed back into their owner’s libraries.

The resulting images seduce their viewers/readers with their rich tones, chromatic contrasts, and hook them in with their thought provoking word associations. I say viewer/reader because these photographs are rooted in both the literary and art worlds, and cannot be wholly claimed by either realm as their exclusive domain. This straddling of worlds is a unique feature of Katchadourian’s work and one the sets it apart from numerous other artists working with books as their primary subject matter.

When presenting her book groupings to us, Katchadourian has typically stacked the books on top of one another or placed them vertically on edge, revealing only their spines to us. This arrangement presents their titles to us in stanza like arrangements of words and leads us to reading them as if they were poetry. In this most recent iteration of the project, ’Once Upon a Time in Delaware/In Search of the Perfect Book’, however, she has changed her groupings completely. Instead of stacking them, Katchadourian has laid the books out so that their covers can be seen. The reason for this change has to do with the unique nature of the collection she was working with.

The Delaware Art Museum has a large collection of Victorian and early 20th century books dating from 1870 – 1920. Originally collected by M. G. Sawyer, the unifying thread behind the 2,000 book collection had only to do with the designs of their covers and not the texts contained within them. Katchadourian was commissioned by the museum to create this most recent iteration of the Sorted Books project. With such a unique characteristic attached to how the collection was formed, she wanted to display the covers as much as the text of the titles.

The results of this change alter both our experience of the photographs and how we read the text groups. Instead of short, haiku like poems, the text now reads as more of a single sentence, sometimes long and sometimes not, holding all of the elaborate meanings and associated contexts within it. It has changed to a running thought and away from a poetic moment, though the deeper meanings are no less profound. Also, since the decorative covers are revealed, there is an added level of sumptuousness to the photographs. The designs on the covers add another context to inform the meanings of the texts, sometimes contrasting gold embossed lettering with dark subjects, while in others such a rich embellishment adds to the delight in reading the words and thinking about their meaning.

In her essay on the project, ‘Twenty Years of Sorted Books’, Katchadourian reveals where she got the impetus for creating this project.

“The ‘Sorted Books’ project came out of an experiment hatched when I was in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1990s. …We studied – and were trying to put into practice – an engagement with the everyday, a stance toward art that located it in unlikely places, and ways of working collaboratively. In that spirit, an art major undergraduate, who was friendly with some of the graduate students, invited a group of us to move into her parent’s house for a week and make art with what we found. …We spent about a week there, poking around and thinking about what to make.

“Eventually each of us found zones in the house that interested us… Quite early in the week, I latched onto the library. …I spent a long time looking at the books and getting acquainted with the wide variety of subjects in their library: Shakespeare, self-help, gabling, addiction, healthcare, history, and investment strategy guides. I suddenly recalled a moment in the university library when, looking for a book, I had turned my head sideways as I walked down the stacks and thought how spectacular it would be if the titles formed an accidental sentence when read one after another in a long chain. Standing amidst the bookshelves [in the house], my next move was simply to make this imaginary accident real.” ¹

Given the nature of how the project started in an environment where she had no control over what would be available for use, I asked her how important it is to her to rely on the unpredictability of the materials she uses in her artistic practice.

“This feels very important. I never know what books I'll find in a library or book collection, and any collection is also ultimately bounded and limited. There is not an endless supply of titles; I have to make use with what I have there. In recent years I've been thinking quite closely about how useful and important limitations are for me. Both ‘Sorted Books’ and ‘Seat Assignment’, an ongoing project I'm currently quite focused on, try to make productive use of the limited materials at my disposal in each situation.”

I mentioned to her that a number of her other projects are like this one, where they build themselves over time. I asked her if it is a challenge for her to sustain a single project through so many different versions for such a period of time.

“Not when the project continues to surprise me with the amount of variation on each site, as ‘Sorted Books’ projects always seems to do. I don't say yes to every invitation; I do have to be fundamentally interested in the books that are there, or the circumstance that brought the books there.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, Katchadourian is celebrating the release of a monograph about her sorted books series, entitled ‘Sorted Books’ (Chronicle Books). The creation of the monograph adds another dimension to the project, it being a book of groupings of books. In addition the book goes beyond a typical monograph, becoming also a book of poetry that could just as easily sit on the literature shelves in a book store as in the art section. The monograph, itself, has been published in both a printed form and as an e-book. Katchadourian wrote in her essay that the development of tablet readers has had an effect on her motivations for the project in some ways.

“Despite all the hand-wringing over the demise of the book in our electronic age, this involuntary surge of curiosity that often makes us reach for a book has not diminished in the twenty years since the first book sorting …although it now may be motivated by a combination of factors. Perhaps it’s in part nostalgia for an object that is growing scarce. But with so many other forms of reading vying for our attention, maybe the printed book is also becoming more beautiful, more tactile, and more materially compelling, because it will have to be all of those things to justify its existence.” ²

When corresponding with her about this aspect of the project, Katchadourian added commented, “I'm not a technophobe by any means, and I do my reading in all kinds of forms these days: tablet, computer screen, book. I think there's a kind of ‘site-specificity’ to reading for me now. Some texts are best on a tablet, some on a screen, some in the form of a book. I think we're all sorting that out for ourselves.”

One other thing to note is that Katchadourian’s photographs are also documents of history. In the future printed books made of paper will become objects as rare as edition prints, and will be treated like any other collectible, at least more than they are now. Images of books will be the only thing most people will interact with, not the objects themselves. When Katchadourian began her series 20 years ago, this evolution was just beginning to occur, and the fact that she thought to begin this project then was both prescient and shows how well attuned she is to how the human experience is changing around us. We would do well to be so observant of what changes are coming.

‘Nina Katchadourian Sorted Books’ will be on view at the NY location of the Catharine Clark Gallery through the summer of 2013. Viewing is by Appointment Only. Catharine Clark Gallery will open in its’ new San Francisco location on September 7, 2013. Until then, gallery hours are by Appointment Only. For more information visit the Gallery Website Here. ‘Sorted Books’ the monograph of this project is available through Catharine Clark Gallery and Chronicle Books for $25.00 For more information about Nina Katchadourian’s art click here.

(This article contains excerpts from the essay “Twenty years of Sorting Books” by Nina Katchadourian, published in Sorted Books by Nina Katchadourian. The following citations are for those excerpts.)

1. Nina Katchadourian, “Twenty years of Sorting Books” in Sorted Books by Nina Katchadourian (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013) p. 13

2. Ibid, p. 15 – 16

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