At a time when the selfie is ascendant — when its practitioners include the Pope, Barack Obama, and Kim Kardashian; when Oxford Dictionaries named "selfie" 2013's Word of the Year — it's worth remembering the genre's art-world progenitors. They helped establish the culture that made it fashionable to focus the camera on your very own face. They pushed the limits of what photographers presented in the public sphere. A battered visage? Nan Goldin did that in 1984. Appearing nude in cross-dressing makeup? Robert Mapplethorpe did that in 1980. Pretending to be a multitude of Hollywood starlets? Cindy Sherman did that in the late '70s.
Into this monumental history of selfies and self-portraiture steps Nina Katchadourian, a wisecracking Bay Area-born artist who has the audacity to use airplane bathrooms as the centerpiece of a photography and video series that is flat-out hilarious, somewhat serious, and completely unassuming. Employing toilet-seat covers, tissues, and other items found on economy-class flights, Katchadourian transforms herself into a woman of medieval European stature — the kind of vaunted figure that Flemish painters Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden would painstakingly put on canvases for Europe's sovereign elite. But wait: For her video called In a Room Full of Strangers, Katchadourian lip-syncs to the Bee Gees' hit "Nights on Broadway" ("blaming it all on the nights on Broadway/singin' them love songs/singin' them straight to the heart songs"). And she films herself on a mobile phone three times, singing each of the three Bee Gees' different falsetto parts as she wears a different ad-hoc Flemish-era costume. In the finished product, the song plays at full blast as Katchadourian appears on three parallel screens — all three singing roles in sync, all three Katchadourian figures looking at each other as if they're crooning live on camera. Oh, right — Katchadourian did it all on the fly, in single takes, in a bathroom on an airplane that was 20,000 feet up, on its way to another continent.
In a Room Full of Strangers is in a new exhibit of Katchadourian's work at Catherine Clark Gallery. On view at the same time that the Fraenkel Gallery is showcasing nine Goldin self-portraits, In a Room Full of Strangers begs the question: Are women at the center of the selfie/self-portrait evolution? The evidence would suggest "yes." According to one recent poll, women on social media more quickly share selfies than do men. In the art world, it's women like Katchadourian and Goldin who continue to set a high bar for self-portraiture's possibilities. In a Room Full of Strangers is part of a bigger project that Katchadourian calls "Seat Assignment," which started in 2010 and revolves around flights she takes here and there. The medieval-era still images are grouped under the heading, "Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style."
"It comes from a basic methodology of trying to make work while I'm stuck on airplanes using only my phone and what I find around me," says Katchadourian. "In a Room Full of Strangers was made on a return flight home from a residency and an exhibition that I had in New Zealand. I had an awful lot of time on that plane. So it was a great opportunity to use the lavatory, because no one was ever waiting in line. Probably the question I get asked most often is, 'What about all those people waiting in line?' But on a 14-hour leg, believe me, everyone is sleeping. No one is waiting in line. No one knew anything about what I was doing in there. I could be in there for 10 to 15 minutes at a time."
Katchadourian has what she calls "a deeply held love for Flemish portraiture of the 15th century; there's a dignity and a stillness and gracefulness and a sense of intimacy that you're seeing someone alone with themselves in a sense. This may sound far-fetched, but on an airplane, the only place you have with yourself is in the bathroom. That's the only encounter you have where you are privately on your own. And perhaps in some strange, oblique way, that's the reason those images became like that. There's a similar privacy, stillness, and intimacy that I'm interested in."
While selfies tend to be self-promotional and put the photographer in the best possible light, art-world self-portraits have much more latitude. Andy Warhol usually snapped his own image in a way that would flatter his face and play up his rebelliousness. But Goldin has never been attracted to artifice. Her acclaimed 1986 book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, featured her image with two black eyes, which Goldin suffered at the hands of her boyfriend, who almost blinded her with his fists. Goldin's new exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery features a typical Goldin image from her early career, Self-portrait in bed with lover, from 1990, that has her half-nude in the missionary position, below her naked boyfriend. On an opposite wall at Fraenkel is Goldin in a 2013 image, In my hall, Berlin, that shows Goldin — at age 60 — also half-nude, this time revealing a body that has put on weight around the midsection, where her flesh droops over her untied pants. "I want to show exactly what my world looks like," Goldin wrote in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, "without glamorization, without glorification."
Almost a generation younger than Goldin, Katchadourian shares Goldin's commitment to photos that are raw and improvisational. Katchadourian role-plays but she captures herself living in the moment. She's not Cindy Sherman, who will spend hours and days working to get a single orchestrated image in a studio environment.
"I'm a fan of her work, don't get me wrong, but what's more important to me is this idea of what can you make out of nothing — and I'm trying to do these things with crappy bathroom lighting and only what's in the bathroom," says Katchadourian, who lives in Brooklyn and is an assistant professor at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. "And by my own rules; too much rehearsing isn't fair. The spirit of 'Seat Assignment' as a project is that things happen spontaneously. The performance [in In a Room Full of Strangers] isn't perfect, and it's OK that it isn't. You'll see me mess up lines here and there. It's not flawless."
Katchadourian laughs as she says this. In fact, what helps set her work apart from that of other self-spotlighted artists is her humor. Katchadourian's sense of the absurd is evident in "Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style," both in the name and the images, where toilet-seat covers end up around Katchadourian's neck. The humor is sidesplitting in In a Room Full of Strangers, where as lead singer Barry Gibb she flares her nostrils and then tilts her hand in the high-minded 15th-century style. The video is Katchadourian's masterpiece. It's the work that induces raucous laughter in art galleries. And when was the last time you heard raucous laughter in an art gallery?
With Katchadourian, "self-portrait" doesn't mean "self-indulgence." There's a thin line between the two, and Katchadourian never crosses it.