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A little bit baffled

Nina Katchadourian likes to start from the point of 'close, but not quite.' She's back in San Diego with a solo show.

May 22, 2008|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO -- Over the last decade, Nina Katchadourian has mended broken spider webs with colored thread and glue. She has programmed a computer to translate the pulses of a popcorn popper into Morse code. She has diagramed a family tree of supermarket icons -- Uncle Ben, Mr. Clean, the Gerber baby -- and staged an endurance test for herself, attempting to smile for as long as possible while archival footage of explorer Ernest Shackleton was projected onto her front tooth.

Endearing, goofy, earnest, witty, subversive, penetrating -- Katchadourian's work leapfrogs across an array of emotional touchstones, finding a briefly comfortable fit, then moving on. Many of her projects center on thwarted efforts to categorize and simplify, to define and know. They suggest that the impulse toward order may be fundamentally human but that the complexity of nature and experience is just as absolute. Yet according to Katchadourian, misalignment brings satisfactions of its own.

"A lot of things I'm attracted to are like that: close, but not quite. The way they mismatch is often a starting point for work for me," she explained recently. "Misunderstanding is a very fertile point for making art. When things aren't quite right, that often makes them funny, or awkward, or poignant."

The Brooklyn-based Katchadourian, 40, was speaking as finishing touches were being put on her new solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. A part of the museum's so-called Cerca Series, it has brought her back to the city where she began to mature as an artist in the 1990s.

Consider one of the exhibition's two video installations, "Accent Elimination" (2005), which begins with the simplest of interviews and, within its short (less than 15-minute) loop, evolves into a meditation on voice, identity and origin.

The artist and her parents appear, head and shoulders, separately on three side-by-side monitors. Katchadourian asks them their names, which leads to questions about their nationalities and accents. Basic enough, except that her mother is Swedish and grew up in Finland, and her father is Armenian but was raised in Turkey and Lebanon.

After eliciting the mildly perplexing facts from each, Katchadourian repeats the interviews -- only this time she addresses her mother in her mother's accent and her father in his. They both answer in their best imitations of their daughter's uninflected American. Three other monitors, back to back with the first set, show the family training with a vocal coach to perfect the transformations.

"It's not a project about watching our stunning success with the task at hand," Katchadourian said. "It's much more about the brow-sweating effort to get there, and the awkwardness in all of that, and how that awkwardness is linked to a kind of goodwill, to be inside the other person's voice."

She said she was working on the piece at the same time the home she grew up in was being sold. There was a lot of discussion, she recalled, about what to keep and what to get rid of.

"That's when I started to think about the accent as something that could be handed down. What if it was a physical thing, like an heirloom?"

Assistant curator Lucia Sanroman, the organizer of the show, encountered the video piece shortly after she began work at the museum a few years ago. Its themes of translation and mistranslation seemed relevant to the San Diego-Tijuana region, she says, and to her own experience.

"It resonated with me personally, because I also have a strong accent," says the Mexican-born Sanroman. "For Nina, it was a very personal and keen observation of being from so many parts, of having an identity that is beyond hybrid, and how to negotiate that."

Katchadourian, boyishly slim and angular, with wavy dark hair, soft brown eyes and a deep, mellifluous voice, was born and raised in Palo Alto, where her mother worked as a literary translator and her father was a professor of psychiatry at Stanford. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Brown, she enrolled in the master of fine arts program at UC San Diego, studying with the late Allan Kaprow -- the father of happenings and currently the subject of a retrospective at the Geffen Contemporary in L.A. -- as well as performance poet David Antin and "Eco-Artists" Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison.

"UCSD was a great fit for me, because no one ever told me I had to work in any particular medium," Katchadourian said. "We were required to have people from outside the art department on our thesis committee. They didn't want us just talking to artists."

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