“Art in Public Places/What Did I Do?/Interventions and Provocations/On This Site.” Nina Katchadourian produced this bit of freeform poetry by stacking the spines of four carefully chosen books in the research library at the Akron Art Museum, in Ohio. For 20 years, the Brooklyn-based conceptual artist has been creating these kinds of small, transformative dialogues within book collections, and now photographs of her arrangements have been brought together in Sorted Books, published by Chronicle.
“I often work from very familiar situations that are found in our vernacular,” Katchadourian said over the phone from Austin, Texas, where she’d been invited to sort books in a collector couple’s home. “Books are like that. We think of them in terms of their content, but this is a sculptural project in that I’m working with the physical qualities of each book and what arranging those books does to reflect the meaning of the title.”
At the Delaware Art Museum, where she delved into the institution’s historic American book collection, Katchadourian was struck by 19th-century titles that romanticized the Native Americans at a time when they were being displaced. Her discovery resulted in a configuration that reads: “Indian History for Young Folks/Our Village/Your National Parks.” Then there’s the two-book punch of “What is Art?/Close Observation.”
“A lot happens just by moving these things around to show what’s been there the whole time,” the artist said.
Katchadourian has been doing these book-sorting interventions since 1993, when, as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, she and some fellow students were invited by a friend’s parents to create art in their home. She was drawn to the family’s bookshelves, executing an idea she’d once had when roaming a library and imagining the trails of titles forming sentences.
A playful but cutting voice always comes through that makes each stack her own, even if the words are borrowed. And the results end up capturing something of the identity of the collections, as well as the people who amassed them. “It’s a portraiture project, and everybody’s book collections are quite revealing,” Katchadourian said. “There’s a lot you can imagine about someone that shows itself between the spines.”