It’s the final few days of Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser at the Blanton. We thought we’d wrap up our series of blogs with one of the exhibition’s most popular series in the show: the Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. The Flemish men and women are only in Austin until Sunday so if you want to meet them before they take off, come now!
–Veronica Roberts, exhibition curator
While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in January 2011, I spontaneously put a tissue toilet-seat cover over my head and took a picture of myself with my cell phone. When I saw the image, I thought, “I remind myself of a Flemish painting.” I wanted to make more of these images and decided to take advantage of an upcoming long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, guessing that there would be long periods of time during the fourteen-hour flight when no one was using the lavatory. I made sure to get an aisle seat and made many forays to the bathroom.
By the time we landed, my project “Seat Assignment” had gained a new group of photographs: the Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. My thin black scarf provided the deep black ground to some images; my orange travel blanket added some richness of color to others. And in some, it’s just an unadorned wall, illuminated by the lavatory’s own anemic lighting. People often comment on the “serious” or “melancholic” expression I have in these pictures; they are, in fact, seeing the way fatigue and jet lag are starting to work to my advantage. I worked the whole way to New Zealand and didn’t sleep at all on the flight; at one point, I was so dazed that I almost walked out of the lavatory wearing my paper costume.
The Flemish portraits do a lot with a little, not only because they use whatever is at hand on an airplane—paper towels, an inflatable cushion, toilet-seat covers—but because they hit their mark using minimally accurate signifiers. Even with no knowledge of European painting you somehow get it loud and clear: it’s back then; it’s old-masterish; it belongs to a time that we know only through pictures and maybe movies.
The portraits land so solidly in history that people think they are quotations. “I recognize The Girl with the Pearl Earring for sure!” says one commenter online. In fact, none of the photographs follow any single model, and none of the features of clothing and headdress correspond precisely to any known costume. They mingle times happily, gesturing to the horned wimples of early fifteenth-century Flemish portraits, bending like the demure biggins of the sixteenth century, riffing on the ruffs of the seventeenth century. Male and female stylings cross over into one another so nonchalantly in these portraits that you almost don’t notice them. Avoiding what Oscar Wilde called “careless habits of accuracy,” the portraits produce the historical jump with minimal means and for the widest possible audience. Operating at a level below conscious cultural knowledge, they issue from the lavatory–control room where cliché is collective memory.
These are not self-portraits but other-portraits, released into existence from the hurtling capsule of an airplane. Look how little it takes to be someone else, somewhere else, from another time. But who are these people? The mugging suggests that we are dealing with types, not individuals. Or maybe we’re to understand that in the olden days, costumes really did take over the job of signifying who you were, marking you with your place and station—that the type actually dominated over the individual as a matter of historical fact. At the same time, looking at these portraits, I start wondering whether the drastic divide between the costume and the person might also have left the individual a certain unmarked freedom of movement.
The post-1960s consensus that we should carry our individuality in our appearance, that we should let it all hang out, has faded away. We’ve now returned to an elaborate observance of social conventions, gently but firmly guided by social media and self-improvement regimes—though without the clear awareness our ancestors possessed that the conventions exist and that they need to be expertly negotiated. Once again, our selves are unmarked, except for moments when we feel something catching against the costume.
–Alexander Nagel, Professor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
 Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” in The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde, vol. 7, Intentions (New York: The Nottingham Society, 1909), 3-57.