During the run of Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser, we are sharing short essays from the exhibition catalogue, featuring great contributions from a dream team of writers that includes everyone from an animal behaviorist to a psychoanalyst. This week, it’s Josh Siegel, the MoMA film curator and possible fellow member of the secret Cat Appreciation Society, on SkyMall Kitties, an homage to the perplexing and beguiling oddity that is the SkyMall catalogue.
—Veronica Roberts, exhibition curator
Reading the SkyMall catalogue is an in-flight ritual for me. I know much of the imagery almost by heart. Every time I get on a plane, I page through it to make sure certain products are still present (hello, Garden Yeti; hello, inflatable tray-table pillow; hello, foam massage wedge.) I always noticed the pet products, which divide into dog and cat categories. I took note that the dogs were shown in slightly pathetic situations (bed ramp for arthritic old dog) and, in contrast, the cats had litter boxes disguised as houseplants or space capsules and perched on human toilets, smart enough to be trained to do such a thing.
I wrote the SkyMall Kitties song in flight, mentioning as many specific pet items as possible, and recorded it once I got home, adding images of the products mentioned in the song to construct the video. I showed it first at a meeting of the Cat Appreciation Society. (Because we swear an oath not to discuss anything that goes on at the CAS, however, I cannot elaborate further.) After the meeting, I put the video on YouTube—I intended it as entertainment, and it seemed to belong there. It had a lively viral life for about a month, received over one hundred thousand views, and was included in the first International Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center in 2012.
“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”
Five years on, I still can’t get the damn song out of my head. SkyMall Kitties has insinuated itself into that part of my medial prefrontal cortex where catchy tunes and commercial jingles lodge themselves like barnacles. What saves Nina Katchadourian’s song from becoming shamelessly cloying, however, are its notes of acidity—“Kitty doesn’t need the extra padding in the ass”; “This dog looks like a seal”—and its cantering double couplets whose rhymes (restroom/moon; planter/decanter; planes/pain) are as absurd as the very thing that she satirizes: our dearly departed SkyMall Catalog. For nearly two decades, this glossy talisman of “gadget-fetishizing, techno-porn” offered us solutions to problems we risked not knowing we had, and filled the void of ordinary unhappiness both in flight and on the ground.
At the very moment I write this (6:19:12 p.m. on Friday, November 13, 2015), a search for “cats” on YouTube yields 41.5 million videos. While only a scant few of these can be said to rise to the level of art, paramount among them is Chris Marker’s Chat écoutant la musique (1990), a piano nocturne starring his feline alter ego, Guillaume-en-Égypte, who lies in odalisque repose atop an electronic keyboard: the very essence of luxe, calme, et volupté.
If Guillaume-en-Égypte embodies what we admire, even envy, in cats—a kind of devil-may-care self-contentment and self-containment—then what are we to make of those long-suffering cat models in SkyMall Kitties? Forced to strike undignified poses, whether in a compromising squat in The Litter-Robot™ by Automated Pet Care Products Inc. or in lockdown in the Royale Classic Double Decker Pet Stroller™ by Kittywalk Systems Inc., they seem to expose, and mirror, our own private humiliations and primal fears, naked for all the world to see.
Only Katchadourian, with her customary wit and perspicacity, would have noticed their subtle cries for help. Only Katchadourian, stuck at the back of the plane next to the toilet, in non-reclining middle seat 43F, would restore a bit of elegance and class to these poor creatures. In her collage animation fantasia, cats are free to move about the cabin, perform a kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley routine, or even flee a burning house. Katchadourian’s uplifting, transporting Seat Assignment series of iPhone photos and videos, the product of nearly 200 flights she has taken since 2010, now number in the thousands. Together with other works she has made in cramped quarters (Birdhouse/Outhouse: The Semiotics of the Forest, 2003; The Jitney’s Just a Fucking Bus, 2010), SkyMall Kitties is a reflection of our own quiet desperation and common yearning. As the song about Elsa the Lioness goes, all we want in the end is to be
Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
–Josh Siegel, Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art
Josh Siegel, “SkyMall Kitties” © The Museum of Modern Art, 2015