PROVO — Have you ever thought about how popcorn popping sounds like morse code? Or attempted to fix gaps in a spider web with thread? What about putting together book titles to create fun — or even profound — poetry?

Contemporary artist Nina Katchadourian has done all of these things and more. The artist is a self-proclaimed “curiouser,” and that name is attached to a quirky and thought-provoking array of art now on display at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

“Many of my ideas come from paying attention to the mundane, everyday things that surround us, things that I feel are worthy of greater attention," the artist wrote in an email. "When we decide to pay more attention to them, there could be something new or insightful that opens up.”

A popcorn language

Provo is the last stop for this touring exhibition, which Veronica Roberts originally curated at the University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art. MOA employee Janalee Emmer, who is the head of education for the museum, said that in addition to resonating with audiences at BYU and in Provo, the exhibit is also a great introduction to contemporary art.

“Some people come to a museum and they want a more traditional experience. They’re used to a painting in a wooden frame and they know a little bit more about how to interact with that,” Emmer explained. “Contemporary art can be … more challenging for people, and I think one of the great things about Nina Katchadourian’s work is that it is really accessible, even if you are not very familiar with … contemporary art, there’s a way to engage with it.”

The first display museum-goers will see is “Talking Popcorn.” Inspired by listening to morse code, Katchadourian wondered, "What if the sounds of popcorn popping were a language?" She gave the “language” a name — popcornese — and created a piece featuring a large, traditional popcorn machine connected to a computer. When the popcorn machine is running, the computer translates the pops into letters and words.

The "Talking Popcorn" piece involves a traditional popcorn-maker hooked up to a computer which translates the popping into words — mostly gibberish.
The "Talking Popcorn" piece involves a traditional popcorn-maker hooked up to a computer, which translates the popping into words — mostly gibberish. | BYU Museum of Art

“Mostly, it’s gibberish,” Emmer said. “When you listen to it, it sounds like words. I think you want it to be words … but every now and then it does say actual words.”

"We" — the first word the machine ever “said” — is immortalized. Katchadourian had the four popcorn pieces that made up the word bronzed.

Although the idea is rooted in lighthearted fun, those searching for deeper meaning won't do so in vain. For example, the longest word the popcorn machine's ever said is “silent.” And occasionally, it’s called Katchadourian “mom.” Which is appropriate, considering Katchadourian sees the popcorn machine almost like a baby whose first words she’s recording.

While the exhibit's humor is what draws people in, Emmer said it's the profound underpinnings that make them stay.

'A deeper level'

During a summer in Finland, Katchadourian noticed a plethora of spiderwebs, many of which seemed to be missing sections. For fun, she put together a makeshift spiderweb made of red thread and glue and attached it to the natural spiderwebs — therein “fixing” them.

When Katchadourian checked on the spiderwebs the next morning, she found that her red thread webs had fallen to the ground. She later realized what she thought were abandoned spiderwebs were not in fact abandoned, and spiders had returned and removed her “help."

On the one hand, it’s humorous. “Who thinks of doing this?” Emmer said.

But on the other hand, she continued, it brings up something to ponder.

“There’s a deeper level which starts to kind of talk about ways in which we interfere or meddle with nature and how many of them are wanted,” Emmer explained. “Clearly the spider is not at all interested in her help … but often, nature can’t make comments like the spider does.”

In another part of the exhibit, a video collection called "Accent Elimination" shows the artist and her parents working with a voice coach — she tries to imitate her parents' accents and her parents try to speak without their accents (Although Katchadourian mostly grew up in California, her father is Armenian and lived in Beirut for most of his life and her mother has a Finnish-Swedish background).

“She thought one kind of family heirloom or trait that she could never inherit was her parents' accents,” Emmer explained. “To think about the ways we’re similar to our family members and different, and how we change from generation to generation, I think that’s a really interesting element.”

According to Emmer, one result of the “Accent Elimination” project was the realization that Katchadourian, her mother and father all pronounce their last name differently.

While comical, for Emmer, “Accent Elimination” causes her to reflect about what the way we speak says about us as individuals.

'Seeing the world in a new way'

The largest piece in "Curiouser" continues the family theme — in the supermarket. “Genealogy of the Supermarket” is Katchadourian’s attempt to make a family tree out of the faces and figures used to sell products. For example, The Jolly Green Giant is married to the Land O′Lakes Native American woman and their baby is the Argo Cornstarch lady.

Katchadourian also illustrates what she called “less conventional families”: One of the Brawny paper towels men is married to Mr. Clean and they’ve adopted the Gerber baby. She also made the conscious decision to leave some familiar faces without parents.

Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are shown as siblings, but they’re the only immediate family members displayed. According to Emmer, Katchadourian wanted to reflect how many African-Americans are unable to trace their lineage far back since their ancestors were brought over as slaves.

A closer look at "Genealogy of the Supermarket" reveals some drama: Was the Quaker Oats guy a bigamist? Or did one of his wives die and he remarried? So many questions.
A closer look at "Genealogy of the Supermarket" reveals some drama: Was the Quaker Oats guy a bigamist? Or did one of his wives die and he remarried? So many questions. | BYU Museum of Art

This family tree is evergrowing, as Katchadourian adds new faces specific to the places the exhibition visits.

For the Beehive State, she’s added Grandma Sandinos, the face of a Utah restaurant and jarred pasta sauce made by a family with Italian heritage, along with the Pioneer Valley grandpa and the boy from Tree Street Grains.

“I add new characters because the United States is an enormous country, with regional differences that I think are clearly reflected in the foods you find in a supermarket,” Katchadourian wrote. “Like true family genealogical research, many people are able to keep discovering new relatives while they research their family roots and origins, so it makes sense to me that the family is always expanding.”

These are just a few of the pieces in Katchadourian’s exhibition. Patrons can also see and hear a musical map inspired by cassette tapes Katchadourian found while walking in New York City and music videos Katchadourian made in — wait for it — an airplane lavatory.

“I’ve been through the exhibition a million times, but there’s rarely a time that I don’t kind of go through and still think, ‘I need to be more creative. I need to start thinking about things differently,’” Emmer said. “It really opens your eyes to creativity everywhere, to seeing the world in a new way, even to being creative on an airplane.”

If you’re looking for a laugh, you can find it at the MOA. And you might just get a little curiouser, too.

If you go ...

What: Nina Katchadourian's "Curiouser"

When: Open Monday and Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tuesday-Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., through Aug. 11

Where: BYU Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo

How much: free


Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Nina Katchadourian's father grew up in Turkey. He grew up in Beirut.