I was captivated by Erinç Seymen's "Homo Fragilis." The solo exhibition of the Istanbul-born artist, his first at Istanbul's Zilberman Gallery, features a group of paintings and a sculpture that appear to come out of uncanny dreams. In fact, I was pondering an angst-ridden dream from the previous night when I visited the show, and Seymen's works seemed strangely connected to it.This unsettling exhibition requires visitors to first enter a dim corridor. There, four works await the viewer: "Family Values 1," "Three Sisters," "Comfort Zone A" and "Phantom Limb." The first, a painting of ink on paper, features a nuclear family. A boy and his parents are concealed beneath a distorted cornucopia made of crabs and a flamingo. The fish are dead, but worryingly, they also seem alive.
This image, I think, produces a scary reflection of middle-class life with which Seymen has a conflicted relationship. A great deal of concealment, repression and displacement take place in the scene, as well as in other paintings here. Seymen's choice of hiding faces of family members invites the mind of the viewer to imagine them. I found the task terrifying.
"Three Sisters" was produced with the same technique. It unsettles differently: not by concealing, but by showing faces. Three sisters stand shoulder to shoulder, their necklaces part of a strange formation. Their faces resemble, recreate and reflect one another. They form a single gaze. Moments after seeing it, I felt certain I couldn't sleep in the same room with "Three Sisters."
In "Comfort Zone A," a bug accommodates a child. In an essay on the artist's work, Cüneyt Çakırlar reflects on the politics of the gaze that define this painting: "The child becomes the creature, the terrifying spectacle of alterity to be looked at. The parodic reversal of gaze, which confines the sacralized embodiment of aspirational middle classes into a restricted room of play, subverts the optimistic attention to racial and class privilege, and the idea of an upwardly mobile, good life."
"Comfort Zone A"
Not an exhibition to fill one with ambition, then. But in "Phantom Limb," the tone is more tongue in cheek. In that painting, a finger comes out of an antique needle container. Dadaists would love the image: It combines a symbol of privilege with a limb in a provocative way. Still, the image is beautiful, and I wanted to hang it in my living room. The result of this mixture is stimulating: "If the needle container is a receptacle of able-bodied privilege, the limb's bare presence risks the scene of privilege," writes Çakırlar.
In "The Volunteer," Seymen depicts a doorknocker, and he inquires hospitality; "Mr. Helpless," a sculpture, was produced in collaboration with Murat Balcı who also contributed to the soundtrack for the exhibition.
Another section of the show, "Sketches For a Paradise," features four works: "Nova Atlantis," "A Distant Threat," "Fear No Evil" and "A Bright Future." These works imitate and undermine the colonialist vision. They depict foreign lands beneath the mists of exoticism and orientalism. In those scenes, various travelers experience the thrill and enlightenment of journeying to a distant land that, as often happens in orientalist works, transform into a mirror in which they discern their fears and desires.
"Sorcerer's Wife," his five-piece silkscreen on paper work, depicts Lila Damita. The French American actress (who lived from 1904 to 1994) was a star of Hollywood's silent era. Seymen captures her in a set of fragile moments. "Highlighting the voiceless, flat, mediated status of Damita's identity, Seymen's serigraphic portrait mimics a filmstrip and reproduces a photograph of Damita interrupted by a pair of skillful male hands holding a snake," Çakırlar explains. "This phallic shadow appearing on Damita's image reminds the viewer that the portrait, and perhaps the version of Damita's life as we know it, is an object of patriarchal mediation..."
Born in 1980 in Istanbul, Seymen is a graduate of Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. After his initial solo shows at Galerist, he showed his work at the Finnish Museum of Photography in Helsinki and at Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. In 2009, his fourth Galerist show, "Persuasion Room" became the talk of the town. Seymen followed this in 2012 with "The Seed and the Bullet" at Rampa Gallery, and in 2017, he had a new exhibition, "Go Back to the very beginning," at Galata Greek Primary School.
"'Homo Fragilis' is about flawed humanity, about the strict traditions that must be dismissed, about our abuse of nature and other people in hopes for superficial displays," according to Nicole O'Rourke, a New York-born curator and writer. It is "like a mirror asking us to look at ourselves." The effect of that self-looking can be harrowing, but it cannot be ignored. Many will remember 2017 with the Istanbul Biennial. I shall remember it with "Homo Fragilis."