The opposable thumb marks an evolutionary leap, by which, it is widely held, technological advances could be grasped by the prevailing human species, allowing for as yet unrivaled predomination over the carnivorous biomass that swarmed across the fields and valleys, seas and skies of the prehistoric world. From the use of a large bone to thwack a predator down millions of years ago, to typing out last night’s home delivery, the peculiarly strengthened musculature around the appendage has rooted much causality in human life.
Its form reappears in “Phase: Repair,” an exhibition by Görkem Ergün, whose works are slightly repulsive, if not enigmatic, pointed and yet elusive. In fact, an opposable thumb sticks out of the first of seventeen hand-tinted offset plates on which Ergün’s vintage photographic aesthetic greets seers once having ascended the old stairs to Martch Art Project, a tenement gallery in the heart of Beyoğlu, just a short alleyway away from Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. It is, like the Mısır Apartment galleries, and Poşe’s new space, part of Istanbul’s quirky downtown art map.
Within the bijou interior of Martch Art Project, there are five ample spaces, contiguously aligned and open to each other by various entrances. The lofty hall is enticing for its warmth, evoking a community air, personable and yet retaining all of the intellectual refinements of a contemporary arts establishment. Most of the works at “Phase: Repair” are untitled, except for two video works, one of which is called, “pumpthumb” (2021). Its eight-second duration loops off the screen of a tablet.
The Frankenstein-like ambiance of “pumpthumb” also invokes early Tim Burton, as the side finger of evolutionary renown moves, self-propelled, wound by a mechanical ring, over a flat surface, and keels over, spewing and convulsing. Ergün might have adopted something of the mad scientist’s allure for the show that is as inviting as it is frightful. His is a world of the chemist’s experimental darkroom, exposing the fleshy forms of silicone with an eye for the careful subtleties of material transparency by way of light’s constant play with darkness.
In the second video work, across from “pumpthumb”, Ergün explores a less explicit objectification of image, yet one that is as closely intertwined with the illuminated metaphysics of bodily form. “New Matter” (2021) is a two-plus minute meditation on the cylindrical nature of limbs, fingers and torso-like shapes, where knotted, whether by a knee, joint or belly button, comes to a point. “New Matter”, however, like most of the works, excepting that of his thumbs, is not clearly discernible in reference to anything or anatomy in particular.
Within the varieties of organic forms that Ergün envisions anew with his technical infusion of creative originality are faces, or truer, heads. They are bulky masses, partly decayed yet conveying a real sense of weight. Together with his more ethereal subjects, some of which look like carob stems, they stand out, like excavated mummies, glaring back with blacked-out eye sockets, hairless to the skull, yet with puckering full lips and animate, if stark expression. One example is seemingly held up by the silhouette of a hand.
And here and there, where a more figurative piece hangs, either suspended or nailed to the whitewash walls, there are abstractions, powdery, watery. Another face, beaming from its eyes with neon-tube luminescence looks up at an airy impression, like glue or condensation. Perhaps the sharpest of his images, most of which are tinged with vagueness, are connected to the ceiling and serves as the foreground against a wall of DNA sequencing. The ambiance befits the overall scientific, microscopic gaze.
There is a quiet vision of mortality, and age in Ergün’s photographic meditations, which might be conceived as parallel to that of Yusuf Murat Şen’s archival excavations in which the professor rewrites the history of photography like a revisionist by altering found exposures. While Ergün’s works are almost completely devoid of setting, they both dance on the silver surface of mechanical image-making. In the context of art, photographic artists, whether consciously or not, consistently beg the question of just how creation differs from reproduction.
If seeing is a metaphor for understanding, and clarity its accomplice, then Ergün is an explorer in the opposite of sight, the opposability of a thumb serving as a symbol, perhaps for the necessity of contrast to propel physicality and meaning. In basic terms, “Phase: Repair” is a series of negatives, yet in one room at Martch Art Project, there are samples of his venturing in the realms of color and blankness. In the context of the show, the fine art prints, also untitled, offer atmospheric depth, textural and spectral contradistinction.
In the accompanying text for the exhibition, Istanbul-based art writer Murat Alat made an effort to wrap his mind around the idea of wording the visual sphere of Ergün’s decidedly nonrepresentational evocations. The two paragraphs distilled by Martch Art Project, serving as a conceptual frame by which to glimpse the inner world of Ergün are searching, about as indefinite and inconclusive as the images they have sought to capture. The shortcomings of Alat’s capable writerly intellect are indicative of Ergün’s utterly elusive oeuvre.
At the same time, for all of his apparent obliqueness and flirtation with abstraction, Ergün is arguably not an abstract artist in the least, but a manufacturer of enigmas where the fields of portraiture and background merge. If his artworks were music, they might drone with early waves of synth electronica, as he has mined the machine-like contours of the body, reflecting the internal anatomies of his chosen media. As Alat deftly remarked, “Fearing shadows in which black and white intertwine is valid only for those who hide behind walls.”
In a cultural climate of economic desperation, in which lines form around the block to see the blockbuster dazzle of technologically-suffused light art, and museums and galleries reconfigure the virtual dimensions of entertaining a largely remote public, the presence of a small gallery show like “Phase: Repair” is a treasure island of genuine, local dedication to a more traditional nexus of contemporary art appreciation, approachable while remaining true to its roots, underground amid the abstruse yearnings of the past century’s mechanical imagination.
The Empire Project practices a decentralization of art curation, in which an artist’s work is not bound to a single place, according to the spatial fixture of particular galleries. Instead, led by Kerimcan Güleryüz and Sena Pekiner, their diverse cast of often emerging artists travel throughout the city, for exhibitions in collaboration with a number of host institutions, among them Martch Art Project. Ergüner is on his fourth solo exhibition with “Phase: Repair,” and although his works may shoot in the dark, they are enveloped by an increasingly enlightened tone of curatorial and critical insight.
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