To draw a blank: Ayşe Erkmen clarifies Arter's new museum

MATT HANSON
ISTANBUL
Published 30.10.2019 12:18
Updated 30.10.2019 12:21
The House (Das Haus), 1993 (2019) by Ayşe Erkmen; existing lighting construction of the exhibition space, steel wire, electric cables dimensions variable.
"The House (Das Haus), 1993" (2019) by Ayşe Erkmen; existing lighting construction of the exhibition space, steel wire, electric cables dimensions variable.

In her first institutional solo show in Turkey for the inaugural exhibition series at Arter in Dolapdere, veteran iconoclast Ayşe Erkmen unearthed a retrospective of her distinct site-specific installations. 'Whitish,' curated by Emre Baykal, visualizes the literary concept of negative capability deftly and shrewdly

The idea that art is exclusive to fine objects and public displays has long been challenged and negated. Since the dawn of conceptualism broke through the ranks of art criticism with unrivaled sway, particularly during Europe's interwar period, human invention, as intended for purely aesthetic and theoretical purposes, has assumed an uninhibited place in the realms of culture.

The elder generation of contemporary Turkish artists demonstrates a special grasp of these principles in the midst of postmodern trends. Artistic innovations that originated in the West arguably arrived late to Turkey but when they did, they were led by women, painters like Semiha Berksoy and Fahrelnissa Zeid, and the latter's niece, ceramicist Füreya Koral.

These artists pushed the envelope of Turkish art history, both within the composition and influences of their individual pieces but also by coloring outside the lines. Berksoy would lather her entire bedroom in paint. Koral expanded Turkey's traditional ceramic craft into a contemporary art practice, closing the gap between cultural institutions and the general public.

Ayşe Erkmen follows in step with her predecessors when it comes to her unique talent for inciting artful perception with a universal grab. Her works transcend media but are steeped in her pedagogical knowledge of sculpture. She is renowned for her peerless eye when integrating installations both seamlessly and counterintuitively into empty or negative space.

But unlike most artists who would seek to distract weary, curious eyes from the sterile, negative void of museum cubes and bleached galleries, Erkmen leans into the sharp corners of colorless abstraction. "Whitish" is not only a comprehensive take on her life's work but a critical assessment of Arter's new space in dialogue with art museum architecture.


Exhibition view from "Whitish."

The unveiling of nothing

If art is an old bearded man sitting on a throne of clouds, text is his thorny, red brother in the underworld. They need each other but were created at odds. The problem of visuality in conceptual art is persistent. If it is not seen, but talked about, is it art? Or text? For writers interested in textual art, these questions constantly fascinate.

Many artists, whether overtly conceptual or visual, stand behind the enigmas of immediate perception, with some more open to free interpretation than others. Identifying with the elusions of recognition lends itself to lionization. Erkmen is undaunted by the slithery wiles of text as based in calligraphic pictography. She assimilates its transformative potential.

A letter has the profound, subconscious effect of merging sight and sound. When it is embellished through an unlikely font for graphic expression, it takes on peculiar hybridity. Erkmen created a special lettering for "Whitish," as shown via its curatorial statement on a wall introducing the multifarious works.

"As a survey exhibition, Whitish attempts to give an insight on the diversity of physical and intellectual gestures Erkmen maintains in her working processes," reads the script, which is also a piece, "Typed Text" (2019). Its disconnected, roomy font accents the blank space required for writing language as with the silence of its vocalization.

The 120 ink drawings on paper that comprise "Elephants, Penguins, Kiwis" (2018) parallel the illustrative dimension of "Typed Text," with their wispy black strokes lightly emerging into vision like a child's handwriting. The naturalist mood is set with the mineral installations "Blue Stone" (2019), from Arter's foundation, and "100 Stones, 1981" (2015).

A figment of the animal kingdom leaps from Erkmen's inked papers as "Frisé / Kuckuck, 2003" (2019), a taxidermied Dalmatian pelican. Its inbuilt kinesis mimics the function of a cuckoo clock, hearkening back to work Erkmen produced in 2003 for the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in Switzerland. But it moves slowly, resembling the mystical creature in its habitat.

On the other side of a dividing wall, the big-billed fish-eating bird slides under the high ceiling of the second floor's main hall, where Whitish is sprawled to present reconfigurations of Erkmen's early works, going back to her freshman project from the State Fine Arts Academy's Sculpture Department, "Plexiglass Sculptures, 1969" (2019).


Ayşe Erkmen's "Blue Stone" (2019); rock found in the excavation site during the construction of Arter's new building in Dolapdere, three laminated glass slabs stone, approximately 90 x 175 x 84 cm, glass slabs 13 x 13 x 220 cm each.

In between thought and thing

The threshold from nature to art is crossed by entering through the pair of annoyingly well-disguised works, "Portiport, 1996" (2019). The metal detectors are out of place but convincing enough to blind the thoughtless without a mind to recognize their role in art history. Their motion-detecting sound element resonates with the installation, "Dolapdere" (2017).

Over six minutes of digitized voices set the tone for "Dolapdere," which is the name of the local quarter. The piece is based on the pronunciation of shop names along the busy thoroughfare outside Arter, shared with other esteemed galleries, including Dirimart, Pilevneli and the recently opened Evliyagil. Their socioeconomic environs are deeply mixed.

"To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing," wrote Marcel Duchamp, the original king of conceptualism if there ever was one. "All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone," he mused, channeling a refined wisdom as bold as his legendary artworks.

There is arguably no creative act in Whitish more cerebrally participatory than "'9'04'', 1999" (2019), which, to impatient eyes, will merely be another boring, off-white museum wall. But like the decidedly un-art-like installations of "Portiport", but even more characteristic of Erkmen's quirk for cool, spatial integration, "9'04"" sets a panel of wall into deliberate motion.

"9'04" is discernible by shoe-gazing, a musical term for melancholic, downcast songs that inspire daydreams. And above, the click of a shutter recurs, shuffling through projections of "Slightly, 1997" (2019). Its ethereal spectrum emanates, magnifying the illumined paper that Erkmen held up to a flashlight to create hazy radiations reminiscent of galactic phenomena.

"The hardest part of making art is the ambiguity of knowing what it is you're thinking, sitting down at your desk, procrastinating with ideas like 'perhaps I should go to a café and think there,'" Erkmen said, in response to an interview by "Whitish" curator Emre Baykal about her approach to the show.

The imagination of whiteness is complex with respect to art and identity politics in the Donald Trump era. Baykal initially proposed it. Erkmen, who produced installations in direct relationship with the spaces in which they are shown, redesigned such works as "The House (Das Haus), 1993" (2019), adapting Arter's own lighting system.

"The House (Das Haus)" conveys the inherent dualism of the art show as an invitation to creative acts, but also an interference to objectivity. In the dead center of Whitish, five pieces of 10 mm crude aluminum panels make up "Pleasant Corners," offering a purely self-referential perspective on Erkmen's oeuvre. They are like something that is not quite white, but whitish.

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