Ayse Erkmen is a conceptual artist who represented Turkey at the 54th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition. The public projects of Ayse Erkmen reflect her concerns with the physical, cultural, and social landscapes in which she works. She lives in Istanbul and Berlin, and has been teaching at Münster Kunstakademie since 2010.
Bilgen Coskun talked with Ayse Erkem about the ego in the artist and the art, sociological influences, creative connections and her personal working processes between Istanbul and Berlin.
In conversation with Bilgen Coskun
One of the most resounding works at the 2011 Venice Biennale was your installation Plan B, which was installed in a room immediately adjacent to the canal. The work drew water from the canal and deposited it back into the canal after purifying it. Can we talk about the origin of this work?
Generally, I simplify the starting point and try to go from there. For example, the room I was assigned in Venice had a window with a view of the canal. When you look at Venice as a whole, you have a city that is surrounded by water. The proximity of the room to the water made me think that I had to do a work related to water. I am from Istanbul, therefore and I am living in a city surrounded by water too. If the privilege of having a window opening to a canal is in the forefront of my mind and I don’t use it, I feel as if I a missing out on the opportunities offered by that room. I then began to think about what I needed to be doing with water. This was followed by remembering some of the works I have done relating to water in the past and making decisions about technical issues. At first I thought of converting the seawater to potable water, running this water through the faucet, and offering it visitors. Later, I thought that the performative features of this action would be in the forefront. This excessive appeal does not conform to my other works in reaching a result both technically and conceptually. Additionally, this includes practical difficulties; details such as the frequent analysis of the water and obtaining permission would slow down the work. Whereas, I felt work should be as natural as the water and light. This is why I wanted to draw a line for the water. The water will be taken inside, will be ridded of salt, will be purified up to the cleansing level, and will be purified even further until it becomes potable, finally this water will be transferred back to the canal. From the visual perspective, I wanted to carry the visual chaos of the canals in Venice into the room.
By referring to your work titled Easy Jet, I want to come to the subject of transportation and from there to the flow of information, which often travels faster than transportation. Actually, Easy Jet, in addition to positive meanings, such as speed and price, is also related to negative meanings such as delays and cramped spaces. Why did you call this work of yours Easy Jet?
I called this work Easy Jet because of its color. In those days I frequently flew on Easy Jet because of the convenience of its flight routes to my destinations. Because the ribbons I used were the same color used by Easy Jet, I gave the work that name. Color was at the very forefront of this exhibition. The wall behind the orange ribbons, which made up the Easy Jet piece, was painted in a special pink color. Honeysuckle was the color selected by Pantone for the year 2011. At the same exhibition was my work Pink Sweater, depicting the scene from Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas. In the scene Nastassja Kinski was undecided if she should take her pink angora sweater off or not. I placed this in the showroom with a showcase facing the small street on which the gallery was situated. This scene from the film impressed me considerably, perhaps because of its color. I dissected this scene into small pieces by placing squares of pink angora sweater side by side. Thus, the pink color continued outside of the gallery was trying to enter into a dialogue with the color inside the gallery, and although Paris, Texas was an old film, it was addressing the color of 2011.
In recent years the plasticity of modern identity has been frequently discussed. This refers to the inclination towards social and cultural consumption, and the outward reflection of individual identities. It is said plasticization steers the individual to re-create their identity, especially with the development of virtual identities through the Internet. In your work On Its Own were you examining the presentation of identity in the virtual world by considering its external effects?
Yes, here I am letting things take their own course. My interest was how Internet search results for my own name would gradually become distanced from me, forming political and social dimensions of their own. Obviously, there is a relationship between myself and each image that comes up during a search for my name. None of the 1,200 photographs that appeared by googling “Ayşe Erkmen” were loaded onto the Internet by me or anybody I know. I don’t know who does this. However, I am not criticizing this situation in any way. For example, one of the latest photographs returned when I searched for my name was of Demi Moore appearing in Vanity Fair while she was pregnant. From time to time a picture of a sports car or a cat may appear! When this happens, I am in the same position and importance as that sport car or cat. Actually, this situation sounds very funny. Depending on when, where, and on which browser you use, different photographs in different sequences appear. New images are being added constantly
— only the sequences change. Therefore, we downloaded all the images at the same time and froze the sequences, these were displayed in the gallery, no distinctions were made. It is very important for me not to be the one making the decision on certain issues and to let things take their own course.
How have these sociological changes affected artists in recent years? Have artists started to create virtual identities for themselves? Can we say that the fact that some artists are as popular as pop stars, and as a result are asking astronomical prices for their works, is the effect of sociological events in the field of arts?
There are no superstars in the world of art as there were in the past. Nevertheless, there are fluctuations in the prices of some of artists. As for those who are as popular as pop stars they have perhaps deserted the field of art because of their status and become part of the media. I think there are artists who only make products and the fluctuations and astronomical prices you mentioned are primarily created by these individuals. The majority of artists who do not receive these astronomical sums, and whose work is comprised of more than production, continue to create art in the manner they know and the history of art is more inclined towards them.
Identity and ego are closely related concepts. Do you view the ego of the artist as a catalyst of production or as an element that creates timidity?
This is what I am trying to understand with the work I create. The artist shall of course have an ego. How big should this ego be? For example, in my work On Its Own I can google my name and a sequence of images will be returned, but I cannot make any decisions about these images. I also want to use the ego of the work. This is present in the ribbons that make up On Its Own inscribed with “Ayşe Erkmen.” How deep should the artist penetrate the work with their identity — how important is the artist? The repetition of the name on the ribbons is like the artist signing the work thousands of times. If something is repeated endlessly it becomes meaningless — in this sense it is like the disappearance of the name.
The theme in one of the past issues of the Manifesta Journal was “The Curator as Producer.” I believe that it is more important for a primarily conceptual artist like yourself to be able to speak the same language as the curator and to work together from the inception of an idea through the production stage than it is for conventional artists. Taking
into consideration the egos of both parties what are the preliminary conditions for a productive common work?
I like to use the egos of others. This may not necessarily always be a curator, but the egos of everybody who contributed to the creation of the work. For example, in the planning of the Plan B installation, when the technician said that the height of the pipe should be such, I did not interfere. This suggestion was very important to me, because he was the person who can make the work perfect. If the work is technically correct this makes the work artistically and aesthetically great. The same applies to curators, but not every curator is the same. It is a great pleasure to work with some curators. There are things we can learn from them, or when you cannot make a decision they will show you the way. Their ego is very important to me. This should not be construed as showing respect. I want my work to be perfect, and if their ego is required to make it so I will use that. The thoughts, decisions, and tastes of the persons whose opinions I value are important to me.
Would you say that art should enter into partnership with design, architecture, and other creative productions or should it keep its distance?I disagree with a harsh segregation of these practices. If we are to take fashion design as an example, Martin Margiela behaves like a conceptual artist; he goes to the roots of tailoring and then surfaces from there. This is a very artistic behavior; the basic ingredient of fashion is tailoring, just as the basic ingredient of an artist should be art. Therefore, I think Martin Margiela is a very important name in conceptual art. Perhaps, because he is a fashion designer, he may not think this but he uses the basis elements of conceptual art very well. He does not strive to make beautiful clothes — rather he uses elements of tailoring itself. Although the result may be fashion, in the end the important thing for him is to get to the center of things with questions such as
“What is fashion? What is art?”
You live between Berlin and Istanbul. How does it feel not being connected to only one place or to only one artistic environment?
Although the lifestyle in both cities may appear to resemble each other, they are very different and very different in respect to the arts. When I meet with my friends in Berlin we eventually come to the subject of art. Everybody talks about their work, projects, of what they saw, and this is very enriching. In Istanbul we generally talk about our daily lives. This is actually very pleasant and funny. Such talk energizes a person. I believe that Istanbul, as a city, inspires creativity and emits its own energy. I find the discussions with friends and acquaintances in Berlin to be very nourishing. There is the comfort of a pleasant vacancy, just like in a “white cube.” While Istanbul is more entertaining, Berlin is more satisfying. On the other hand satisfaction is entertainment aswell. Because I travel a lot to other cities, I don’t feel detached in coming and going between the two cities. I don’t feel like a stranger or indigenous anywhere. My home is wherever my work is.
portrait photo: Marcus gaab
fashion: Stefanie Roth
hair & make-up: Catrin Kreys @Uschi Raabe using Chanel
art: Courtesy of Ayse Erkmen,Galerie Barbara Weiss,Berlin
photographer: Roman Mensing