İpek Duben: Dealing with issues within a multi-dimentional perspective

[in Turkish] Işıl Aydemir, ArtUnlimited, Issue 69, May-June 2022

Translated by Çağla Özbek

IŞIL AYDEMİR: Throughout your artistic practice spanning 40 years, you have dealt with a myriad of social issues including gender, identity politics, violence and immigration in your work. Now within the scope of your current retrospective exhibition, all of these issues seem to coexist side by side, and in dialogue with each other, while every one of the works continue to retain their relevance to this day. In this show they seem to create the powerful sound of a choir. From historical and social/cultural perspectives do you detect a “tonal” difference between the period when you made these works and now after Turkish society has undergone major changes in her sociopolitical dynamics and cultural climate? What is your impression of your retrospective as you see all your works together?

İPEK DUBEN: I like how you describe the framework of the exhibition as a choir. The curators [of the exhibition] have done a wonderful job in configuring the dialogues among the works and showcasing the evolution of my artistic practice with great sensitivity, which by the way seems to be recognized by many viewers. When I look back to take stock of what has changed in Turkey in the recent years, I see that the women’s movement in Turkey and especially in Istanbul, was in its very early stages in 1979 and the early 80s, which is when I made the Şerife series. By this, I mean that the movement had not yet fully crystallized or solidified. I remember very well how my married friends were burdened with domestic responsibilities they shouldered all the time— they were expected to handle both their professional and domestic lives while their first and foremost duty was to take care of their children, spouses, and the household chores. During this time, while women accepted to live up to these traditional expectations, they had also begun their process of awakening on an intellectual plane, not yet feeling ready to put it into action. Yet they were undeniably experiencing this awakening. When I began to produce the Şerife series, I did not think I was a feminist, but since then I have assumed a feminist identity in my artistic practice. Naturally feminist discourse and its paradigms have since evolved within the feminist movement. Nowadays in Turkey there are numerous foundations, organizations and feminist groups who are undertaking serious work in this realm. I am happy to contribute to their voices with my art. I don’t do academic work or take part in organizations. I make art which addresses the viewers and leads them to experience and participate in some way; I work towards ensuring that they can empathize with the predicaments on view, and that they are able to feel and recognize the issues at hand. Women increasingly work to raise consciousness about their status in society these days; educated women are working for women’s rights, while others, less privileged and less educated are now fully aware of the injustices they suffer, and they protest against them. Violence against children is also a routine occurrence in Turkey. Violence against women and femicide continue to be on the rise partly because more and more women are standing against patriarchal pressure, male dominance and gender discrimination. Not all women of course, but we are talking about a trend here. The increase in divorce rates, as well as increased hesitancy felt by educated women about getting married is precisely due to this rising awareness of their predicament. So consequently, we seem to have made considerable progress within the last forty years. As for me, I believe that the manner in which I negotiate with being a woman, modern and a Westernized individual, while I experience the effects of divergent influences from the East and the West, is fully evident in my work. In terms of other issues which I have focused on such as forced migration, national, ethnic identities and racism, we continue to see that these too are there and the global conjecture keeps transforming, as emergent technological advancements bring about more and more awareness of ongoing problems and prejudices. While Turkey aimed to pursue a position more attuned with the West during the 1970s and the 1980s, it’s being governed by a regime that’s more focused on distinguishing itself for the past 20 years asserting its Islamic identity. It concurrently faces racist responses abroad. The Western trope of ‘the terrible Turk’, which dates back to five hundred years ago, echoes today’s ever-increasing Islamophobia, which is triggered by large numbers of forced migrations currently taking place in the western hemisphere. What is a Turk?, dated 2003, is a work where I bring together the aforementioned, customary trope of ‘the terrible Turk’ with images of Turks from İstanbul throughout the 20th century. Later on, I decided to look into how Turks themselves define their own “others”. In a 13 panel video installation Onlar/They (2015) viewers listen to centuries-old prejudices based on gender, ethnicity, race and religion from personal accounts of survivors themselves. This work is not exhibited as part of the current retrospective, but it is one that surprised and left an impression on all who saw it at the time, prompting them to think. For the artist’s book and installation Farewell My Homeland (2003-2004) which focused on forced migrations I used documents covering events throughout the 20th century, beginning with the Balkan War of 1912 until the present. The reason why people around the world were and still are forced to migrate is because of peoples’ intolerance of religious, sexual, ethnic differences, and also because of poverty, inequality in addition to the more recent dire consequences of climate change. I updated the same source material for the exhibition titled in via incognita in London in 2018. Hate speech against whoever is marginally different is becoming more and more prevalent every day.

IA: The content of the exhibition is constructed through your body as well as your thoughts. In this manner, the body serves as an avatar in the relationship we forge with both ourselves and the world at large. In terms of relational forms, The Skin - Body & I constitutes a cyclical whole. If we were to interpret this exhibition through its title, what in your mind are the commonalities among these notions, and at what point do they begin to detach from you?

İD: The title of the exhibition was chosen by the curators. Among the works selected for the exhibition, the artist’s book Manuscript 1994, along with Traces, Register and the Suspended series particularly underscore this theme of ‘The Skin, Body & I’. What began as a journey departing from the meaning symbolized by the body in Traces in 1991 began to transform in time to reach an entirely different plane with the Suspended series in 2018. These are all works where I employ my own body. Traces is a series of works where I began to construct my own language. My education in New York had been heavily influenced by Giacometti, Cézanne and Hoffman. The expressionistic, gestural brush strokes, the energy created by flecks of color, a sense of movement and spatial compositions defined by either depth or shallowness failed to adequately express the notions I experienced and observed in Istanbul. Especially the socially charged behaviors I observed in traditional settings and the particular way the population that filled public buses, markets and squares related to the human body as well as their living spaces marked an entirely different mindset and spatial perception. Just an example or two will not be enough, but the way masses of people did not shy away from standing closely to one another, or even standing almost on top of each other in crowded spaces made me think a spatial setting that separated individuals from one another was deemed unnecessary. The way pieces of furniture were lined up beside the wall, or seating arrangements where tables were lined up on a single row in traditional homes, restaurants and coffee houses highlighted the notion of frontality rather than a three-dimensional perspective with depth. Now of course Istanbul during the 1970s was vastly different from present day, but I’m talking about the beginnings of my artistic journey in 1976. When I returned to Istanbul after many years I began to notice numerous things I had either forgotten, or had never noticed as intensely, now through the lens of an artist. What role and meaning did the cultural codes I encountered assume in my own life, and how was I going to express them?

The language of the body gives meaning to the relationship between the body and identity from the inside out. I wanted to employ my own body in the nude by ascribing various meanings to it. By referencing my own identity, I delved into the cultural codes that both defined the feminine identity and ensured the continuity of the customs, traditions and religious values separating the East from the West, as well as other notions like privacy, concealment, nudity, morality, as well as a sense of modernity which attached importance to personal values. The skin assumes symbolic meaning; it constitutes a boundary separating the interior and the exterior, the tangible and the spiritual, the worldly and the metaphysical whereby cultural binaries are defined—the skin resembles a wall that both envelopes the body all the while retaining its own individuality. For Traces, I produced diagrammatic patterns of figures bringing together studio photographs depicting my own naked body for the first time, employing these patterns as a symbol marking the “I”. At the same time I was distancing myself from the style of Giacometti, defining the body through linear lines instead of gestural strokes…

I closely observed Mongolian, Persian and Ottoman miniature paintings, as well as medieval European manuscripts. I was looking for answers to the question “Who am I?”. I was Eastern, Western, modern, and I retained traditional sensibilities and values. For instance, being nude was a shameful thing for me. But I simply had to face myself in order to get to know myself; perhaps it wasn’t required of me to show my nude body to the camera, or to analyze it, but I felt it was going to impart me with a new sensibility. I was hoping to discover myself, and to trigger an opening up of sorts by questioning my fears, embarrassments, wants and desires rather than hiding them. This act inevitably brought with it a reckoning with ethical issues, religious values as well as traditions. As such, what followed this was a reckoning with the status of women within the society, their rights and the punishments they had to endure. And these explorations reached maturity with Traces (1991), Register (1993 - 94) and the artist’s book Manuscript 1994. Later on, the same feminine image which symbolized a contemporary goddess in the ancient city of Ephesus as part of the Artemis installations (1997) transformed into articulations of the human body which reinterpreted the predicaments of humanity in the Suspended (2012-18) series. Traces is a turning point where I found my own style.

IA: Manuscript 1994 investigates existential pains through a multicultural approach using your own body. In another way, the work also poses numerous questions regarding the status of the feminine identity. I was immediately reminded of ceremonial arrangements in rituals such as the Hieros Gamos upon seeing the installation of Manuscript 1994. I am referring to a manner of worship that is centered around a divine female. In the installation, various images of you seem to merge with your core, essential self. Here, I would like to ask you a question regarding how you define the skin as a boundary between the private and the public, as a unity of the interior and the exterior. How would you respond to the way the artist’s book is displayed open and situated closer to the ground, in stark contrast to the manner in which holy books are traditionally placed in higher positions?

İD: That sense of divinity you got from the installation is made possible by references symbolizing the divine. Manuscript 1994 comprises 151 plates, only half of which we were able to exhibit due to space limitations within the exhibition. There are two portraits and images of two nude bodies which symbolize myself; these are continually repeated in the pages of the book. On one, there is the uncanny image of an individual depicted in an act of surrender with their arms raised above their head. On the other is the second body with their arms extending all the way above their chest; this body is an act of meditation or reflection, or perhaps it symbolizes death. Both of these bodies can be depicting a state of either surrender or resistance, but they both roam about in these realms. Among the two portraits, one of them faces the onlooker, transfixing the viewer with her gaze. The second portrait is a side view, the portrait of a ‘wanted criminal’. In these four images that I employ repeatedly within a pattern there is myself, depicted in acts of resistance, surrender, criminality, and confession. These expressions are found in a holy book situated within a holy setting. Your reading of the work is an astute one.

In Manuscript 1994, 151 plates come together in order to create a visual text consisting of four sentences that do not feature a definite storyline. The plates are embellished with gilded paints and decorative motifs from Islamic architecture, just like medieval manuscripts or pages from religious books of miniature painting and calligraphy. When I transposed images of the faces and bodies printed on transparent paper upon the thick layer of plaster and paint, it gave the impression of hide or human skin . Referencing the lifeless bodies employed repetitively in Islamic miniature painting, I associated my own body with ornamental elements, and in stark contrast with a voluminous depiction of the human figure, I situated my own body in a voluminous, dynamic physical space through a pattern which heavily resembled the human skin/animal hide. This method I employed as part of the series Traces or Register marks an important transition and paved the way for a synthesis of both Western and Eastern modes of painting that I was interested in. But the multi-layered meanings proposed by these works were difficult to grasp in 1991 in New York, so I decided to employ photographic images produced with the same method, instead of symbolic drawings of the body. I ended up transgressing in many ways the Islamic and traditional moralities strictly prohibited, such as delineating the human body, illustrating and monumentalizing the feminine figure, as well as human nudity. So in this way I am in many ways a sinner. I expressed and confessed my transgressions within the portraits themselves. In the same vein, I also situated myself within a divine space, ascribing a certain amount of divinity to myself, and questioned the uniqueness of the divine. The patterns of words and sentences formed by the images of plates lined up on the walls aimed that the audience would notice and recognize that the things which seemed to be identical could very well be different from one another. This question was resounded by the line “Is all one and the same?” in my poem.

As you noted, a significant aspect that fed into the idea of divinity in the installation are the cover of Manuscript 1994, which is displayed in open fashion on a platform standing directly above the floor, as well as the portrait above it. This form which strongly resembles traditional covers of the Quran displays the portrait of a woman who sizes you up from the feet up. Ali Akay in his essay on this exhibition mentions ‘a discarded identity’ while referencing Derrida and Guattari. This identity, which gazes directly at the viewer from inside divinity, seems to be uttering “you may condemn me, but I am a moral being”. My naked body which exists in unison with my skin symbolizes not the traditional ideas of beauty, femininity and fertility as it is marked by the classical nude, but the transparency and the cleanliness of the soul in the way it suggests sincerity and innocence. I wholeheartedly believe that ethics and morality can exist outside of codified beliefs and rituals. This work was never received negatively in Istanbul or the United States; I encountered viewers who sensed exactly what I meant to evoke, and in Istanbul this work prompted a conservative art critic I was accompanying in a tour of the exhibition to remark, “the real problem is that we do not know one another”. Perhaps the population in Istanbul had been more tolerant and open minded then, as people from all walks of life visited the Taksim Art Gallery at the time.

The visual text in the Manuscript 1994 installation is accompanied by a written text and poetry that fully expresses my thoughts and sentiments. This text, which makes note of the sensual boundary between an interior world and the world at large, a memory which harbors the past and the future, as well as a sense of morality we have been in the process of identifying with throughout the past, present, and the future, confronts the question of “who am I” head on, making the body speak for itself. I hoped that the viewers would encounter the innocence that protected me, as the transparent rolls of sheets inscribed in English and Turkish resembling the edicts of khans and sultans extended from the ground up towards the ceiling, informing them of my transgression. Manuscript 1994 is a work that strongly marks my particular manner of existence where I was able to define myself. You mention that I referenced Hieros Gamos and a manner of worship around a divine feminine. This is very true. I employed these two images, which had been rendered divine in Manuscript 1994 in the installations titled Artemis I and Artemis II (1997), both of which I dedicated to the goddess Artemis in the ancient city of Ephesus. I situated Artemis II which featured my portrait with two heads in the exact spot where the goddess statue in the Temple of Artemis had been, which incidentally was in a process of conservation at the Ephesus Archaeological Museum in Selçuk at the time. This sacred space where fires, offerings and rituals had been made in the honor of the Goddess Artemis was now consecrating the representation of the modern woman as a goddess and a sacrificial subject. On the other hand, Artemis I was a 10-meter long flag featuring a singular figure constituted by two representations of my body unifying on one side, as well as 60 names ascribed to the Goddess Artemis and signatures by 60 anonymous women on its reverse side, greeting visitors of Ephesus in the ancient theater beside a magnificent column.

IA: In your works LoveBook (2000), in via incognito (2017), Farewell My Homeland (2004) and Onlar/They (2015), you depart from actual archival documentary materials as well as video recordings and transform the source material into art. We see that many artists currently employ similar source materials and techniques in their artistic practices. Can we deem each work that employs documentary materials as art? What in your opinion is the boundary here? How should an artist approach the content, the formal language and the conceptual framework?

İD: It is easy to employ documentary materials, but it often doesn't necessarily transform into art. Following Duchamp’s seminal Fountain, many artists have been in an effort to define or transform found objects or documents into works of art. First and foremost, we have a moral obligation. We have to refrain from using the image or the information within the document in a way that harms individuals or the society at large. For instance, we discussed the use of the materials and their limits and agreed on a signed protocol with each and every one of the 24 individuals I held interviews with as part of the Onlae/They project. We did not permit the use of the faces of the individuals in the exhibition posters, or the commercial use of the videos. I did not allow any scenarios where their trust in me would be violated. Sociologists, psychologists and political scientists have to adhere to these rules very strictly in their research; they have to.

How do I transform documents into art? I will go back to the case of Onlar/They again. In this work a pitch black environment is illuminated by 13 panels, each featuring an individual recounting their own stories in large format. This pitch black environment is also filled with the ambient sound of their murmurs in various different languages. An illuminated stool is placed in front each one of the panels, inviting the viewers to listen to their respective stories. The important elements that impart the meaning of the work are light and sound respectively. The light directs the gaze to the various different people and identities who are sharing their sorrows and experiences, inviting us to focus on them, to really listen to them. The multi-lingual murmurs of this choir within the atmosphere continually make themselves known in the darkness, as the voices of unknown or rejected identities within the society. The identities illuminated within this darkness share with us their predicaments which have either been hidden from us, or we either chose not to hear before. Each and every one of us continues to occupy this great universe, whether we want to or not. Perhaps we are ready to hear one another within an entirely new public space. Similarly, the installation LoveBook invites the viewer to an interrogation/confession room, only to urge them to reflect on domestic violence, ethical norms and the rights of the individual, aiming to create awareness. Here, various elements such as the material of the work (rusty steel plates braving the passage of time) and its configuration (documents relating to murders lined up on the walls in a manner that hints eternity along with a desk located in the far corner symbolizing the interrogating authority), as well as the type of lighting used (dim lightbulbs that both illuminate and fail to fully clarify the documents within a somberly lit space) create symbolic meaning in order to convey the tragic reality documented by the materials, helping them gain awareness. The installation can include theatrical and performative elements such as a stage setting. You are, in this way, influencing the mind as well as the senses; the eyes, the ears, the heart. You need to be able to observe and listen rather than merely seeing and hearing.

IA: As an avid art enthusiast who closely follows your exhibitions, I keenly felt the absence of your work Onlar/They, which showcases the life stories of 24 individuals from different cultures, religions, beliefs, ethnicities and sexual orientations. I assume the selection of the works was finalized through a joint decision between the curators and yourself. Keeping in mind your artistic practice that spans 40 years, may I inquire about the selection process behind these works? At this point, can we say that the series Angels and Clowns (2020) completes the theme of the exhibition through a critique of consumption culture?

İD: The selection of the works was done by the curators. The video work titled Onlar/They had previously been exhibited at Salt Galata in 2015. They did not want to repeat its exhibition within the same institution. Despite the fact that the exhibition spanned three levels of gallery space in Salt Beyoğlu, Artemis II (1995) which had been reproduced could not be exhibited as suitable gallery space for it could not be allocated. I think Memory Chip could also not be exhibited as it was deemed to be outside of the exhibition’s framework. My 40-year long artistic practice was presented as a single work that showed the evolution of my production that dealt with national identity, sexual identity, the status and rights of women in public life. The exhibition is an inclusive interpretation that sheds light into the transformation of the works. In the series Suspended (2012-2018), the bodies that symbolized human beings turned into masses of organs without a sexual definition. So it was quite a natural progression that these works which pointed to the predicaments of human beings through a group of creatures suspended mid-air in a zero-gravity environment, implying a sense of movement that targets an unknown focal point, were followed by Angels and Clowns. Boundless consumerism, greed, dissatisfaction and mass poverty brought about by climate change, natural disasters, novel technologies and late capitalism have rendered the destruction of the universe as well as the downfall of humanity a reality we are currently going through. Riddled by questions on what can or should be done, I opened the exhibition Angels and Clowns, an ironic series of works that shed light on this sad state of affairs, on March 12, 2020. It was two days after the opening that the Pandemic was proclaimed to have reached Istanbul, and the exhibition, along with many other public spaces, was closed.

IA: You are an artist who has experienced Western culture with a dual education in political sciences and fine arts. You showcased the invisibility of the Turkish woman through an iconographic feminine identity, by symbolically transforming a dress into a headless, faceless body in the first exhibition you opened upon your return to Turkey, titled Şerife. In the same vein, I have read that it was in the United States that you produced both LoveBook and LoveGame, which feature archival documents chronicling domestic violence as well as violence against women and children. In this context, how would you say your artistic production is impacted by the manner in which you are able to regard ‘the other’ as an ‘other’ yourself in this cultural system?

İD: It gives me a perspective. I think in this way I am able to regard issues within a larger perspective. My education in social sciences also allows for this to happen; when observed on a micro level we see details, but on a macro level you are able to discern relationships and their connections. One needs to also be aware of how one is perceived in order to know oneself and regard reality in a multi-layered manner. Living in a foreign culture serves as an enlivening element.

IA: Farewell My Homeland delves into the issue of forced migration. Accordingly, the exhibition setting directs the viewer to walk through a narrow corridor. At the end of the corridor the viewer is greeted with the artist’s book, which is an element of the installation. The book in question is delicately hand-printed on synthetic silk and features scenes of immigration. You convey an immensely difficult, distressing experience on a transparent, delicate textile. Could you elaborate on the relationship between your chosen material and groups of people who seem to be in delicate circumstances?

İD: The corridor you saw in the exhibition is surrounded by barbed wires that separate countries and protect prison complexes all the while penalizing people. As you walk, you feel as though you are on a border, passing through an uncanny path. The blinding fluorescent lights that illuminate the corridor remind one of a police station or an interrogation room. At the end of this frightening, overwhelming physical space are two sentences in neon lights, namely ‘Farewell My Homeland’ and ‘One Billion Years’ illuminate two opposite walls. This idea of history repeating itself remains with the visitor right until the exit. This is where they are greeted by the book. Those who want to know more can explore its contents.

IA: We know you as an artist who makes it a priority to create a dialogue, some form of communication and interaction between the viewer and the work. The dual installations titled LoveGame and LoveBook, begin with a game and end with an interrogation. In this installation, do you feel you were able to make way for activated viewers through the physical participation of the visitors? By way of this installation, may I ask your impressions of the dialogue between art audiences in Turkey and works of art on a general level?

İD: I previously exhibited LoveGame and LoveBook separately and together a few times. LoveGame is a roulette table anticipating the moves of its viewer. The viewer needs to be notified to ensure participation, as usually viewers shy away from touching the work. Ideally, someone assuming the role of the croupier would attract the attention of the viewers to the game while acting in unison to the booming voice of a real croupier speaking in the background, accompanied by love songs, as was the case in the New York exhibition in 2011. In that scenario, this person would be narrating the game and starting it. When this action, which I think was missing from the Istanbul exhibition, was realized, the viewer would notice the work and not refrain from getting closer, they would grow curious and even partake in the game. I witnessed again and again the way the viewers who grasped the content of the game were profoundly affected by it. Do behaviors change? The answer to this is not definite, sentiments and prejudices may soften in time, it is not the responsibility of an artist to transform people anyhow. The way in which any given viewer communicates with a work of art is proportionally related to their affinity with art. For instance, I deal with the language of painting in my series Traces, Register, and Suspended. When determining the value and meaning of an artwork one needs to be able to distinguish its formal language, and to be cognizant of its historical references and layers. This awareness can take place under special circumstances. Individuals are invested and interested in art to the extent that art is valued, recognized and esteemed within the society. Our society is compromised in this regard. However, I do see that younger generations closely follow galleries, art fairs and biennials. They are more interested and enthusiastic.

Published in Turkish in Art Unlimited Ek, May-June 2022, Issue 69