Biography update: artist Onur Gökmen and media researcher Yiğit Soncul discuss the influence of conceptual artist Füsun Onur, the making of a collective art work and pitfalls of intellectual fragility.
12.05.1984 – Cumhuriyet1
Reporter (Yalçın Pekşen): So do you earn any money from this profession?
Füsun Onur: No, I don’t earn anything. Nobody buys these things.
R: How do you make a living then?
FO: My father’s pension.2
R: Not any sales from the exhibitions?
FO: No. Anyway, if someone buys, where would they put it? I can’t find a space for storing them. They are all folded in the studio. Sometimes Istanbul State Art and Sculpture Museum buys it, but they pay so little.
R: How many of your works have been sold up to date?
FO: Six, seven. They paid something around 50000 Turkish Liras for all of them.
R: Then your aim is not to earn money while making these works…
FO: I know they won’t be bought. Because nobody knows about them. There aren’t any competent critics here. They do exist in the US. They write about a particular artist, and define them properly. If we had critics… writing about artists… What did this woman do? Is it new, or is it old? Then it would improve slowly. But here we just have garish words… they are not authentic. Of course, no one understands.
R: But it is also not so easy to understand you…
FO: Because you don’t have any interest. But it is also not your fault. I stayed in the US. When I returned they thought my work was “American style”. While in the US, they were asking “Is this what Turkish art looks like?” Nobody knows anything about anything.
R. Then what happens to them? If no one understands and buys them.
FO: I throw them to the sea. What can I do… New ones will appear… there is no space. To make up some space. Our house is by the sea… It is easy…
R: How long did you work on Çiçekli Kontrpuan?
FO: It took all summer. My sister and I were really anxious. Because we made it in the studio but it was so big that we couldn’t install it. The first setup was at the exhibition. We were really stressed it wouldn’t work.
R: Did it work out once it was set up?
FO: It worked. When I saw it suddenly, I liked it. It became more exciting.
On the 11th of June 2019, Onur Gökmen arrived at the bank of the Main river in Frankfurt to throw away five sculptures he’d made with five different collaborators that year. One of the objects being jettisoned into the river was a mask made of potato and corn starch in collaboration with the visual culture and media researcher Yiğit Soncul, who described their work as “a dialogue with the historical function of portraiture, in facilitating the transfer of the likeness of the face, from biological matter to the materiality of technical reproduction, this work brought together the human and non-human temporalities of the organic.” Soncul’s research into the issues of identification central to modernity, and the visual and material cultures of face-masks in the context of political and medical emergencies, served as the initiating prompt for the dialogue between the two interlocutors, below.
Decomposed, with Yiğit Soncul
Onur Gökmen: Before we begin the discussion with Yiğit, and for the purposes of this hybrid essay-interview for Nacre Journal, I’d like to offer a prologue as a way of entry into the conversation and into the work of Füsun Onur (Istanbul*, 1938), an artist important to many of us in Turkey and for me, important for initiating the project discussed, of disposing of my recent sculptures in the river Main.
After studying sculpture at the State Fine Arts Academy (now Mimar Sinan University), Füsun Onur went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 1962. First she studied philosophy at American University in Washington D.C., later transferring to Maryland Institute College of Arts in Baltimore. She recounted the dialogue that took place after her thesis exhibition: “The Jury came and decided that I got the master’s degree. Grace Hartigan was a painter who was on the jury. She asked me, “Do you want to stay here in the United States?” She answers: “No because of the scholarship, Fulbright, I have to go home.” “Don’t worry about that part. We can arrange it.” Then she says, “ But I want to go to my country, be useful there.” “For that,” she said, “I can’t say anything.”3
In the same interview conducted by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2011, when asked if she considered herself as one responsible for bringing conceptual art to Turkey, she answered: “I think so, because at the time, when I exhibited my work, people looked at me like I was crazy. They would say, “Now you have an exhibition, and now your second exhibition; are you going to do this forever? Why don’t you think of another job, something?”4 When likened to the ‘literary genius’ Sevim Burak, Füsun Onur agreed. Both under-recognized, Burak deconstructed the Turkish language, Onur deconstructed the language of traditional sculpture materials, as early as 1975.5 What is meant by ‘traditional’ is a subject for a longer discussion, however a few things can be stated here quickly. Turkey ‘modernized’ late, the tradition René Block is referring to is distinct from the European.6 For instance, painting existed here in Turkey since the time of Ottoman empire, but one can’t discuss or describe this tradition of painting in the same vein or through the same lens, as where the movements succeeded each other progressively like they did in European Art. These “traditions” or movements were imported from the West. Breaking from the local tradition, of the kind of work that was accepted amongst Onur’s peers, meant further loneliness and being ignored by both, the art critics and the local market, for years.7
In the 1970s and 80s, due to storage problems, Füsun Onur tossed her sculptures into Bosphorus* from her studio. I couldn’t be sure if her act could be described as gestural. But I also couldn’t find a better word. In the past, I have argued with one of my collaborators on the meaning of gesture. I want to attempt some clarity on this now:
The first meaning of gesture can be: a movement of a part of the body, especially the hand or the head, to express a feeling: David made a gesture of frustration.
Sometimes artworks are frustratingly didactic.
Gesture: “an action performed to convey one’s feelings or intentions: Ahmet was touched by the kind gesture.” I am not sure if Onur’s disposals of sculptures comply with this reading of the vocabulary at play. Or, I am not sure if she was gesturing “fuck you” when tossing her sculptures. Was this gesture related to transference? Did she embed her feelings into the sculptures and exorcised them by sinking them, away from sight, in the Bosphorus?
Gesture: “an action performed for show in the knowledge that it will have no effect: I hope the work will not be just a gesture.” This one I understand. By throwing the work of others, I prove nothing to Onur or to myself. We have an inherent storage problem. She was doing sculptures, yet there was no interest, so her sister would take photos of them, and off the side they went.
Untitled, with Özgür Atlagan
Yiğit Soncul: I would like to start by asking you what brought the work and life of Füsun Onur to your attention? She seems to have influenced a number of artists who live or used to live in Istanbul but each in individual ways. Do you think your primary relation is to her oeuvre or biography?
Onur Gökmen: A friend told me a story about her tossing sculptures to Bosphorus. That’s the oldest memory I could trace about her. If I remember correctly, that was before I saw any serious work of hers, which was her show at Arter in 2014. After seeing that show, her act became more profound for me somehow. So I’d say both are important to me in a way: her oeuvre and biography.
YS: It is interesting to hear, since this is also the primary gesture you enacted in Frankfurt. Do you see an affinity between Bosphorus and Main through what and who they bring together?
OG: So that’s the part where biography becomes more important. I lived in Frankfurt for three years, and before that, I was mainly in Istanbul, but not settled. The affinity between those two cities is water, and the water functions as an intermediary between different temporalities and subjects. If I was in a city that didn’t have a river like Frankfurt, or I didn’t feel an affinity toward Onur’s act, then the tossing of sculptures wouldn’t take place. Maybe this is related to your previous question: how do we separate the work from biography? And why would we? Tell me if it is a digression, but perhaps that is also relevant to the way academia functions?
YS: I think in academia the separation of biography and work comes through not just the commodification of work but also the authorization of it, ascribing it a separate life beyond the productive labour. Yet, in this instance, the objects are not sent out into the world of social relations, to the public, but down into the water. Which then becomes a profound statement on the nature of artistic practice as well, and seemingly resonant with some of your concerns.
OG: Yes, I think authorship is of concern for me, although I feel, especially with the topic authorship, there is usually (post-modern) cynicism involved, in terms of the death of the author. I am interested in creating a certain kinship instead, or at least disrupting the private-public and suggesting a social.
YS: Rivers and straits are often publicly accessible formations. However, they do become politicised through differential access at times and control of the flow by the state, in different ways. They themselves bring together bodies through settlements in their periphery, but sometimes rivers constitute borders as well. One could also shift the temporality from that of governmentality to the sedimentary duration of the flow, building layers upon layers in time. Bodies of flowing water tell another story about connection in these instances, beyond territorial separations. I find such de-authorisation or collectivisation of artistic work central to your practice, where through your collaborative work, in the opening up fields of sovereignty, the processes of coming together, or kinship, as you say. Is this something you are hoping to develop further?
OG: Yes, definitely. That’s what I am working on at the moment with one of my collaborators, Fatma Belkıs. We are drawn to the narratives that sprout in between the categorized view of the world. We draw storylines from personal histories, as I have been observing (and suffering) a certain mindset among friends. Now we are working on a film that is about Turkish intellectual fragility. We have noticed that fragility being linked to the modernization process, is not exclusive to a specific period in time, or class. This is closely related to the late modernization of Turkey in comparison to western countries. Ultimately, if I adopt Walter Mignolo’s8 argument, we are all on the outside (anthropos: non-european), which is invented in the process of creating the inside (humanitas: european), and the trauma certainly lies there.
Speaking of governmentality, this is the moment when we have to talk about the fine I got for littering Main! I am actually not sure if I’ve told you this part. It was a stressful period, dealing with it. And it somehow fits our collective work perfectly. I started throwing the sculptures into the Main. I watched the first sculpture being swallowed by the river, then the next. Just as I threw the last sculpture, a man approached me, as red as a beet. “Ordnungsamt!”– he shouted, and wrote out a fine for littering the Main. Therefore, the work has some kind of strange certificate. Although I am not sure I managed to get into art history, at least there is a certain proof, a documented authentication.
YS: No, I didn’t know about this part of the story. The act itself enunciated by the state forms an exciting and liquid mess of relations. Tell me about the collaborations for this project: whom you chose to collaborate with, and why. What was that process like? Somehow the link to identities based on territories (ethnicity to a certain extent but also nationality) is a tricky one to distance oneself from. But I understand this is something you also acknowledge as a research interest through the fragility of the Turkish intellectual, is that right? How is that project developing?
OG: To begin with, I just related to Füsun Onur’s tossing the sculpture. I can understand her frustrations of studying in the US, and then returning to Istanbul in the 70s, and then, even though she had great work, outlets for a show were limited. That’s why the identity question comes up too, not in a way of shared nationalities, but more in searching for a shared kernel. And it is also the reason why I invited my friends: Zeynep Tuna lives in Berlin, Özgür Atlagan is in Amsterdam, you are living in London, Devran Doğaroğlu was in Stockholm at that time, and only Fatma Belkıs was based in Istanbul.
I had no idea what to expect. How would they respond to a call like that? How do they relate to Füsun Onur disposing of her work? What might we be sharing across the generations? And how does that relate to “the larger society”? The series of sculptures that we made, responded precisely to all of those questions.
With Zeynep we designed a sculpture resembling a Döner encapsulated by a building model while talking about racism in Germany. From 2000 to 2007, a neo-nazi terrorist group called NSU killed 10 people, mainly of Turkish and Kurdish origin. Most of them were owners of small businesses, like kebab vendors. The case was riddled with institutionalized racism, of German law enforcement: until a DVD with the content that was explicitly racist was distributed by NSU, the police approached the case as a vendetta between Turkish mafias. The German authorities named the case Bosphorus serial murders (Morrdserie Bosporus), where the media opted for the derogatory term Kebab murders (Döner-Morde). “The NSU is not a single phenomenon, it is part of a history of racism in Germany. The story continues today with burning refugee shelters, with daily attacks…”9
Amorph object and its building, with Zeynep Tuna
With Özgür we continued the dialogue started during the 2014 exhibition10 we had in Ankara: a floating Deutsche post box with a small motor and small fountain model that would eventually sink, even before the Main claimed it.
Study for A Union in Dismay, with Fatma Belkıs
With Devran it was more about a conceptual approach to the act of disposal: a fishnet transformed through our conversation. And each one of the interlocutor’s expanded the questions they had towards and through this work. All of them lived in Istanbul at a point, and in one way or another could relate to Onur’s history.
Dinner, with Devran Doğaroğlu
And now, in turn, I would like to ask you, what are our thoughts on fragility?
YS: One of the ways in which I can relate to this question, is through Onur’s concerns about her audience not “getting” her. Such amplified concern with work’s reception, is something I observed to a degree in our contemporaries in Istanbul who have divided their formative years between Istanbul and somewhere outside Turkey. Not having an addressee or a public to which a somewhat unified mental image can be attributed, is very strongly related to my reluctance to revisit my own unpublished work. This reluctance might have to do with negotiating private and public. Isn’t conversation amongst friends a private medium? And here we are on these pages. We choose to open it up.
*a strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and separates Europe from the Anatolian peninsula of western Asia.
(all photographs used for this article: Onur Gökmen)
1 Pekşen, Y. (1984, May 12). Soyut heykel sanatçısı Füsun Onur, yapıtlarını denize atıyor: “Allah’tan evimiz deniz kıyısında…”. Cumhuriyet. Retrieved from SALT Research: https://archives.saltresearch.org/handle/123456789/51266
2 In Turkey as an unmarried woman, you are granted your father’s pension after he is deceased
3, 4, 5 Christov-Bakargiev, C., Ayas, D., Obrist, H. U., & Onur, F. (2012). Füsun Onur. Cologne: Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther Konig.
6 Brehm, M. (2007). Füsun Onur – Dikkatli Gözler İçin / For Careful Eyes. (R. Block, Ed.) Istanbul: YKY.
7 Kortun, V., & Kosova, E. (2014). Ofsayt ama Gol! Istanbul: SALT/Garanti Kültür A.Ş.
8Mignolo, W. (2007). Coloniality: The Darker Side of Modernity. Cultural Studies, 21, nos.2-3.
9 Kushner, J. (2017, March 16). 10 Murders, 3 Nazis, And Germany’s Moment of Reckoning. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/16/10-murders-3-nazis-and-germanys-moment-of-reckoning10 Bureau Sement, TORUN, Ankara http://torun-web.com/portfolio_page/onur-gokmen-ozgur-atlagan-buro-sementbureau-sement/
Bosphorus: Looking toward the European side (assumed location of tossed sculptures)