THIS IS NOT MY IMAGINATION, THERE’S A GUN ON MY BACK
April 25-May 24, 2014
Tankut Aykut Gallery, Istanbul
“What a great choice for an image,” I thought after receiving the press release for Joana Kohen’s exhibition at Tankut Aykut Gallery. My mind was overflowing with free associations before I could even read the document. Maybe it was the powerful feminine elements or the sincerity of her autobiographical oeuvre that drew me in. Later on during our conversation with Kohen, I found out about how her background, education, and experiences abroad factored into her work.Her interest in using various media, her views on feminism and the story of her textiles were some of the topics that came up during our talk.After all, I think it is the contemporaneity of her discourse and her ability to relate to larger themes by staying true to her own experiences that demanded a closer look at the work.
It is not hard to notice the richness in style; she uses colors, sparkle and text with a diversity of media. Thriving on contrast, Kohen’s works are able to both take the viewers in and throw things at them with their beauty and provocation.
Kohen’s love for and talent in using various materials is evident throughout the gallery. For this particular exhibition, she experimented for the first time with marble. Organic, beautiful marble was something that has been of interest to Kohen for a while. She decided to use her own methods and broke the large pieces of marble with hammer. Leaving the once-pristine marble broken and dirty was a deliberate choice.
The two marble pieces of the exhibition strike the viewers with their splendor and loudness. The smaller piece that accompanies the visitors into the gallery bears the title of the show in caps lock gold-plated letters: THIS IS NOT MY IMAGINATION, THERE’S A GUN ON MY BACK.
Taken from the first lines of Revenge, a song by the80s hardcore punk group Black Flag, the title serves almost as a warning. A foreshadowing perhaps of the grave aspects of the works, which criticize the status quo, or an alert about the sensitivity of the inner world of an artist.
The second marble piece sits in a smaller room, witnessing the viewers read its inscription. It monumentalizes a story that impacted Kohen when she read about it in the headlines of a newspaper. Striking for her was how the horrible crime was laughed at and forgotten with no anger and sorrow produced, simply due to the gender of the perpetrator. As a reaction to how easily the story faded away, Kohen decided to chronicle the event and put it back under people’s scrutiny.
The tragicomic incident serves as proof that the darkest aspects of being a human, the violence and the greed, know no gender. Regardless of patriarchy or any other system, people are capable of great cruelty. The mixed colored marble on to which the story is attached aptly mirrors the engrained and perennial nature of this savagery.
Even though she frequently touches upon feminist discourses, being identified as a feminist artist is the last thing Kohen wants. Along with her discontent with the current discussions, she confesses her interest in the 70s feminist movement. Rightfully, the first thing that her comb, titled MYSELF AS A FOUND OBJECT I, brings into my mind is a 1975 piece by Martha Rosler—one of the pioneers of the feminist art movement. In her notorious video Semiotics of the Kitchen, Rosler antagonizes the most ordinary kitchen supplies, demonstrating their use as potential weapons.
With her brass comb-and-knife hybrid Kohen similarly grants a standard comb with the ability to wound or kill. “The found object that is herself” is rich with powerful layers of ideas. Problematizing one of the biggest concepts of history, beauty, the work makes us ask: beauty at the expense of what? The knife that is bound to cut the hand as it combs may be pointing out to the ugliness of the beauty. Or, the violence and the lack of mercy about the expectation of beauty and everything that an orderly hairdo represents. While contrasting beauty and death, the work resonates with rebellion, anger, sorrow and even subversion. The difference of Kohen’s feminism may be observed in her marble work and her comb. Instead of completely trashing the patriarchal order, she uncovers its dirty parts and forces a change in our consciousness with poignant questions.
Contrast, the use of splendor and beauty to attract and to cover up, is a trick the artist accomplishes to use often. In her Diary installation, consisting of thirty neatly framed small pages, the viewer is first greeted with colorful and beautifully set up works. When one approaches closer to read the small letters contouring the color stains, one is confronted with the not-so-pleasant dynamics of an inner world.
The works are actual diary pages that Kohen created in a month, recording on them her feelings along with some quotes from a book or a song that she has encountered that day. Kohen reveals that she has chosen to create a new chronology with the pages in order not to bore the viewer with repeating ideas that linger for some consecutive days.
When asked about the stitches present in all of the 30 pages, she answers that she always knew how to use thread and do bookbinding. Despite her initial hesitation, she felt that it was an aspect of her artistic practice that had to find its way into the works. The thread conveys an idea of fixing, of stitching-up something that is broken. Kohen says of stitching, “When you take the work as a whole, you get a totally different world in front of you. When you write down all the things that you read, then you know what I was harmed or annoyed by, or what impressed me. With the thread, I tried to bring them all together.”
In the hanged pages of Kohen’s diary, it is possible to read curious sentences from some of her favorite authors full of dark humor, sexual obsession, as well as pure human emotions such as fear and jealousy. Amongst an innocent, brown and black abstract image it reads: “She viciously pinches, she scratches his irritated cock’s head with her finger’s nail, a cruel smile, then a senseless smile. But a smile. They love each other dearly.” Seem to be taken from a novel, the quote reveals the complex and intense nature of sexuality and love—topics that Kohen is not shy to probe.
“That was an awkward break. // They went to a dance together unaware of their reality.”
With the way Kohen places the above words around two circles, she seems to actually draw its story with words. Two forms that could easily be coupled together seem to be moving on their own in a sorrowful romance.
One of the things that concerns Kohen most as an artist is to get attached to her works and not be able to let them go. In order to avoid this problem, she treats the works without much care, honors every accident as meant-to-be and leaves them with their “flaw”, “dirt” and “wound”, as she calls them. Her fear is identifiable especially in the context of the Diary piece. By separating its pages and exposing it, she subverts the integrity and the privacy of one of the most intimate objects. A sharp detachment may indeed be needed to view and give away something that is such a close witness to one’s life.
In addition to thread and stitches, textile has an important role in Kohen’s practice. Fabric serves as a symbol of identity and reference to an unfamiliar history. By carefully picking certain types of textiles, such as an antique Armenian fabric or traditional Ottoman ikkat, Kohen incorporates into her art the elements from the rich Turkish culture that she believes she somehow lacks. Drawing upon it a double headed guardian-like figure, she hangs her work down from a ceiling in the corner of the gallery. In a way, she both reveals and hides her identity, or creates it as she draws it. With her words, she creates “an identity of non-identity”.
Kohen expresses her regret about not being able to use Turkish in her work. Neither conceptually, nor aesthetically she feels Turkish words match her work. Artists who live and practice in the peripheries of Anglo-Saxon cultures are ironically bound to use aspects from those cultures for self-expression, in order to have a say in the euro-centric history of art. I feel this lack is remedied by Kohen’s use of more visual aspects of Turkish culture, such as the fabrics or the Marmara marble.
I believe Kohen’s feat lies in how she affects the audience with her inner world. The feelings she portrays, anger, frustration, rebellion and sometimes sorrow are conveyed by her seductive pieces that are striking with their loaded message. Being able to incorporate her own life into her works, participating in critical discussions of feminism and identity, combined with her technical skills, prove that she is walking on a solid ground as a young emerging artist.
All photos by Onur Gökçe.
Lesli Jebahar (b. 1989, Istanbul) received her BA in Art History, along with minors in Politics and Women’s and Gender Studies, from Brandeis University, MA, USA. She currently works as the content manager at Art50.net—a new online platform for acquiring artworks. Jebahar also regularly contributes to various art magazines such as Istanbul Art News and Art Unlimited.