The below text is a conversation on Flooded; Ülgen Semerci and Burcu Yağcıoğlu’s studio exhibition in Arnavutköy, Istanbul.
Elif Gül Tirben: The exhibition is placed in your studio in Arnavutköy. You are almost next to the sea (the Bosphorus) and you are also very close to the construction of the third bridge. The construction destroys a massive forest area, the Northern Forest. How do you relate the concepts in your work to the neighborhood and the city?
Ülgen Semerci: Interesting you should start by mentioning the construction of the third bridge. While working on this project, I read that in 1998, newspapers published the plans of the Ministry of Public Works and Settlements [Bayındırlık ve İskan Bakanlığı] for the construction of a third bridge which would connect the European with the Asian side of Bosphorus. The feet of the bridge would rest in Arnavutköy and Kandilli. Arnavutköy District Initiative [Arnavutköy Semt Girişimi] was formed that year, right after the construction had been announced. The initiative did not only oppose the construction in Arnavutköy but in any other Bosphorus area.Arnavutköy District Initiative was an environmentalist group with demands for democracy and human rights.
On the other hand, like Istanbul, many cities of the world are by water. Glaciers have been losing mass at an accelerating rate resulting in global sea level rise. According to a new analysis by Climate Central, 300 to 650 million people live on land that will be submerged or exposed to chronic flooding by the end of the century, under current emission trends. This means hundreds of millions of climate refugees, not to mention species unable to migrate. Metaphorically flooding the nearly seaside studio not far from where the wild boars recently swam in desperation was a gesture in regards to the climate crisis and sea level rise we’re globally facing. As the show’s subtitle “a study on future memories” refers to, the project can be seen as an attempt and an invitation to imagine future possibilities in the light of scientific evidence, fear, and bleak hope.
EGT: How did you come up with the idea of transforming a soiled diaper into an artwork? And much to our surprise, it works extremely well. That is magic! The thing looks like an incomplete origami figure, a crane maybe.
ÜS: Conversations, myths and dreams have been part of our process all along. In the middle of one night I suddenly woke up from a dream with the word diaper, loud and clear. We had been discussing bodily fluids as floods, which must have been a trigger for my subconscious. Luckily I have a five-month-old nephew, so it was fairly easy to obtain a diaper.
While shooting the image, I wanted the diaper to turn into a landscape. In my work I often aim for an abstract state, the way things look before you can identify them. I find it liberating, this in-betweenness, suspension of knowledge. Then things are what they are. And they are what they are for each one of us.
EGT: What does the title of the work (Flies and Defecates) mean?
ÜS: According to a Chukchee creation myth, Raven and his wife live alone on a small plot of ground. Raven’s wife tells him to go and try to create the earth. But Raven says he cannot. Later in her sleep the wife delivers twins. Raven then says he shall create the earth. He flies and defecates. Every piece of excrement falls upon water, grows quickly, and becomes land. But something’s missing; there is no fresh water. Raven urinates. Where one drop falls, it becomes a lake; where a jet falls, it becomes a river.
You see, this is how Raven competes with his wife’s procreativity. And of course, he is so mighty that his poop and piss are plenty to constitute the world.
EGT: There is a very striking image in one of your drawings. A very simple drawing of the phallus appears (like a holy spirit) on a meticulously drawn, sublime image of a cloudy sky. The image of the phallus looks very basic, as if completed in a single movement of the hand. Yet, it is extremely strong. How did this idea emerge? It is extremely brave to put that “thing” there after spending so much time and effort on the drawing of the sky. That move looks almost instinctual. It feels like an inevitable reaction to symbolic order that contracts our lives as phallocentric.
Burcu Yağcıoğlu: When I started working on that drawing, I decided to add a form on top of the clouds that would both erect and dangle at the same time. Almost everybody who saw the work read the form as a phallus though, despite the fact that it also dangles from above. It could easily also have been seen as a dangling boob, a sack or a massive sock I thought, but instead I’ve seen a clear tendency for the form to be read as an erect phallus. I think this tendency itself indicates the symbolic order and phallocentrism. I didn’t think of the drawing in these words when I was making it though. I was interested in drawing a form that is not coherent with the rest of the drawing. Descriptions of sky in the case of heavy rains and floods within languages and myths was my initial point of this work; such as the sky falling to the ground [gök yere indi] or the sky split open [gök yarıldı]. But when the show opened, that form reaching above the skies manifested itself to viewers as a presumptuous phallus. It was quite interesting that viewers were curious about what that form actually is; how it works with the rest of the drawing; why it is there… I liked this questioning; this demand for an explanation. I didn’t want that form to collaborate with the detailed and realistic elements of the drawing. I wished it to act almost as a party pooper. I don’t think that I could have found enough motivation to go through with the exertion of making that drawing, if it weren’t for that form.
EGT: You have been working with video collage for a while. You have a mystical, surreal language. You manage to create a magical environment that almost hypnotize the audience with a few elements. To what extent does your background in painting have an effect on your video work and when and how did your shift from painting to video occur?
BY: I always find painting quite similar to video making. I use similar approaches when I work with these media. This tendency probably originates from my painting background. I don’t think I shifted from painting to video though. I still see painting as a part of my practice, which also includes drawing and sculpture, but I think what brings all the different branches of my practice together, is collage. Collage, both as a technique and thinking method, has become quite dominant in my practice. In the case of my videos, I bring different sources of footage together to create one reality, and yes, mostly a fantastical one. This process always makes me think of Doctor Frankenstein’s efforts. You put the pieces together, without exactly knowing what you’ll end up with and hoping that it will come to life.
EGT: I know that you have known each other for a long time. Your work however is quite distinct from each other’s. What was the method you followed while bringing together and displaying your works in a single space/room?
ÜS&BY: Our practices are quite different from each other, but we have a strong dialogue. We’ve exchanged articles, discussed ideas, and shared images in the process of developing the exhibition. But we created the works separately.
Our efforts in developing the project evolved around the idea of flood both as a major myth type and one of the strongest forces of the climate crisis. Constituting mental bridges between our works, myths, and consequences of climate change was the main stimulator for the both of us.
In the end, these conversations functioned as a unifying element, shaping and nourishing both the common elements of the show and each individual work. Spatial elements of the installation evidently played their role in pulling everything together.
EGT: I also love your use of the material on the floor. It is very creative in a curatorial sense and it creates an atmosphere where you are surrounded by a different light experience; light breaks in multiple unexpected ways and places and the reflections from the floor creates another layer on the paper work. Was that the overall effect you expected?
ÜS&BY: It was important for us to use the reflective material in a performative way, so to speak. We wanted the material to simulate water and also create simulated water reflections on the walls, ceiling and the works. The fact that this was not a gallery but a studio exhibition was crucial to us. We wouldn’t pretend to be in a gallery space. This became one of the constitutive elements of the exhibition. We were after a strategy, which would transform the space all over, but still maintain its studio aspect.
Through covering the entire floor area with reflective sheeting, designing the lights accordingly and keeping the elements of the studio like the couch and shelves as parts of the exhibition, we wanted to create a fantastical flooded studio scene where you can walk around, spend time with the works, or just sit on the couch. We also wanted the visitors to be tempted to take pictures. The space became quite photogenic and somewhat playful.
Ülgen Semerci was born in Istanbul in 1981. She received her BFA in Painting and Drawing from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and her MFA in Painting from New York Studio School in New York, NY. In 2009 Semerci moved back to Istanbul and is currently living and working in Istanbul. Semerci structures her practice primarily around landscape and representation of landscape while repeatedly testing and recunstructing her relationship with paint, which is a central component of her practice. She bases her imagery on witnessed, conjured and challenged places which she investigates, rethinks and revisits in her work while developing the topography of her practice.
Burcu Yağcıoğlu was born in Istanbul in 1981. She studied BA in painting at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University and MA in Visual Arts and Visual Communication Design at Sabanci University. In 2008 she moved to London to receive an MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. She graduated in 2010 and she still lives and works in London. Yağcıoğlu’s practice encompasses drawing, video, collage, and painting. Her work explores the interrelations, shifts and influences between cultures, species, natures and fictions. Working with various visual systems and products, such as gif animations, cookbooks and encyclopaedias, she creates works, which reflect on information flow, perceptions of nature, and given cultural hierarchies.