Conversation: Nancy Atakan with Merve Ünsal
An earlier version of this text was published in Turkish in Cin Ayşe Fanzin.
“Women, then, stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
—Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Art in Theory 1900-1990 An Anthology of Changing Ideas edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell Oxford UK & Cambridge USA, 1993, p. 964.
Lucy Lippard’s 1974 touring show called “7,500” helped legitimize work by 27 female artists. Even though marginalized in the 1970s, work by such artists Hanne Darboven, Adrian Piper, Laurie Anderson, and Martha Rosler now serve as important models for a later generation of male and female artists. Their approaches that included everyday gestures concentrated on subjective issues about identity.
What was the initial situation in Turkey in regard to the questioning of modernism? Between 1977 and 1987, the Fine Arts Academy within the Istanbul Art Festival agenda sponsored bi-annual exhibitions entitled “Yeni Eğilimler (New Directions).” Many of the artists, even the female artists, who participated in these shows, Şükrü Aysan, Osman Dinç, Serhat Kiraz, Cengiz Çekil, Canan Beykal, Alparslan Baloğlu, Ergül Özkutan, Ayşe Erkmen, Füsun Onur, Gürel Yontan, İsmail Saray, Gülsün Karamustafa, Handan Börüteçene, and Yılmaz Aysan, did not work outside the painting and sculpture tradition, but most of their work questioned modern art theory, experiment with contemporary art approaches, and emphasize idea.
In the 1990s, I did my doctoral thesis about alternatives to painting and sculpture in Turkey. After completing my research, I rejected painting as an acceptable technique while I re-formulated my artistic aims and approach. Perhaps in some respects, as role models, I chose the work of Canan Beykal, Ayşe Erkmen, Füsun Onur, and Gülsüm Karamustafa. Perhaps they were not exactly role models, but female artists about whom I researched before I began to make what I call “Art as dialogue.” These are artists I respect and their existence made me confident that the way I wanted to work was legitimate. While using contemporary modes of communication and envisioning all types of collaboration both for the materialization and presentation of art objects in art events, I took dialogue, human interaction and social context as a theoretical base. I used the term “Art as Dialogue” to describe my way of working. Today I see the art process as a place to ask questions, to solve problems, as well as to create models for working and living together; models for learning to interact, to communicate, to network, to live side by side with polarity and to establish relationships. I see the art space, 5533, which I opened together with Volkan Aslan in 2008 as a continuation of my art practice. I make neon signs, digital videos, photographic work, digital prints, installations, and artist books that explore the relationship between image and word as well as deal with psychological, social, linguistic, gender and personal topics.
I asked an artist from a younger generation, Merve Ünsal, to carry on an email conversation with me about our respective art practices. I was first drawn to Merve’s work during our initial encounter at her 2013 CDA-Projects Grant Lecture Performance, “A text begins and ends.” Our relationship deepened after Özge Ersoy invited Merve to do collaborative work during the spring of 2014 at 5533. At the core of our work, I see numerous similar aims.
I started looking at books I have that mention conceptual art and women. I am wondering if we could focus on a text, a paragraph, or a sentence and come up with something else. Do you have any favorite text about women and conceptual art?
Also, your “Tip-ex” work  reminds me of Lawrence Weiner’s square that he dug into the wall. Wherever he dug and wherever you wrote the results are always different. Also, there is the trace of handiwork in both. And of course you chose a white square, sort of Malevich, but you use an everyday material that is sort of out of date and more from the 60s or 70s. These are just things that popped into my mind.
Then your work about the idea of measuring Istanbul Modern with lipstick and with no documentation but just a security guard as witness , I want to think more about this.
I like this idea of a dialogue.
I also like the use of Cin Ayşe [as a platform] because it was Cin Ali (masculine) teaching generations to read and this is like its imagined feminine. Conceptual art was masculine and about language but we transformed it… or did we?
I think a lot about the relationship between conceptualism and femininity and what that means. Whether there can be masculine or feminine art and what we think about the gender, the age of the person who made the work when we look at something. And I also wonder how this ties into the way we think and do things, as in, the way we code gender before even producing it.
I do really like this idea of dialogue as well and perhaps it can be in the form of these e-mails edited somehow, going back and forth. We can set certain parameters.
I am most interested in your work for 5533 entitled “Almost done.”
You did it exactly one year after Gülçin Aksoy and I did our 5533 project that we called “While thinking about all of this…”  I see that you are extremely focused and minimal when you materialize a project. Gülçin and I cannot seem to be. We understand each other but our work spreads and meanders like oil.
I criticize myself often for exactly the same reasons that you mentioned as I feel that I cannot just let go and be a free artistic spirit. Perhaps we could start with the relationship between process and product and what that means for our mutual practices?
This is interesting. You made me realize that I criticize myself for lack of focus. I always do too much, have too many levels, too many thoughts, too many ideas, and I want to keep everything; elimination to just the essential, minimal is next to impossible. I praised in your work, I admire, what I see as my lack.
The relationship of process and product. I am definitely strong on the process side of this equation. I did my masters degree in psychology. I had to conduct “scientific” research projects and take statistics. What did I learn? That for me these tools and methods don’t work. I want to understand, but intuitively, through my own personal process of investigation that includes random encounters. While writing my thesis I discovered philosophy. As I live from day to day, as I read, listen, hear, feel, experience, walk, etc. questions arise. The question may appear new, but it is generally connected to an ongoing theme, but I can only see that later. Many questions start from a gut feeling. Do I find answers…generally I do not but I learn a lot as I deal with the process of questioning. And nothing is linear, nothing proceeds from “a” to “b”. It goes “a” to “u” back to “c” and then another look at “a.” I collect a lot of data, nothing systematically. I chance upon an article in a book that I just happened to pick up. A friend asks me to accompany her on a trip and it all of a sudden brings with it the visual images I needed.
This process can take years. This is the fun part.
Then to transform all my data into a form into a product involves for me a lot of work and sleepless nights. It is painful and not fun at all. How to zoom in? How to focus? How to simplify from all the clutter and noise in my head? Generally, I begin by talking with one or two artists I admire and trust. I can talk with many, Gül Ilgaz, Gülçin Aksoy, Ipek Duben, Volkan Aslan, Kalliopi Lemos. My family, my sons, daughter in laws, husband until they get tired of my “sharing.” I talk with friends too. Procrastination? Perhaps. Slowly a route appears. A lot of experimentation, many failures, much frustration, but finally a solution, perhaps.
There is so much involved. Everything very complicated. I can use whatever material or methodology I find necessary but I quit painting in 1990 and I do not plan to use that “male” dominated methodology again, but drawing is okay.
I have a tendency to think in terms of words, situations, scenarios, abstractions rather than images. Although I come from studio photography and art history, I have always thought of what I wanted to in terms of language rather than in terms of the image. I remember juxtaposing negatives (“sandwiching” negatives) with predetermined formulas rather than just printing them, when I first started to make photographs. In this sense, I make rather than find or create. I think there is somewhat of a distinction there.
I like distilling ideas to the point they are pulp. I don’t have an experiment-based process or rather, I really don’t experiment with materials in the traditional sense. My work is primarily based on gestures, whether this is a gesture of doing something or making something—they are one and the same to me, action and product.
Could you draw a map of your process?
First of all, thinking in terms of words rather than images is fascinating. I ask myself if I do the same. The answer is sometimes. Sometimes I start from words and sometimes from images. That is why I have sometimes explored the relationship between word and image. When is image in control? When is word in control? Can they be equal rather than one being a support to the other? Then there is translation, can one be translated into the other? Is something always lost in translation? This line of experimentation can go on and on and runs throughout my work. If you do not understand a language, then words become an image. It seems to me that Turkish is mathematical and logical while English is pictorial.
Make, find, create…yes make is the right word, but I may make from things I find by re-arranging, transposing, connecting, eliminating, translating, combining etc. Nothing is created out of nothing.
Action and product are one in the same sometimes for me but not always. Most of the time not, but yes if it is a performance like ” I believe I don’t believe” or the performance I did with Gülçin Aksoy at 5533 last year or even “Silent Scream.”
Now draw a map! A map means moving up and distancing and distilling and abstracting and then naming. It is easier for me to tell a story. But idea would be in the middle and then there would be moving outwards in all directions. Sometimes ending, sometimes converging. It would look like the grounds in a coffee cup ready for fortune telling. There would be roads, flights, things, random planning, a lot of sprawl like Istanbul. This would be the process map… then we would have to put a piece of transparent paper on top to select what will be used for production. Everything must be drawn in pencil because there would be a lot of erasing.
In reality, I only have a few central themes that I investigate over and over but in different ways. I want to understand myself, my environment, lived experience… I am continuously in search of a role model, a female role model. I investigate women who have influenced my life to understand them and myself. The women from the early Turkish Republic fascinate me. They were between two cultures, two languages, looking for role models in a male dominated world. They took their fathers as role models and their mother’s disappeared. Luce Irigaray’s writings have helped me think about our lack of female role models. I ask where is our pink goddess where are our female heroes. And then when we come to language there are other issues… Like Julia Kristiva wrote, functioning in a world using a language other than your mother tongue is like continually having a fist shoved down your throat.
Do you have central themes that you return to over and over?
I also think a lot about the idea of transliteration. From what I know or understand, translation is between languages whereas transliteration acknowledges from the beginning that the two things that you are going between are essentially different forms. I have noticed that I use transliteration quite often in my writing and I think a lot in terms of transliteration as well. A sentiment or a sensation or a situation gets transliterated into a work, sometimes. Hale Tenger’s image of the balloons that you shoot at in Kadıköy come to mind, recently shown at Depo. It is about that feeling of walking by the people who market the shooting with their colorful balloons and their perfect mis-en-scene and that wistfulness. Perhaps I’m being sentimental, but I do think a lot about that going back and forth between the image and language and what happens in between and how, when this transliteration works, it just works and you’ve got it.
In terms of themes, one of the things that I wonder about often is the functionality of the art and the artist. There is the concept of “arte util” as developed by Tania Brueguera that I was exposed to recently, a tongue-in-cheek take on what it means to make functional, useful art. While I think this is a very important definition, my thinking veers into the direction of what it means to make art and where that action begins and ends. When you look at gesture-based things, such as cleaning the front steps of a museum, there is also a very useful element that would not perhaps fall into the category of arte util. The functionality of the artist is something that is inherently linked to the idea of functional art but that also is my research on what it means to be an artist—as studio practices disappear, what defines our role or profession? Is it some sort of glorified amateurism? Is it a visual way of thinking? Is it about research?
I also wonder the point you made about role models and their importance in your practice – role models are crucial for anybody’s personal, professional, emotional development, but how do you provide a fertile ground on which artists and women can find their role models? Especially in an under-historicized context like Turkey, I find it very important to see more of women of older generations, specifically within the art context, speaking up about their experiences of making work, and just being.
I love your bringing everything down to pulp possibly because it is something that I cannot possibly manage, but you have brought in another element (one that I think is particularly feminine) of collaboration (işbirliği).
While Gülçin Aksoy and I are more sprawling and never can bring things down to pulp, our collaboration about research based art and the contrasting global value placed on humans and objects and their ability to travel could be seen in juxtaposition with your exhibition. We have this messy circular way of working and experiencing and traveling around while working and understanding. In our own way we made a tautology in that we illustrated research based art while it was being discussed in a panel.
I love that you call it a tautology as your practice seems to be built outside of tautologies and major statements; I don’t by any means say this to mean that there are no statements. On the contrary, the statements are there and are repeated through your practice, rather than becoming the kind of statement that becomes hollow with repetition.
All exhibitions mimic maps in my mind, somehow. There are different coordinates, paths around the same idea, or a cluster of ideas, that you try to drive home in the form of an exhibition. An exhibition is a sentence while a work is like a one-word poem—it’s possible to write a one-word poem but there is something also so alluring about sentences or clusters of words…
One thing I forgot to mention in a previous e-mail is the idea of collaboration, which is also very dear to my practice, but not directly for my art works. It’s also very significant, for me that we somehow met through 5533 and now this collaboration is taking on other forms. My collaboration with Özge is central to everything that I do, whether this is her curating my exhibition or our writing together or just thinking together. I wonder what this means to collaborate with a curator rather than another artist?
In conclusion I will write:
As shown in our “art as dialogue email conversation”, with our art practices, Merve and I strive to become our own “makers of meaning” in our gestures and our working process, as we both present with equal importance our writing about art, our art-based research about translation and transliteration, our emphasis on collaboration, our fascination with words and our use of dialogue.
 1 m x 1 m, Tip-ex on wall, applied in situ, 2014. Tip-ex is applied directly to the wall. The emphasis thus becomes the contribution to a group exhibition, putting something on the wall that is similar in size to everything else that is exhibited, which cannot be moved. The work has been realized twice so far, for the first time in 5533 and the second time in Galeri Zilberman, both in Istanbul.
 Unrealized performance proposal, 2014. The proposal is to measure the periphery of the Istanbul Modern building with a lipstick. The unit of measurement is thus not centimeters, meters, yards, or feet, but a lipstick. I use one tube of lipstick and the whole periphery of the building will be measured, including the private areas and the dock. This performance is to be realized once, not to be recorded, and in the presence of a security guard if needed.
 Aksoy and Atakan co-produced an artwork “Retaining People, Circulating Objects”, at 5533. After researchıng types of power systems that control human interaction and mobility, Aksoy and Atakan problematize the often insurmountable barriers non-westerners face with movement restrictions. Parallel to this, they invited Prof. Dr. Leyla Neyzi (researcher, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı University), Asena Günal (ProjectCoordinator for Depo), Merve Elveren (Research and Programs at SALT), Ayfer Karabıyık (Doctoral student at Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts) and Filiz Avunduk (program director 5533) to discuss related issues and investigate different artistic research-based approaches. During the discussion, Aksoy and Atakan demonstrated artistic research in real time.
 I [Nancy] find it paradoxical that these images, Ingres’s 1908 oil portrait of Francois Marius Granet and a 1930 snapshot of an Istanbul lady, resemble one another. With this work I point out that trying to be someone we are not, trying to become Western when we are not, trying to be Eastern when we are not, trying to be western when we are not, imitating the “other” without understanding, trying to fit into an alien environment, only brings sadness and melancholy and confusion.
 The work plays on the word for collaboration in Turkish. Literally broken apart into two parts, ʻişbirliğiʼ can be read as ʻiş birliğiʼ, which means the oneness or unity of work. Putting the ʻonenessʼ into parantheses, the word ʻişʼ, meaning ʻworkʼ is left outside, referring to the art work itself. The first edition of this work was initially produced for Özge Ersoy, a frequent collaborator. The work is an endless edition, produced upon demand.