Could we build a new dream, a new hope, a new freedom out of the fragments of our childhood dreams—those dreams that we don’t have the heart to touch, that we kiss smoothly on the cheek while they sleep? Is it both the exhaustion and the never ending nature of hope that makes us breathe and leaves us breathless at the same time? Could we make peace with others while facing ourselves?
Listening to Didem Erbaş’s first solo exhibition at Hush Gallery, Istanbul, “The Imagined Silence”, my ears are filled with anonymous answers hidden in between the lines of untitled stories. I call my experience “listening” for a reason—the exhibition imprints itself and its faceless characters’ whispers, still alive in its countless stories, like a long sentence onto the space. It creates a “purgatory” of consciousness where the boundaries between yesterday and today or between the moment and remembrance dissolve completely, where the viewer, all alone, truly encounters himself/herself.
In her installations, Didem Erbaş constructs the narrative through found objects and recycled or even disposed materials, hinting at how we tend to recycle the past in our minds, deconstructing and reconstructing memories, fragments, anecdotes, and impressions. In this exhibition, notions of loneliness, identity, and anonymity, already present in Erbaş’s earlier works, retain their momentum and reappear in a more distilled form. However, this time the artist’s approach feels calmer and more coherent through the intelligent use of two main elements. First, the choice of media and materials is perfectly in line with the content. She revisits forgotten stories via simple objects filled with the stories’ aura, but while doing so, she “censors” the specific individual identities of her original characters. This way, she enables us to freely float in the story without losing track of the main narrative. The exhibition becomes a personal journey for the viewer, but still directed by the artist through the use of space, which is the second important element bringing coherence . The space becomes an inseparable element of the exhibition with the artist’s choice in wall color and the specific wall texture and through the visual and conceptual relationship constructed between the artworks and their layout in the space. Consequently, it would be more accurate to define this assemblage as a “site-specific installation” rather than an exhibition.
The main exhibition space is reminiscent of both a safe shelter and a convict’s cell, just as the exhibition contains hope and despair. First I see Erbaş’s oil paintings: a child. Free as a bird; he belongs to everywhere and everything; and everywhere and everything belong to him. We are him most of the time. He used to be us once upon a time. He has not yet met the series of powers denying his nature, those powers threatened by his wings, twisting and tearing the latter off. There is more; Erbaş’s simple but emotionally loaded brush strokes did not detach him from the soil, the source of his limpid existence and in the arms of which he will one day return; his belongingness to nature is persistently underlined. As the impressionist attitude in the artist’s use of paint combines with the compositions’ associative effects, they become reminiscent of Van Gogh’s or Monet’s field depictions, as if trying to remind us that each memory fragment is actually nothing more than an impression.
A group of installations tying this wall to a completely different world on the neighboring wall comes next. The family portraits whose impact comes from their facelessness begin to slowly domesticate, reshape, rasp, sculpt, and stereotype that free and playful child. The child grows up; he learns where he shall stand. He meets the authority; he meets the rules, the norms, but more than that he meets what “I” and “the other” are and what they are supposed to be. The child is angry; the child is bored. The soil he firmly steps on is no longer what it is. It becomes homeland; it becomes property, boundary, separation and enmity. It is no longer the loving mother giving birth to us; it is not the unlimited number of places to be seen, the infinity of being, not at all. The soil is the wall, the soil is bars, the soil is wire mesh with all its existence. Now it is a place that we want to become but cannot, that we want to leave but cannot, impossible to share, confiscated, missed, referred to with hatred, to be forgotten, to be remembered. Now the soil is more death than life, more of a grave than a cradle; Just like those portraits imprisoned in small bottles and “buried underground” by Erbaş.
And now a faceless uniform appears before me. An authoritarian cliché. A leader on top of everything, dominating everything. I feel uncomfortable, even restless; he is also slightly arrogant, I strongly sense the vanity on his absent face. It does not matter who he is; he has always existed everywhere beyond time, space and identity. Wherever he could not go, he established his sovereignty and spread fear via his imagery. Now these gigantic men appear on the scene as well, to blame one or the other of us, to punish us for whoever we are, as if the chains in our own small worlds are not enough of a constraint. In the meantime that child in the first paintings might have become a thief, a refugee, or even an assassin. For they cut his wings off and threw him in a bottomless well. Perhaps he is homeless, in exile, in captivity, or on the run. The solitude of the hills he used to embrace with his arms wide open is now scary; he is suddenly estranged from himself and the world surrounding him. While he used to love to exist, now he learns how to be angry with everything that exists. The child is growing up.
Yet he does not entirely lose his hope; I strongly sense it as I step into the cabin/installation the artist conceptualized to allow for a more interactive viewer experience. “Maybe one day,” she says in there. “Maybe one day.” She stresses that hope is never completely lost, even at the darkest of corners, in the deepest of solitudes. In the cabin I look at the exhibition space through a very small opening; like those in prison cells generally cut out like a mailbox, where one can only see the guards’ beetle brows. But interestingly, this becomes a two dimensional experience; it is not only about imprisonment. The minutes passing in there bring about many questions: Is the viewer being watched? Or does he watch what is going on outside? Is the convict in captivity? Or was his true captivity the world he left outside? Can freedom be taken away by imprisoning the body? How many of those bodies freely walking outside are really free? How does it feel to look at oneself and one’s experience from a distance, as an outsider? While I think about relationships such as inside-outside, observer-observed, and subject-object I unintentionally find myself thinking about the ego-outer world dichotomy. I question those boundaries I have created for my own self, my fears and my vulnerabilities. I act as the devil’s advocate; I both become the voice beside me and the voice in front of me. The inner dialogue continues with all its intensity.
Then an object on the ground draws my attention. A circular area filled with soil, surrounded by a ring of blue LED lights. At its center where the soil is less dense, a very meaningful page of an old book lies open. The title is “Homeland”. Turkish national anthem says “Do not pass by the soil you step on by calling it just soil; get to know it.” But do we really know it? Is our homeland the country we live in and that we are a citizen of? Or is it a place where our origins come from? Is it our family, our memories, our ancestors? Or is it where our hopes for the future flourish? Erbaş’s installation is like looking at the neighborhood from the house balcony, looking at the city from an airplane, looking at the Earth from the Moon. The individual’s lack of an identity, lack of a homeland, his solitude and desertedness catch the viewer right away, and do so in the midst of one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
On the upper floor, Erbaş’s grandmother’s table and belongings are installed in combination with a shelf filled with burning candles; objects calling for sweet memories enlightened by the light of hope. Right next to it stands one of the strongest elements in the exhibition, an installation with a projection of a photograph. The work intensely filled with the feeling of inner journey is also illustrative of the exhibition’s overall meditative quality. Didem Erbaş’s artistic sensitivity, her deep connections with the past and her thinking out loud on the hope-despair dichotomy are definitely worth listening to—especially if you want to question the reality of your own story through the traces of your own impressions.
Edited by Merve Ünsal
An artist, writer, and curator born in Istanbul, İpek Yeğinsü received her B.A. in International Relations and her M.A. in Anatolian Civilizations and Cultural Heritage Management at Koç University. She has been working as an art professional in various institutions and continues her Ph.D. in Design, Technology and Society at Özyeğin University.