On Transition

Rereading the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, I came across a passage where he refers to Japan as “a culture in which the lines between points (highways) receive less attention than the points.” I think it’s safe to say that in comparison Turkey is all road, only road, and indeed the road itself is a sacred notion in its own right—whether it be as election leverage, real source of hope for townspeople who otherwise have no hope of getting anywhere in the harsh geographic conditions of a lot of Turkey’s rural terrain, or popular trope for movies about romantic estrangement. While in practice decidedly hitchhiker or cyclist-unfriendly, a sensibility of the road infuses the collective consciousness (one beloved folk song equating a road to an inner journey or life itself, which we doggedly rove day in and day out) though not solely in the metaphysical sense. You can be a connoisseur – the best roadside views, the best cafeterias, where you can have the best local grub without dipping into the city center. Peppered with attractions, the highways are events in their own right. Or, in the words of Emin Yu_, “a space between a point A to point B”…which, in recognition of the silent emphasis on the word between, is everything.

Emin Yu_, from the Transition series, 2015.

In April 2013, Emin, accompanied by his filmmaker friend Boris Garavini, undertook a 1450 kilometre, 21-day bicycle journey from Istanbul, where he was and is based, to the highlands of Artvin, where he was born. The two met during a semester at FAMU in Prague. Later back in Istanbul, Emin announced via Skype his plan to set off on a bike trip and Boris said he would join. Boris flew to Turkey and they set out one morning, armed with camping gear they ended up never using. Emin would pause frequently to shoot scenes with a compact camera (overall he shot twenty-four rolls of film) and fall behind while Boris, filming footage for his film with a handicam, would stop and wait for him to catch up. The “points” in Emin’s series are the photos rather than the stops they made, and they exclude the inevitable inconveniences of traversing a rather disagreeable, albeit comfortably asphalted terrain by bike, such that by the second day, they were contemplating throwing in the towel.

Emin Yu_, from the Transition series, 2015.

They didn’t, however, and later showed the resulting photo series and video in a two-person exhibition in Istanbul, in 2015. A friend [1] mixed the sounds recorded by Boris during their trip, and this filled the space and asynchronically accompanied the video, both on an endless loop. I never saw the show, but the photographs of the white, well-lit space give the impression of an experience you can walk into, with all the erasures and sterilizations, and blankings-in hardcoded into the way memory functions. This, along with the dichotomy of mediums, gives me a sense of walking into the blank white covers of one of my favorite books, Jean Epstein’s The Intelligence of a Machine, bringing to mind the passage: “The cinematograph instructs us that continuity and discontinuity, rest and movement, far from being two incompatible modes of reality, are two interchangeable modes of unreality, twin ‘ghosts of the mind’ as Francis Bacon called them, seeking to purge knowledge at the cost of leaving nothing in it.”  [2] Two separate objectivities, alongside one another, redefine one journey in indirect, abstracted terms, gleefully relying on the polysemous nature of visual documentation, which I’ll get back to later.

Transition is the first step in a body of work that experiments with the lens-based image. In a later work, Transformation*SS, Emin systematically extracted frames from Chris Marker’s 1983 film Sans Soleil, 2915 in total, and covered one wall of his studio with them for a two-day exhibition. The frames, business-card-sized, are in chronological order, seeing them on the wall all at once negates the linearity—your gaze lands randomly, anywhere in the movie, scrambling the order despite its surface legibility. In this way it’s the diametric opposite of Transition, which forces non-linearity into time-based narrative. Staggered, the ebb and flow of sequential color schemes signal breaks in linearity without having to see the transitions between scenes, much like how paragraphs visibly break up a text. The impulse to wonder aloud about the singularities of different kinds of lens-based images and the stages they’ve gone through characterizes much of Emin’s work: the first thing I asked him when I saw Sans Soleil was whether he took screenshots of every 25 frame per second, or how often? Typically pragmatic, the answer was that it was one frame per two seconds, because he had to account for the size of the wall and the optimum size of the images for legibility. To be sure, how we physically engage with the image—how we enter into a conversation with it—is the central aspect of these works. Emin believes in the sentience, even consciousness of the image, and that given the right facilities, an alternative voice, it will speak to us in new ways, much like people would.

Emin Yu_, Transformation *SS, 2016.

But at the time of Transition such calculations hadn’t yet come into play—“play” also being a keyword for Emin’s practice, incidentally. Transition has the candor of a first-work, a sort of practice in becoming a disembodied eye on a journey, editing out the cumbersome aspects of setting out that characterized the proposal—“Let’s bike halfway across the country!”—that to an extent, I guess, is what all artistic representation does. Still, the calm exuded by the photos that made the cut is no coincidence. There’s a remarkable stillness in particular to the photos that were the first to capture my attention—the crazy thick fog that descended below their level of elevation in Zonguldak, blanketing everything in sight like an ocean, the nightmare-fueling gorilla and dismembered zombie (?) mannequins at an abandoned amusement park at some point between Trabzon and Rize, a wounded cat in the sunlight (that Emin is quick to point out wasn’t hurt in any serious way—“it was playing happily”). Even roadkill at the curb seems content with being roadkill. I’m compelled to describe a stain on a rock with a circular burst of flowers as a nun holding a bouquet. It occurs to me that maybe Emin’s pareidoliac proclivities are rooted in the rolls of film from this first project, triggered by the unceasing tedium that must be moving along Turkey highways at an average speed of 20 kilometers per hour, for twenty-one days.

Emin Yu_, from the Transition series, 2015.
Emin Yu_, from the Transition series, 2015.

Emin has described the in between stages of his practice, where he gathers material and inspiration, as a “fluid state, […] concerned and curious, mingling with materials, images, texts, absorbing from the influx of data and affects.” In later works, he appropriated the same state of flowing and stopping, this time consciously. His inclination to focus on the calm and unassuming endured. On a larger scale, every finished body of work became a chance to pause and look.

Emin Yu_, from the Transition series, 2015.

As such, I keep wanting to stress the position of Transition as a first work. The obligation to describe one’s practice means none of us can exempt ourselves from becoming affected at some point (in more unfortunate instances becoming embroiled in the elaborate artspeak that has spawned all our favorite artist statement generating bots in rejoinder). As artists we all take our place somewhere on the spectrum of self-aware and self-aggrandizing: in the form of a very simple, unpretentious book, Transition is one of those earlier works, an inception, and in my eyes completely without affect. I get intellectually fired up about Emin’s later works, but Transition endears him to me.

Which brings me to the editing process that remains in common with this and the later steps of his image research. Transition is really the chronicle of a challenge – with all of the challenge edited out. I myself have an early work that never saw the light of day (working title “In Transit”) of photos from a road trip, though for me it was from the relative comfort of a passenger seat. (I personally would rather drink developer than take a 1450 km bike hike, but in the event I did, everyone would know). The point is that we are both fiercely defensive of life’s pauses rather than the loud, snappy, attention-grabbing instants, advocates of looking out to the roadside to maybe discover something inside rather than focusing on the obvious, which is the road, or the challenge of traversing it. As someone who photographs in a similar way I have come to understand that photographing for me is a compulsive act, an effort to pause time and stand on the sidelines for the duration it takes to hold a device in front of my face. The mindfulness craze taking the world by storm ever strengthens my conviction that collecting the moments of calm is a hereditary impulse. Even if going on the road can be avoided, one doesn’t have to, as long as there are pauses in the space between the points, time to breathe and reflect, and cats and hulking slabs of stone, comically ugly mannequins of dinosaurs and zombies, puddles and reflections, and other pit stops.

Emin Yu_, from the Transition series, 2015.


[1] Sound engineer Duncan Nilsson Pinhas.

[2] The Intelligence of a Machine, Jean Epstein, translated by Christophe Wall-Romana, Univocal, 2014, p. 15-16.

Emin Yu_ (1988, Artvin) is an Istanbul based artist. He received his BA in Photography and Video at Istanbul Bilgi University. He spent a semester in FAMU Prague, in Photography and Cinema departments and attended artist residencies and workshops in the field of still and moving image. He has presented three shows, two publications, and two screenings in the past three years based on his research and experimentation about the image and the interplay between its content and material.

Zeynep Beler (1985) is a visual artist who lives and works in Istanbul.