Pricked Surfaces

“Someday she might replace whatever of her had gone away by some prosthetic device, a dress of a certain color, a phrase in a letter, another lover.”
― Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Photographing is always a somewhat disruptive act. There is something about the act of taking out an instrument, be it a camera or a phone, that brings an alien element into the present situation. That momentous gesture is then transliterated to a surface, as the image is articulated in an alphabet different from the experiential, the event. While photographs, by definition, hold a specified surface tension—they are a two-dimensional thing, implying a third dimension—, Zeynep Beler’s works, presented in the exhibition Beachcomber, deal with a pricking of the surfaces that relay and delay information, questioning the ineffableness of perception. Is it possible to extend the representational temporality of photographs through mark-making? What happens to photographs when they are repeated and transferred between media?

Zeynep Beler, Tethered, 70x100cm. Oil on Bristol paper, 2015.

While all of the works are image-based, the artist uses a variety of mark-making techniques (drawings and paintings in a range of textures) and numerous surfaces (cardboard, scrolls of paper, canvases of different shapes and proportions). Even objects like the embalmed USB drive used to host a video work (perhaps it still does, our inability to retrieve those images doesn’t mean they are no longer there.)

Collaging is a key strategy in Beler’s works, as she layers images on images with a methodological semi-permanence—it appears that the canvases or sheets of paper could have been removed and moved somewhere else—, the almost tentative relationship that the artist constructs among the different elements mirrors the often tenuous relationship that images have in relation to reality. This fleetingness is also mirrored in the sizes that Beler chooses for her works, ranging from the size of the palm of one’s hand to the architectural scroll, spanning the height of the room, cascading down from the ceiling. This range highlights the relationship that the artist builds between the “intimate” that is shared online and its all-encompassing, disproportionate presence in our perception through their architectural expansion. In Beler’s works, the personal and the social are intertwined, literally superimposed to draw attention to how we situate our own bodies in the world.

A rectangular painting perched on a scroll depicts a woman wearing all black, her face cropped off in a strange angle that accentuates the spontaneity of the moment of photographing. I say photographing as this painting’s impetus is more photographic than painterly, crosswiring a photographic image with a painterly surface to create a new kind of surface.

Zeynep Beler, Journal, 25×38 cm. Acrylics, spray paint, rain water and pencil on journal pages, 2017.

Another work shows two people sitting down. The backdrop is not visible, they are floating on a white ground, spectral presences. The man in the image has lifted up something to the woman’s face, which they both seem to be enjoying. The presence of the photographer—for, again, this is a photographic image—, as a documenter of a happy moment is now threatened by the voyeuristic presence of the viewer, accentuated by the artist’s painting this image—the presence of two people immediately insinuate a triangular dynamic with the third party, a stalking gaze that through photographing and further by painting, inserts themselves into this relationship.

At an artist’s residency that she recently participated in, Beler appropriated pieces of cardboard from the trash that others had discarded. What is most striking about her appropriation of these surfaces is not that the artist recycles this material, but that she mimics the marks that already exist on them. In other words, a “thing” that she has no information on, becomes a coincidental inspiration for her works, an icon that becomes fortified through its repetitions and Beler’s reluctance to contextualize the original material as anything but a beginning point, a stain further drives home her point on the dissolved boundaries of information and author.

Beler’s working with multifarious materials, surfaces, and scales point to a desire to relate to her body through relating to the bodies of her viewers. At the exhibition space, as Beler makes our eyes move up and down and around the space and over her works, playing with the scales of the human figures, there is a playful acknowledgment of our bodily presence. The mark-making’s physicality in relation to the artist’s body is mimicked in the space through the darting gaze of the viewers.

Zeynep Beler, party ppl on new year’s, 2016. Oil on canvas, 10 x 12 cm.

Beler’s newly constructed surfaces are formed by the visual and text-based information that seeps through the holes that she produces by combing her phone and the Internet. “Combing” here by no means refers to researching or looking for things. Rather, there is a very refreshing active passivity in Beler’s artistic process; she lets things happen, she lets things find her, she lets things change her. It is within this at times violent serendipity that Beler’s visual vocabulary finds itself—as viewers, we recognize almost everything that we see, but they are removed from our realm and are now constituents of a new place. This is not dissimilar to watching someone leave your house—the umbrella, the glove that was just next to you suddenly becomes something that you view through a window, isolating to the point of self-alienation.

The distances between the viewer, the objects, the subjects, the artist are constantly re-negotiated in Beler’s works. There is a discomfort of her not letting things settle and be sedentary that echoes in the viewing experience. The recognition of everything that we see as familiar place our bodies within the images while the obsessive painting of photographs place us on the threshold, not knowing whether we’d want to be a part of this act of perversion. The spread of the images across the space make us hyper-aware of our architectural relationship to the images, removing us from the realm of our screens and pulling us into an environment controlled and populated by the artist’s images.

What are the implications of Beler’s constructive nihilism in which objects and images and moments are decimated and in their demise bring about an awareness of a new form of perception? While it is increasingly more difficult to comprehend where and how information resides, we do have a sense of slippage—as boundaries become more permeable, the result is not one of liberation but rather of a loss of the sense of self. Beler seems to take comfort in that loss and embraces it violently—her works are at once eerie, familiar, realistic, traditional, and bizarre. She works with everything and nothing, worlds of intermixed sensualities. Beler’s deconstruction of the realm of information is a linguistic, semiotic one in that the reconstructions of meaning resonate within the viewer, with the viewer—no regurgitations allowed.

Zeynep Beler, Artifact 2 (Oyster Shell), 2016. Oyster shell, 35 mm film negative.

An earlier version of this text was published by Krank Art Gallery in the booklet accompanying Zeynep Beler’s exhibition, Beachcomber, February 15-March 17, 2018. 

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

Merve Ünsal (1985) is a visual artist who lives and works in Istanbul. She is the founding editor of