The artist’s studio is the ultimate weather station: the artist listens, feels, guesses, measures, collects, predicts, revises, and perhaps most importantly, fails—to do it all over again. İz Öztat’s “Daredevil” is an invitation into the space of her studio at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin to produce a temporality of mutualness, weaving together her references, experiences, evocations in this particular space and a confrontation with the state of not knowing. Bodies and objects become one, as words and authors call across time. As swallows take flight, İz suspends her studio with all her objects and images, daring to remain there in a constant state of flight.
This text is part of a series that addresses artistic strategies to measure, report, fabulate, and tell stories about the weather, air flows, circulation, and other high to low pressure aspects of our practices and cities. Commissioned for the World Weather Network, a constellation of weather stations located across the world, and with the invitation of SAHA – Supporting Contemporary Art from Turkey, the series asks: how do artists respond to ideas of change, crisis, and future, focusing on various elements of the weather as an embodiment at the intersection of bodies, peoples, and landscapes? —Merve Ünsal and Özge Ersoy
As we unlock the door of a room in the former hospital building, I ask my companion how the ongoing war has been felt in Germany. “Everybody is concerned about the heating costs for the winter,” they answer. Behind the door, I have the biggest studio I have ever had to myself, albeit temporarily. Right in the middle of the space, two five-meter-high cast iron columns stand in close proximity to support a beam. The columns still stand because when the authorities wanted to demolish the building, people resisted vehemently. From the top of the columns, angels stare down, half of them praying, the other half extending their arms with compassion towards the patients who once laid below. Fixated on the missing arm of one angel, I wonder if I will be able to disregard them during my stay here. Or will I have to find a place for these sculpted angels in my own story?
I arrive in Berlin for an artist residency, in search of sculptures that arouse a narrative of queer desire in me, unavoidably intertwined with longing and exile due to the conditions that don’t allow for an otherwise. I’m in the company of Etel Adnan and Audre Lorde’s articulations about their love for women, which are imbued with a sense of exile from home. In The Cost For Love We Are Not Willing to Pay, Etel accesses her desire for women through an encounter with the Venus de Milo at the Louvre. The “event” of her body demanding the sculpture’s presence becomes an initiation, a revelation, an epiphany. In Zami, Audre folds the statue of a young naked girl in beige stone into her biomythography as she weaves together lived experience, mythology, and history. Speaking about the book in Berlin, she says that love between women—even if it may be bitter, transient, or painful—empowered her to deal with despair. Uneasy with what a female body is when represented, I drift in the city, searching for the sculptures that will reveal my own story.
Being prone to hauntings, I tune into the sounds in the studio. While making watercolors one evening, I sense a presence. A swallow cruises the space and as if she divides into two, a second one appears. I assume they got inside by mistake and could hurt themselves by hitting the walls or the windows. To facilitate their departure, I open all the windows. Then a third, a fourth, and a fifth appear. They wheel around the columns for a while and then leave. As this ritual repeats itself on the following nights, what at first feels like an intrusion becomes cohabitation. I watch their maneuvers with great admiration, the rapid succession of their turns and banks. One night, after the flock of birds leaves, one remaining swallow disappears behind the wing of an angel. As soon as I find a tall enough ladder, I climb up to the top of the column to see if there is a nest. There isn’t. As swallows migrate south in the fall, I make a decision not to go back to Turkey at the end of my artist residency, or to at least try to stay in Berlin.
Failing in my search for finding an object of desire in public sculptures, I enter institutions. I make my way through sculptures that have been erected, removed, relocated, displaced, looted, buried, uncovered, destroyed, replicated, idealized, studied, and canonized. The more I search for my object of desire among so many, the more I feel an increasing aversion to sculpted human figures that are depicted as perfect, able, gendered, and racialized. I get sick of the official narratives accompanying them; what they commemorate and conceal. I despise how fragmented sculptures are put together seamlessly to hide the traces of loss, how the lines along the joints of plaster casts are smoothed to constitute the resemblance of a whole. I can’t stand their rigid verticality. Yet I love how easily they fall, when pulled down with a rope, once the necessary energy is mobilized against what they represent. I head back to the studio empty-handed from my search for sculptures to fall in love with, to project my desire onto, to claim as bearings. I pluck a water lily on the way back, just to see how it dies. So desperately needing water on her surface to remain wide open, she withers into a triangle with folds, her wet smooth surface becoming velvet as she shrinks. I fear drying.
In the absence of bearings I was hoping to find so that I can fix my position, I dead reckon. As I get lost, the empty volume of the studio is inundated with fears, with all the losses. I am tempted by the idea of horror vacui—the possibility of filling up the whole space to evade what intrudes, ornamenting the surfaces to gain a sense of orientation. I accumulate materials in the studio. Wool, soft and warm to my hands, feels fitting. I wet and rub fibers with soap so that they hold onto each other. I work the wool by piercing it endlessly with a needle, occasionally piercing my own skin. A soft red horn with a sharp and sturdy end extrudes down from the missing arm of the angel above the column, towards the drop of blood forming on my pierced hand. Dipping its tip in my blood, it writes, “Give your shadow to me; the terrifying void shall be gone and mastery over space shall be thine.” Tempted by the daring trade-off offered by the apparition that is the devil, I reach towards the knife that grows from within its soft red horn to cut off the shadow I cast. Holding the soft handle of the knife, I trace the contours of my body, titillated by the movement of the knife’s sharp edge on my skin. “Nay” I say, “I want my shadow to rule me, to stay in the void with the formless unknown.”
Possessed by the formless unknown, I play, surrendering to materials and making the sculptures I desire. I try not to make things that I can’t afford, give up, or carry. I want forms that can’t be fixed and can’t hold themselves. I further reduce and simplify classical sculptures that are flattened in photographs. Layers upon layers of red lines pile on top of each other. I study the sculpted bodies; their contours, folds, and the empty spaces within their mass. I imagine sculptures without mass, without surface and without depth. I use various ropes. Looking at what I make, I see my desperate need to hold things together, to let them loose, to take them down. With the height of the studio space that invites verticality or falling, I surrender to gravity. In an attempt to attain an increased sense of agency with my decision to stay in Berlin, do I expect to be punished for leaving Istanbul? Possibly with failure? I struggle with the feeling of inadequacy and let things fall. Intestine casing, then parchment, now wool; my fetishes. Each with a distinct smell, carrying the inherent violence of their removal. Now wool, soft and warm, allowing for the interdicted mourning, creating a sense of trust that a tie won’t be severed. I long, long for the impossible. Intestine casing, then parchment, now wool; is it always the same animal that I am using and abusing? Am I that animal? If yes, I become softer yet fiercer as I find a new habitat in place of the one I lose. With the impossibility of severing ties with what I leave behind, the studio acquires an imaginary window opening into a prison cell. I can’t locate where I am working from, can’t approximate the threshold of what I can utter or make. Moving away from home, I can’t yet figure out what expression without self-censorship would look like. Possibly settling in here, I don’t know what is accessible to me as an other; I can’t fully comprehend yet the local implications of evoking the devil by its name or the complicities of classical sculpture according to German national consciousness. While I search in the studio for the sculptures that make up my story, I allow myself to be tempted by flesh. I sense what queer bodies can become when they don’t embody the constant threat of demonization and violence. I seek safety in suspense, compassion in arrested movement, punishment in coldness, and pleasure in pain. I fall for skilled acts of consensual domination. My path crosses with floating shadows trying to exorcize grief. In the studio, love lies bleeding. I find myself making sculptures that are toys for the daughter I could not commit to. I detest the angelic beyond and can’t wait for my kind to go extinct.
Exhausted, I turn off the lights in the studio and fall asleep. Bells toll. The persecutor glances at the prisoner as the sun burns melting the bronze statues in the twilight. At that moment a swallow takes off from the chest I kiss, almost burning her sharp wing on the oozing face of the statue. She banks towards the water as the city gets swallowed by the sea, a horizontal take over.
“Daredevil” has been produced in one of the studio spaces of Kunstquartier Bethanien during an artist residency supported by the stipend of the Senate Department for Culture and Europe, made possible in the frame of a cooperation between the neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK) and the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin as well as DEPO in Istanbul.