THE INSPIRATION OF HOME

KÖKEN ERGUN AND NOVEMBER PAYNTER

30 ARALIK 2013

Insp Hero Installation view of exhibition <i>Crowds and Power</i>, SALT Ulus
Photo: Cemil Batur Gökçeer
Installation view of exhibition Crowds and Power, SALT Ulus
Photo: Cemil Batur Gökçeer
Those who left Turkey in the 60/70s to follow opportunities in Europe and America rarely returned. But, now the trend has shifted and this generation find it more productive to divide their time between home and away, to communicate the inspiration they get from life in Turkey elsewhere and to share their experience of living elsewhere back home. Köken Ergun's movements over the last six years, during which time he has lived between Istanbul, London and New York, exemplify this tendency. His inspiration, he says, nearly always comes from home, in particular from Istanbul and yet he finds it beneficial to produce work elsewhere with distance from the original subject and in the context of a different form of cultural perception. This method of practice results in complex questions that relate to locality and geography; how a work about the Islamic headscarf, or military presence in Turkey translate outside the context that Ergun knows so well and uses as inspiration?

Coming from a background of theatre and performance with a dominant interest in bodily stress, Köken Ergun's videos explore facets of the intersection and anxiety that hover between Turkey's secular republic state and its Muslim population. In his work Ergun proposes that the choices a community must make in a situation that is plighted with rules and state decisions on the one hand, which often remain unregulated on the other, result in forms of bodily stress. Two recent works in particular reflect these issues. The first is "Untitled", 2004 and the second "I, Soldier", 2005. In "Untitled" the artist presents a series of self-portraits of himself applying and donning a variety of headscarves in different styles and with different ties devised by a range of Islamic traditions. Viewing a man undertake this procedure at first gives the work a comic stance, but the austerity and seriousness of his intent and later his tears imply the societal contradictions and trauma that this solitary appendage induces. Whereas "Untitled" is concerned with a female, religious relationship with the bigger societal picture, "I, Soldier" presents the opposite extreme of bodily trauma experienced in Turkey, that from a male, secular position. Filmed during a state holiday dedicated to the youth of the republic, this two-channel work shows a soldier voicing with grandiose authority a nationalistic military poem. In Turkey every male youth must complete a period in the military and many view this imposition as a form of mental and bodily trauma. In "I, Soldier" it is not only those in official uniform that are seen going about their regulated duties, but also boys from the military school who perform rehearsed activities sometimes in synchronisation with the rest of the group or in competition against one another. Ergun's interest in specific cultural bodily trauma; how he explores and relates to them within his work and how he feels about the different ways his work is understood in Turkey as opposed to elsewhere, form the crux of this interview.

Please tell us a little about your interest in theatre and performance and how you moved away from these fields to begin working as a contemporary artist.

I think I have always been "dramatic" in a sense. When I was a child I always dreamt of "the other", almost always being better, stronger than "the self", but not because I was unhappy with my current state or upbringing. I think I just liked fictionalising and dreaming for the sake of creating a different world around me. So I would dramatize other states, other people, like I was creating my own mythology. My roots go back to the lands of the Ancient Greeks of Asia Minor so I was already very familiar with the myths and legends of the Aegean from an early age. One of the reasons I wanted to study theatre was because of this connection with Greek mythology and theatre.

Maybe I also sensed an existential suffocation at that early age towards the greater world (not necessarily to my immediate surroundings) and escaped from that general reality by being dramatic. Istanbul is a very grey city, it can be very depressing in the winter, very misty and dirty, even more so during my youth. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a fantastic view of the city or the Bosphorus, and sometimes all you see is a grey city skyline, a poor skyline. I remember Istanbul being perpetually grey, and even as a child I understood about the political struggles and the hard times that consumed it. I knew that there was a better world out there, one that was not so full of struggle and political contestation. So I pictured our surrounding reality from the position of different characters all the time. I could easily relate to those who didn't live in Istanbul, those that came from other places, non-places. I still like these non-places and enjoy the ability to locate myself somewhere else that is not necessarily anywhere in particular.

Through this relationship with a drama of sorts, I ended up being accepted to an acting school having attended an audition merely to test my abilities. I entered prematurely which perhaps manifested its problems later on and thus I soon realised that theatre was not for me. Or rather this form of representation was not for me. I didn't find it sincere. I disliked all those Checkovs and Shakespeares. They didn't fit my body, my body was too Eastern for them, but the teachers forced us to adjust our bodies to these heavy minded creatures that existed in their plays. For me there was little of interest in theatre produced between the time of the Ancient Greek writers and Beckett. The body in these two examples were closer to mine. All the plays and characters that came after Euripides and before Beckett were a mere nuisance to me. With a few exceptions of course, like Maeterlinck who I still feel comfortable with.

Then, just as I was preparing for auditions for film schools I found myself working with Robert Wilson. He showed me a different aspect of theatre. He made me aware of the importance of timing. Not specifically his own timing, but a sense for timing in/for a work of art. I think this is one of the most important aspects of an art production. It is all about timing, as Bob (Robert Wilson) would say.

Bob wouldn't teach me things, he wouldn't teach anyone anything. What he did was much more interesting, he would create a space for you to think that there is an alternative. This is very important and many people who criticize his work today overlook this important motive in his teaching. Once you understand that there is another, you can move on yourself. This is pretty much similar to the teachings of Shamanism, Taoism, or that of Bektashis in Turkey. As soon as I understood this other, I moved towards contemporary art and away from theatre, also away from Bob's work, which I found a very natural development, and I think he would be comfortable with it too. So, with this new sense of timing that I had acquired, I felt more comfortable working in the field of contemporary art, especially with video and performative video.

Can you explain why you chose not to pursue this new sense of timing within the genre of performance itself and instead chose to work mainly with video, which steps away from the live act of performance into that of documentation?

I am still not content with the representation techniques of either theatre or performance. Many things disappear in repetition or staging. In other words, there are two kinds of performance: the first is performed not for the sake of performance, but for any other reason, either to continue the flow of life (like eating or sex) or to serve a cultural reason (like discipline or punishment). The second is performance made only for the sake of re-performing these first forms of performance. It is pure repetition, but we are somewhat afraid to call it so. We call it art instead. We call it theatre. Brecht said "everything is theatre". It is true, but then why repeat it on stage and ruin it? I have gradually come to have a problem with this. When I was in the first years of my acting studies I absolutely loved the idea, but now I prefer the first form of performance, the natural one. Actually you don't even need to describe it as natural because there should not be an unnatural. Just like in Chinese thinking there is no gender, so being male or female doesn't mean anything and being naked doesn't mean anything either... I want the Western world to be more like this in terms of performance.

It would be interesting if there were no theatre for a while, no stage, no performances, just a very long hiatus; during which period we can come to accept that everything is an act of performance by itself, without direction by another. The world exists and moves by itself, not by mankind. The whole idea behind Western performing arts is the central figure "I". And this is why I don't like the theatre we see everywhere, or the performances we see in the art world. The most selfish "I" is still too central. Both the actor and the director think that by putting themselves in the foreground they will achieve something. What they achieve is a perfect repetition. Or perfect egoism. But, I think to re-present a performance (of the first form) by another un-live medium like video is more interesting. This is why I started to document performances of the first kind and apply my own direction with a very little editing, just to help link the timing of the individual segments into a single work. I don't want to add more to the original performance I have simply filmed.

How do you differentiate the way you experience and are inspired by your home city of Istanbul and other cities you have lived in such as London and New York?

I have never been as inspired by any city other than Istanbul. This doesn't mean that most of my works taste of Istanbul, as they say. I think it is the embodiment of the city and its character in my work, and in my character. In a city you grow up and interact with; you copy attributes of its architecture, its people, its public transportation system, its nightlife. I operate pretty much like the architecture of Istanbul for example. And with architecture I am talking about the architecture that you wouldn't even call architecture. It is an architecture, which develops not according to styles or creators (again the "I") but according to necessity and rules of daily life. So just like the two forms of performance I described earlier, architecture also comes in two forms. It is the first form that integrated with my body, but the second I was taught to integrate my body with.

Unfortunately, in modern Turkey we are taught to live in the organized and self-centered world of the Western culture. Just imagine: teaching a child of Istanbul to live as a Western urban citizen in an organized system. Imagine what he sees around him and what he is taught. This is why the new expensive schools in Istanbul are built outside the city like gated communities of say 70s/80s London, so that the children of wealthy Western-type families can't see the real world outside. This points out the most obvious character of Istanbul: it is a city of dichotomies. This city is the epitome of being 'bi-'. It can embody any given attribute in two or more different states at the same time with an absolute chaotic comfort. For example, if you leave it to its most natural form, many Western attributes will not apply here. But, we don't leave it to its natural form we force it to change. We raped this city and its people to look like, to feel like, to walk like, to dress like Westerners. The petrified, mutant body that comes out of this rape is what inspires me the most. And ironically I am one of these mutant bodies, so I constantly question my own existence and my own positioning in Istanbul first as a micro-cosmos and also in the world as macro-cosmos.

On the other hand, in Western cities I am more interested in the minorities than the indigenous community. In New York for example, I am inspired by black culture. Although we Turks have no immediate historical or geographical similarities with them, I feel closer to them for some reason. I think it is something to do with trying to distance oneself from colonial attitudes. I first felt this attraction to black culture at a nightclub, in one of the legendary Body&Soul parties. Everyone was dancing with the same enthusiasm and exorcism I saw in the countryside of Turkey. I was not taught to dance like that, I was taught to imitate the Western detached way of dancing. It is very hard to explain. I can't describe it with words...

Insp 1 Still from <i>Untitled</i>, 2004
Still from Untitled, 2004

Insp 2 Stills from <i>I, Soldier</i>, 2005
Stills from I, Soldier, 2005

Can you describe the ideas behind "Untitled", 2004 and "I, Soldier", 2005.

Both are similar in the way they deal with the mutant body I mentioned earlier and its dichotomies (I deliberately use it as plural) in both works I celebrate these dichotomies. The headscarf piece Untitled was inspired by a deliberate and ugly act of the current president of Turkey. The wearing of headscarves is not permitted in state controlled spaces in Turkey, such as its universities, court-houses and even the parliament for that matter. Despite Turkey being one of the strictest secular countries in the world, its public elected a conservative party known with Islamic tendencies, which was actually quite successful for a while. However, as soon as they came to power the lowbrow, high-bureaucrats and the army started to exaggerate the headscarf issue, which is an ongoing argument since the 70s. On the Republic Day the president always hosts a ball at the presidential palace, which is also another state space where headscarves should normally not be allowed. But because almost all wives of the members of the Islamic democrat party wear turbans (headscarves), in order to avoid this clash of the secular and sacred, the president arranged for and distributed one-person invitations to the ball in effect allowing only the husbands to attend. This outraged me and I wanted to apply the stress of living with a headscarf on my own body. So I made "Untitled" in which I wore different types of headscarves over and over until eventually I burst into tears at the end.

The work "I, Soldier" is a personal exorcism about my fear of the military discipline and also my secret attraction to its male qualities. There are two national days in Turkey dedicated to certain age-groups: the 23rd of April (denouncing the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul and opening of the new Turkish parliament in Ankara, in 1920) is dedicated to kids of primary school age, and the 19th of May (the start of the war of independence against the Allies in 1919) is dedicated to the youth of high school age. So, during one's schooling, you experience both of these horrid relics: for the celebrations, children are trained to take part in choreographed performances, which take place in the biggest stadium in the city. And despite the bitter Istanbul weather (it often rains during these two days, even colder in the eastern parts of the country) you are forced to wear tights, march around the running circuit, salute the mayor and an available general, make ridiculous shapes, mimicking both the socialist-realist ceremonies (and some of the Russian Futurists for that matter) and the Olympic games... So one day, I decided to video tape all the state day celebrations of the Turkish republic one by one, thinking that I would put them all together at the end. But, there was one soldier that I came almost face-to-face with in the stadium, screaming nationalism from the top of his lungs, and it was his position that encouraged me to make a single work around the May 19th celebrations. Every male citizen of Turkey has to do his military service for twelve months and I still haven't done mine because I am studying. When I listened to this one soldier it occurred to me that I would be trained in the same manner whenever I do my military service. Even after six months of completing the work, I am still afraid of him, my hair stands on end when I hear him screaming. The more I show him to other people the better I will exorcise him. So I think it is a very personal work, but it also means a lot in different ways to other people. One curator resembled it to Leni Rifensthal's "Olympia" for instance...

"I, Soldier" was shown in the hospitality zone of the 9th Istanbul Biennial in the exhibition "Free Kick" which met with political backlashes. Were you concerned that your piece would also create controversy in this context?

I was a little bit concerned about that specific soldier in the work, who reads the poem. I recorded his entire performance at a very close angle and didn't ask his official permission. But on the other hand, this entire performance in the stadium is open to public and anybody is allowed to film it. That is the whole idea behind this public performance, promoting pride and honour of your homeland. I had infiltrated into the space where usually only press is allowed, but still, as part of the loose discipline that you see in Turkish police, the guards who are supposed to control that area didn't even ask me what I was doing. If you look "different" enough, they wont touch you. They think you are the other, eccentric media/artist type. This is part of the chain of dichotomies that I keep talking about. The irregular use of discipline in Turkey is something I absolutely adore. The Western world would describe this as "uncivilized."

"Untitled", (2004) was recently shown in New York, how was the response there different to the response in Turkey?

Most viewers there found it beautiful, and intriguing. I can never forget an Upper East side type woman with heavy make up and huge hair exclaiming: "Oh wooow! This is so beautiful, I'd love to have it in my living room!" If you don't know the wide conflicts around the issue of the headscarf, it is natural that you would find it beautiful, because in a way it is also playing with religious portraits in Western art but this is not the primary concern of the piece. My concern was more about portraying the stress on the female Islamic persona, enforced by the secular state. America is not a secular state first of all, so they are not familiar with the secular sanctions against religious practitioners. It is not part of their life yet, but I am sure it will be. This work can best be understood by viewers who are enlightened about Islamic practices, because it is complex and confusing enough and I like that, I like to point to one direction, but shoot in another. For example, although I have a critical approach to the military pride in "I, Soldier", I also like the fact that some elder women in Istanbul cried while watching the work. They thought it promoted the army in a very strong way. You see, nowadays because of the new government the army is criticized a lot in public and the elder generation finds it hard to believe cause they lived with it for so many years. When I showed it to my mother and aunts they also thought I was promoting being a soldier in Turkey.

Do you think that the bodily stress that you perceive in these subjects is just that, a perceived stress from outside, or is it a stress that is also endured by the subject and how do you differentiate between the two?

It is her stress and my stress combined, and both are very internal. In other words, I didn't make this work as an Orientalist would write about Beirut from his cold home in Weimar... The headscarf issue has been an ongoing issue for the Turkish public as long as I remember. It is all around us, whether you are a believer or not. So there is absolutely no way of staying perpetually isolated from this bleeding wound in our society. Over the years, my observations accumulated to be able to have a general idea of what these women are facing and prior to performing the piece for video, I spent time with friends and distant relatives who wear headscarves. I have listened to their stories about the hardships as well as the comfort of wearing a headscarf. You would always read such stories in newspapers, or see it on television, but this is perceiving the stress from the outside. Because there is the medium of "the media" in between you and the subject. And most of the media in Turkey is either pretentious (mimicking the West), or controlled in one way or another by the state or corporations who suck on the tits of the state. But when you get in a closer human contact with the türbanlılar (Turkish slang for women who wear turban) you can appreciate their dilemma more. On the one hand, you have the Islamic religion, which says you have to obey the book, Kuran-ı Kerim, which in turn says all female believers should cover every part of their body, but the face and hands. If you consider yourself a Muslim woman, you must apply this to yourself. At least this is what they believe. Then on the other hand, you have a republic of only eighty something years on top of an Islamic empire of five hundred years who prohibits women covering their head in state controlled spaces. Is this freedom?

Of course as a third aspect to the story, comes radical Islam, which we Turks knew and experienced centuries before the West woke up to its reality after 9/11. Radical Islam operated solely by male power and intellect, often uses the turban as a symbol for their case against the secular state. They often use the word "chastity" in relationship with the turban, placing the other women who don't wear it in the category of prostitutes, and this in return forces the turban wearing women, to act like symbols of chastity. Can you imagine a bigger stress than this? At the end, as you can see there are three major kinds of stress imposed on a türbanlı women; one by the religion which orders them to cover up, the other by the state which "encourages" them not to, and third by the radical Islamists who uses them as the symbol of their case/movement. Therefore, the women who wear the türban cannot be free and detached from all these major stressors, but they will also not go out there and scream at the top of their voices that they are stressed. To think like this is very naive. So they often keep the depression inside, which I find very sad, and unfair. It is these feelings, which bring me close to them. I know that having been raised with a secular-Western attitude, I cannot fully appreciate their situation, but I definitely got a hint of it when I was wearing these turbans and constantly watching myself at the mirror. It helps to deconstruct your given identity for a moment.

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Köken Ergun interviewed by November Paynter in 2006.

Originally published in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, fall 2006.
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