artists & participants
Ayse Erkmen at the Threshold Text von Daniel Birnbaum Ayse Erkmen moves things around. Objects, great and small, are moved sideways, lifted a few centimeters, or suddenly hover high over the roof. What happens to an object when it changes context? What happens to the person who believed he was familiar with the object as well as its context? The threshold is the place where everything is at stake. Sometimes, it is a question of small and subtle displacements; sometimes of long-winded and demanding operations. The first time I was confronted by Erkmen's work, it was hardly one of the more subtle transpositions. On the contrary, a noisy helicopter was transporting classical sculptures from one of Münster's museums to a kind of platform on the roof of a building facing the city's famous cathedral. But before the sculptures were finally deposited there, they got to have a good aerial tour of the city and of the church's two towers.
Erkmen's original proposal for the show - the 1997 Münster Sculpture Show - was to somehow involve the cathedral. She put forward one idea after another, all of them interesting and far from being provocative or in any way blasphemous. But none of the proposals was accepted by the administration at the church. Her final idea, which was realized, where only indirectly connected with the cathedral. The figures suspended in mid-air, all of them statues from the 15th and 16th centuries, came to be associated with the cathedral because of their physical proximity but they were not a part of the building and the artist did not have to ask for permission either. All the same, the work was not simply taking place in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral but in a drastic and humorous way also formed a link with the world of the church. The swaying sculptures reminded many of the scene from Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Were these levitating figures not a miracle? To be sure, the helicopter sound was deafening and the wind produced by the rotating propellers made the trees bend and the hair of the art crowd watching stand up. And still, when do you get to see magnificent sculptures like these hovering over a modern German city? Yes, it was miraculous.
Another example of physical displacement: Shipped Ships (2001) is the name of Erkmen's most encompassing and physically most ambitious artwork, if that is really the right word for a logistical operation of this kind. Three ships - one from Venice, one from the Japanese city of Shingu, and one from the artist's own hometown of Istanbul - were transported by boat to the financial hub of Frankfurt am Main, there to operate as river boats during a few spring weeks. For a very low payment anyone could ride the boats, which went back and forth between a set of bridges on the Main according to a reliable timetable. The crew on the boats had come with them from their various hometowns so that Turkish was the main language spoken on the Defterdar, Italian on the Tessèra, and Japanese was dominant on Kumano No. 59. Tourists and Frankfurt residents could simply buy a ticket and be taken up and down the river to see the city from a new perspective. That is what happened during these spring weeks, and very few participants seemed to be too worried about whether it was art.
But of course posing the question is not wholly irrelevant. What makes these foreign boats being driven through German waters by their normal crews into art? And if they are accepted as art, to what genre do they belong - sculpture, installation, or performance? In a conversation about Shipped Ships, the artist explains: "I am very happy with the fact that people are not sure if they are dealing with an artwork. Sometimes someone would ask in a critical tone, 'Where is the art in this project?' I think this is something important. I like this question, which indicates that we are moving in a region between art and non-art. People could simply use the boats, or they could also see them as art. They could participate in the situation, or they could see the whole thing as art." With next to nothing or using an enormous technical apparatus, Erkmen creates situations in the vague borderland between a practical world and a world of subtle shifts of meaning and function that we classify as art in the absence of other options. This is no longer the old discussion about "readymades" - the discussion initiated by Marcel Duchamp at the beginning of the 20th century, continued in one way or another by Andy Warhol, and then given a new twist by Jeff Koons and 1980s appropriation art - insofar as the objects or situations that Erkmen observes can no longer be moved in an unambiguous manner into an institution that belongs to the art world. The status of Erkmen's flying sculptures does not change in any clear-cut way. They are not lifted into a museum. On the contrary, the statues are flown out of a museum. And nor do the ships change place in this clear-cut way. They have not been placed in an institution: they are still being used. They are not watched over by a museum guard but by the same old crew, which is being commanded by the same old captain rather than by a museum director. The ships are still in water, though it is new water. Is this new German water so radically different that it can transform a boat into an artwork?
Perhaps we should see this in another way: the art world has today become a more fine-meshed net that can no longer be defined in terms of physical space (galleries, exhibition venues, museums, etc.) but which as much offers a radically alternative perspective on situations and physical objects. The person who takes up this perspective reflects on the objects in question in another way than people who are simply participating in the situation. In any case, it is clear that Ayse Erkmen is not only interested in the transformation of quotidian objects into art objects. She is interested in much more small-scale changes. In Shipped Ships, this has to do with the gradual shifts in the experience of the city itself. To see one's own city from a foreign ship that has arrived from a wholly different cultural sphere and which is manned by a foreign crew will without a doubt make you have a different sense of the familiar. This gradual shift in the normal and the familiar is a process that she follows attentively. But the objects themselves are also handled with dignity, rather than simply as material to be manipulated by an artist. The statues hovering over the roofs of Münster can easily be seen as a kind of act of liberation. These figures were lifted from the damp darkness into light and air and placed on a platform from which they could finally look out over the city. And the foreign ships were also handled with great care, not to say tenderness. They were transported to their new town on other ships. The title of the piece, Shipped Ships, marks this doubling. For the first time in their "lives," these ships enjoyed the service they usually offer to others. This is important to Erkmen: "I like the fact that the ships are transported on larger ships. I think this is the nicest part of this whole project. It's like they were sitting in their mom's lap. And also, they're doing something they've never done before. This is a kind of moment of luxury in their lives. It makes me happy to be able to offer some sort of luxury - not to give them only what they need, but also a tiny bit of luxury."
These examples would give the impression that in her art Erkmen always stages spectacular and costly displacements. There are several other such examples - for example, the live tigers behind bars at an art institution in the town of Essen - but in the majority of cases it is a question of a very low-profile and fairly simple shift. At the large-scale exhibition Zeitwenden (1999) in Bonn, her contribution was minimal. The work, called More or Less, has now disappeared without a trace. Her room remained empty and no new objects were brought into the exhibition. The only addition was a sort of landing in the room that was a few decimeters over the rest of the wooden floor. But this was not an object brought in from the outside but simply the result of the artist activating the freight elevator that is normally hidden under the floor. In a conversation, Erkmen points out that she prefers a situation where she does not need to add anything from the outside but can simply activate or manipulate something that's already there. A further example of this strategy can be seen in her exhibition Das Haus (1993) at DAAD in Berlin, but here the work addressed not the floor but the lighting system that normally hangs high up in the ceiling. This was lowered down to different heights in the five rooms, which now seemed completely different in the strange light. The neon lights had been transformed from a purely practical and nearly invisible infrastructure into a highly striking object in the room that, in addition, greatly limited the viewer's movement. When the exhibition was over, the neon lights were lifted back up to their normal height and nothing remained. The work that had been so palpable during the weeks of the exhibition's run had now physically disappeared without a trace. No object remained.
The new work that Erkmen is presenting at Magasin 3 consists of a sort of doubling. The pre-existing columns (multifaceted and with a funnel shape at the top) in Magasin 3's exhibition space are not only tied to each other using grey strips of fabric but have also been complemented with additional pillars that, on an imaginary level, turn the entire room upside down. From the perspective of these new additional columns, we are walking around on the ceiling. The strips of fabric connecting them also strongly limit our ability to move around. This resembles the way the neon lights functioned in Das Haus but the doubling and the vertical mirroring mean that this is a spatially more complex work. It recalls elements from earlier works: an installation at a small gallery in Frankfurt had pillars that were connected together, though without any new additions. The figure of doubling has perhaps never been as much spatial as temporal in Erkmen's work, but it is one that recurs in work after work. The ships that are transported on other ships are one example; another one is to be found in the installation Half of (2000), which was exhibited at Galerie Deux in Tokyo. Here, the gallery's architectural form was replicated in a series of sculptures made of fabric - five versions of the same form elegantly made of white cloth and hovering high up in the room, each sculpture half as large as the one before. No doubt the work in Japan echoes some of the same concern as the new installation in Stockholm.
"Ayse Erkmen's art is characterized by exclusivity," writes Friedrich Meschede. "Her work does not exist; it existed." This is a typical dimension of Erkmen's way of working. In general, she avoids the permanent. Her spatial interventions and displacements are temporally limited. The statues have returned to their gloomy collections, the boats are now wading through familiar waters again, and the tigers have gone back to their zoo. Erkmen returns again and again to her desire to avoid the static: "I am not interested in permanence. The fact is that I am afraid of permanent installations." Even in the exceptional cases where she has created artworks that last, she has built in an element of time and change. Her works are always on the threshold of transformation.
Erkmen has represented the very passage, the very experience, of the threshold in a number of works. As a Turkish woman with two homes - Erkmen has been living in both Berlin and Istanbul for many years - she knows that thresholds, borders, and transitional spaces also have a violent quality to them. In an installation that she showed at the Portikus gallery in Frankfurt, she placed at the entrance five of those metal detectors that we recognize from airports and official buildings. Here, the border zone was no longer a poetic passage but a politically charged field, full of latent violence. She moves objects, from one space to another. Objects and people change context. But displacing objects and people is not some easy, aesthetic game in the case of Erkmen. The threshold is the place where everything is at stake. Pressetext
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