Gender roles, body politics, capitalism, urban regeneration, identity conflicts, existential crisis, female instincts, fantasies, repressed feelings—Turkish artist Eda Gecikmez (born 1984) examines and explores all of these heavy subjects through the playful lens of surrealism.
She collects images from posters, fashion magazines, and brochures distributed in shopping centres and residences—particularly images that we are used to seeing in everyday life—and subverts the signs and symbols therein. She turns the protocols of the world upside down, inside out, takes them apart. The final effect is comic, dark as well.
Eda obtained her BA from the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul in 2010 and is currently completing an MA at Yıldız Technical University, also in Istanbul. In 2008, she spent some time at the San Carlos de Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Spain.
I interacted with her earlier this month…
What attracted me to your work was your interest in Power—if I may use it in the most general sense of the word. For the past two years or so I have been thinking quite a lot about different types of power—political, economic, military, cultural. In his TED talk, Harvard professor Joseph Nye has spoken of hard power, soft power, smart power, the power of state- and non-state actors. Then, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has talked about how stories—the way they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many of them are told—are really dependent on power. Power is anywhere and everywhere, it is felt in and shapes all human pursuits. In your artistic work, you aim to “destroy the integrity of the language of power”. I would begin by asking you a simple question—what do you most dislike about the current power structures of the world?
I can easily say that what I dislike most about power today is the language of patriarchy that permeates every second of our daily life, that is, the noise of male dominance we are surrounded by.
On a philosophical level, who are your favorite thinkers and how have they influenced your creativity?
Beyond the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, I have mostly read modernist gender and feminist theories during my MA. Foucault’s panopticon, Freud’s uncanny and Jung’s archetypes are among the most influential topics. I’ve tried to apply in my paintings or in my collages what Julia Kristeva defines as ‘the abject’, which could be formed out of body fluids. At the same time, I have read about ‘deconstruction’ by Derrida, and have searched for the marginal, the external and secondary, destroyed their subtle boundaries and reconstructed them.
You demolish and deconstruct the symbols that we are used to seeing in the world, you suspend the protocols of sign-reading. And you do so by employing the collage. How did you get introduced to this form of expression? Who are some of the collagists you admire?
I started making collages simply because of circumstances. I was living in my parents’ house, and there wasn’t any space to do painting, and also the material was very expensive for me at that time. But I needed colours and wanted to create new forms so I looked around and discovered tons of magazines, newspapers, flyers, etc. at home and started to cut them. Then the idea of the collage shaped itself. When you spend hours and hours with such material, you start thinking why you are surrounded by them and what these images, letters, colours, etc., mean. I think the artists I’ve admired most have been the Dada collagists, especially Hannah Höch and Max Ernst. Then I can include Martha Rosler, Nancy Spero and Kara Walker. Also, I have an irresistible passion for the works of Jockum Nordström.
Your latest paintings are portraits, wherein male and female faces are replaced with buildings—either apartments or office blocks. I love the inversion that you have executed here. Normally, it’s the individual that lives in the crowded and monotonous skyscraper. Your individuals hold crowded and monotonous skyscrapers within them. Could you elaborate on these images?
In Turkey, especially in Istanbul, we have a huge gentrification problem. The government and the municipalities transform urban fields without public agreement. So I wanted to depict the holders of this transformation by transforming them into buildings. Gaston Bachelard writes that inhabited space transcends geometrical space. These buildings are not just simple geometrical forms. The space they create remodels man. So I am interested in capturing the body and the space together in states where they appear integrated.
I was fascinated by the description for your new installation “Master Plan”, which takes its title from a project designed by Zaha Hadid in 2006 for an open competition organised by IMP (Istanbul Metropolitan Planning and Urban Design Center) for Kartal district. I had to spend some time reflecting on it. Your website states—
Currently, the city of Istanbul is redesigned in accordance with existing political agendas, it is shaped around piles of structure built in the framework of urban transformation projects. Trapped inside such an environment, citizens of Istanbul face difficulty in getting a hold on their identity and appear as anonymous extras wandering amongst piles of buildings. The devastation currently caused by urban transformation is not only disintegrating the individual, it also erodes memory. By erasing both individual and collective memory, it provokes disaffection. In Gecikmez’s surrealist reinterpretation of Hadid’s simulated urban landscape, fragmented body parts convey a pornographic transformation: to the fetishisation of the construction industry by government agency, she replies with a “becoming pornographic” of the body. To shed light on this process, Gecikmez hangs her paintings in the form of a barricade. In order to see the work, the viewer must walk around it, enter into the inner space she creates and cross into the other side of this barricade.
“Fetishisation of the construction industry”, “buildings like pornographic bodies”—such a comparison is new to me. But you are very exact in your association. Cities around the world are being spoiled, ugly tower after ugly tower is being erected—either on the basis of deliberate government agenda or on account of unchecked market forces. Porn rapidly multiplies the human body, strips it of uniqueness and reduces it to pure functionality—in the same manner, the construction industry of today produces buildings without much thought or care. From your experience, what are the ways in which the residents of Istanbul are losing their sense of self and memory?
“Master Plan” constitutes one of my reflections on the destruction of my neighborhood. Think about it, by the time you reach your 30th year, places of your childhood and youth are either fully changed or destroyed. Your grandmother’s memories that she shared with you are all wiped out and then your memories are all swept away before you could even share them with your children.
The connections between the environment and the people are lost. You end up getting totally alienated and increasingly poor where you live. I’ve been considering this situation in terms of pornography. Hadid’s unrealised plan for my town was enough for me to see that transformation. So I combined bodies that I found in pornography with the designed buildings and hung the painting as an advertisement. Lately I’ve discovered the architect Keller Easterling; she also describes the shaping of cities through repeatable spatial formulas in the globalised world as pornography. There is a complicated and deep relation between power and place. Experiences similar to those of my unjust city could be found elsewhere.
In “Thinking of Tradition – Thinking About Grandmother”, you set up an installation that contained handmade prayer mats of your grandmother. What is their significance? What do they mean to you? I found this project of yours very moving…
I was invited to the 3rd Mardin Biennial in 2015 and its concept was “mythologies”. Instead of showing a painting, I wanted to exhibit my grandmother’s patchwork prayer mats that she made for each of her grandchildren as a gift. I added to the collection a video shot with a hidden camera where my grandmother explains experiences from her youth in the village of Yozgat (a city located in the middle of Turkey), including forced marriage and domestic violence. So, in this installation there are many layers to be read and explored.
One of her daily prayer mats was made of a wall-rug. There was a peacock image on the rug. As my grandmother resized the rug to turn it into a prayer mat, she cut the head of the bird and reframed it. That image was very powerful for me. Later I learnt that the peacock is the symbol of the emanation of God for the Yezidis, a Kurdish speaking ethno-religious minority from northern Mesopotamia. The ISIS had forced them to migrate to Turkey at the time of the exhibition. Mardin is a city hosting Yezidis. So it was very interesting to see how these two different stories intersected with each other and created new possibilities for interaction. Also, I feel that the spirit of collage in my grandmother’s handicrafts still awaits further reflection and thinking.
You have a painting—“Mystical view”—in which you show two sets of steps emerging from and going nowhere. I would love to hear the larger story behind this work. What were you attempting to reveal or explore?
While working on this series, I was reading psychology. Human perception and things started to be more abstract. I wanted to erode defined boundaries between the body, the object and the space. What emptiness or the ground means—I wanted to play with that and would like to continue to work with that sense.
You have mentioned capitalism as a major theme. What are your views on corporate life? What would you like to change about it?
Once, a Turkish parliamentarian declared the state as the corporation and the citizens its employees. This is tragically a very honest description that corresponds to how I consider capitalist life. In his documentary The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis shows perfectly the advancement of capitalism; how it controls crowds and their behaviour, using desire and the engineering of consent, reducing the citizens to inactive consumers. And now we face climate change and endless wars following this brutal mode of consumption and manipulation. There is no nature left for human and non-human beings. There are many tangible steps that could and should be taken—such as the immediate end of current wars, the shutting down of the gun industry and the destruction of weapons, control over carbon usage, the generation of clean energy, etc.
“(In anticipation of ) An External threat and intervention” and “They know well how to use this poison” are very well executed paintings. In these two, as in other works of yours, there is a very pronounced absence—that of the face. It seems both disturbing and powerful. Why do you prefer hiding the human face?
Actually, my intention with eliminating faces is simply to make the body anonymous so that anybody can access it. The face creates a character or identity and defines the body. I wanted to make bodies that anyone can identify with. I read somewhere that when you look at a person, the first thing you recognise is the face; then you see the rest of the body. The face creates perception centres in the painting, but I wanted to centralise bodies in the first glance. That’s why I also tried to paint them similar to the size of actual human bodies.
Tell us more about your interest in gender roles. Which aspects of masculinity and femininity do you try to unpack through your practice?
My interest in gender roles started with my own life experiences. Since childhood, within the family or at school, or on the street, always, I faced and felt inequality and injustice because of my gender. Later, I encountered feminist theory and the analysis of gender roles that automatically affected my practice. I participated in and followed various feminist organisations and their workshops. We started an initiative as women artists/workers to collaborate with other women’s organisations to stimulate action. I am interested in analysing forms of male dominance in daily life and its relation to institutionalised forms of power and sovereignty, and women’s strategies such as the patriarchal bargain.
What courses are you studying for your MA at Yıldız Technical University?
I finished all my coursework years ago but have the thesis left. After my first year, the Art and Design department, where I was studying was forced to move into a new building out of the city by the government. There were many struggles and a constant fight between the university administration and the students who were opposed to moving. Normally you can always hear such rumours but this time it was real and it happened. The professors were also against this shift but nobody listened to them. Then most of them resigned and left the university.
Now almost all units of the university have moved out of their initial locations. So during that time my motivation was totally interrupted and that’s why I postponed writing my thesis. But the delay didn’t work anyway; academia was getting worse with state interventions and censorship. Today hundreds of academics are fired, taken into custody, and some of them are even imprisoned because they’ve signed a petition for peace.
As part of my education last year, I participated in the Home Workspace Program launched by Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) in Beirut for 10 months. It was a study programme to develop formal, technical and theoretical skills through a free, trans-disciplinary and critical model of art education including lectures, seminars and workshops by guest teachers and practitioners.
What is the best piece of advice you have heard as an artist? And what advice would you want to offer to other aspiring or emerging artists?
The most recent advice I have received is not to talk about your work to anyone whom you think doesn’t understand it. And yes the advice was very useful; you don’t need to suffer in front of people who just seek to satisfy their egos instead of helping you. If you feel uncomfortable with someone, if you think that person just affects you in a way that makes you stuck, just stop sharing; it works. And my advice is about friendship not networking. Create your environment with trustworthy, real friends who will tell you your faults in order to help you.
Lastly, what’s next? Any ideas for future projects? Where will your next exhibition be held?
I have just recently finished that Home Workspace Program in Ashkal Alwan. I had a great and intense experience that enriched my thinking about forms and concepts. So I just need to process that experience and continue with my new research. I will have my solo exhibition in Galeri Nev in Ankara the next year beside group exhibitions.
Learn more about Eda Gecikmez on her website (www.edagecikmez.com).