Linguistic experiments and architectural interventions have defined Turkish artist Deniz Gül’s practice for the past decade. In 2011, Gül lined up a coffin, a vitrine, a door, a closet, and a safe in Istanbul’s Arter gallery, inviting viewers to imagine a conversation among them. Symbolizing the claustrophobia of Turkish bourgeois life, the installation, 5 Person Bufet, introduced this then–twenty-eight-year-old daughter of a furniture salesman to Turkey’s art world. In a book accompanying that presentation, Gül wove together gibberish Turkish words, street chatter, excerpts of her notes, phrases heard on television, and purple prose she recalled from newspapers into a chamber piece for the furniture. (Five musicians performed 5 Person Bufet at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago in 2015, continuing the cycle of translations from furniture into text into music.) For Meydan (Square, 2020), Gül emptied the nearly three-thousand-square-foot space of Yapı Kredi Culture and Arts, one of Istanbul’s largest contemporary art venues, to make room for a new body of work: a piece of polyurethane foam, a straight line engraved in a wall and delineated with black marker, a metal bar, and a handful of other sculptures that, in their near invisibility, unsettled the expectation that art will have a material presence.
“Scratch and Surface” overtakes another spacious Istanbul venue: SALT Galata, the former Imperial Ottoman Bank, founded in 1863. In the building’s basement, Gül’s performative installation Daire Düz (Flat), 2021, explores the process of drafting, reading, and enacting the architectural drawings of floor plans. Conceived after the artist’s 2017 residency in Sharjah, where the city’s perpetual construction sparked Gül’s interest in building sites, Flat explores how floor plans are used differently by, for example, building engineers and manual laborers. Gül’s blueprints, drawn to scale and hung unframed on the walls like paintings, dictate not only relationships between spaces, but also actions that will change those spaces. From 11 am to 5 pm weekdays, a manual laborer, hired by SALT, mixes cement, puts down concrete bricks, and builds low walls while visitors wander along surface marks—lines of cement on the floor that represent the laborer’s own interpretation of Gül’s floor plans, which she made with a professional spatial designer (Gül’s alterations are distinguished on the page by different colors). Gül’s drawings specify a finished state but also remind viewers that borders are constantly being negotiated—the instructions are open to interpretation, and laborers can adjust them when necessary. The work asks viewers to ponder the act of remaking a physical space through drawing; its implied critique calls attention to all the invisible labor that went into making this building—SALT Galata—and seems to propose a less static notion of architecture in which spaces are constantly erased and rebuilt.
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On the floor above, a linguistic installation, Klavuz (Plungr), 2016–21, attempts the complex task of monitoring “the involvement and effects of words in periods of economic, ecological, and social crisis.” Since 2016, Gül has been reading through a Turkish spelling guide, line by line, while using a red marker to scrawl her interpretations of Turkish words and add suffixes or prefixes to link words to current events and private frustrations. Displayed on spotlit tables in SALT’s marble-floored research library, the scribblings in Klavuz (Plungr) suggest that play with language can be a form of diary-keeping or a method of historiography. On one page, Gül affixed the word cezaevi (prison) to the word sıncan (astragalus, a plant native to Turkey), to point to Sincan Prison, a Turkish jail holding numerous political prisoners. On another page, she simply attached a heart shape to the word sinekler (flies) and added a smiley face to the noun sıpa (colt). Elsewhere, her scribbling of soykırımı (genocide) in red ink looks ominous next to the Turkish word for Armenian. These interventions, typically subtle and tongue-in-cheek, create unexpected shifts and relations in her mother tongue.
A more direct form of engagement with the politics of language underpins #Words (2021), an online database presented via a plasma screen. Refreshing every three minutes, #Words scans 2,753 terms Gül picked for the project (she says she chose “surface” words, like peer, climate, and vegetal, that are “horizontal rather than vertical”), listing their most recent uses in 75,000 online newspapers and magazines—from the New Yorker to Mysterious Universe—and posting the results on the website hashwords.net. Reduced to hashtags, these words attain a mysterious power, morphing according to their context, sharpening into weapons to be wielded in culture wars, trending one moment and vanishing the next. Amira Akbıyıkoğlu and Farah Aksoy, the show’s curators, characterize Gül’s view of language as “a fiction that is always being reconstructed; a geography in which boundaries are constantly negotiated.” With “Scratch and Surface,” Gül’s decade-long exercise of interrogating borders, in her country’s language and at its art venues, has reached a denouement that itself remains fluid and shape-shifting.