A trailblazing sculptor who first gained recognition in the 1970s, Ayșe Erkmen has become Turkey’s premier conceptual artist, exploring the foundations of art spaces via a series of interventions. In The House (1993), she lowered the lighting equipment in a gallery to a height of approximately four feet to create a novel spatial structure while making the room inaccessible. For the fourth Istanbul Biennial, Erkmen transformed a freight elevator in the city’s iconic Antrepo building, a former shipping warehouse, into an artwork titled Wertheim — ACUU (1995) by cordoning off its doors with metal bars and lining its interior with corrugated metal sheets so that it resembled the interior of a shipping container. As the cab shuttled between the two floors, its open doors creating the sense of a stage, this otherwise unnoticed, utilitarian compartment became an unreachable, sacred art space: it seemed to disappear into darkness when viewed from the upper floor, and ascend to heaven when viewed from the ground.
Beyond direct architectural interventions, another of the artist’s favorite tactics is displacement. Shipped Ships (2001) increased the scale of Erkmen’s practice by transporting three ferries and their crews from Istanbul; Venice; and Shingū, Japan to the Main River in Frankfurt. The ambitious gesture—requiring the ships’ crews, accustomed to the Bosporus, the Kumano River, and the Grand Canal, to adjust to a foreign setting—was problematic in that it risked exoticizing the vessels and their crews; its transportation footprint also seems damaging today in light of the climate crisis. Still, in all these works, Erkmen’s refusal to build new things remained a constant; instead she directed her energy into repositioning and reconfiguring already extant structures and materials. That strategy resurfaced, this time self-referentially, in her new body of work.
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The focus of Erkmen’s latest show, at Dirimart in Istanbul, was Dolapdere, the gallery’s neighborhood, populated mainly by Kurdish, Romani, queer, and other disadvantaged communities. Erkmen had occupied this gallery before. In 2016, months after the venue opened this branch on the entry floor of a sleek building, she transformed the gallery with Kıpraşım Ripple (2016), a conceptual work for which she removed all sixty-four sections of freshly installed drywall and hung them from the cross-beams of the roof structure. Calling these elements “memory tablets,” she suggested that displaying the torn-down walls was a way of memorializing other spaces that have likewise been demolished. The neighborhood’s gentrification, and the gallery’s role in that process, was the elephant in the room; an accompanying sound installation, Dolapdere (2016), arranged the names of dozens of local shops potentially facing destruction in a mystical, mournful tune. For the more recent show, titled “I insist,” Erkmen repurposed the same sections of drywall, which spent the past half-decade in storage, by applying brightly colored paint to their surfaces. She then hung the gallery’s previously displaced, disfigured panels directly on its white walls like paintings. Having survived the experience of being torn from the original structure (luckily, there was no additional damage from being held in storage), they wore their wounds proudly, each carrying idiosyncratic flaws: crevices, torsions, and other disfigurements of their manufacture.
Erkmen’s variously sized panels featured a spectrum of tertiary colors picked from a paint catalogue, including Dix Blue, India Yellow, Manor House Gray, Pink Ground, Farrow’s Cream, Nancy’s Blush, and Churlish Green. The gallery assembled a painting crew to apply varnish to the panels’ corners, while white edges highlighted the fractures. Meanwhile, the show’s title crystallized the gesture of presenting a gallery’s walls as artworks, not once, but twice—the tongue-in-cheek insistence perhaps alluding to Istanbul’s construction craze.
“I insist” continued Erkmen’s modus operandi of introducing as little new material as possible in art spaces, and using what is available in a venue to make a statement about it; yet this time around, particularly compared to the more critical and skeletal Kıpraşım Ripple, the exhibition felt ornamental, its surface-oriented works much more decorative.
In Dirimart’s smaller gallery, a single panel, Studio Green, was presented adjacent to Scrolling (2021), a fourteen-minute, single-channel video that scrolls through the artist’s multifarious works, collapsing and simplifying her career into pixelated fragments. A nonchronological, non-thematic stream of consciousness, the video offers a meandering view of Erkmen’s practice, occasionally pausing on a work that may have taken years to realize before abruptly jumping to another. The somewhat self-aggrandizing video had a whiff of marketing ploy, as if intended to bolster the critical air of the nearby work by showing evidence of all Erkmen’s past accomplishments. Viewers could also connect this endless scroll to that of the phone screen, which offers limitless things to capture our attention without necessarily giving them meaning. In its best light, the video is a fleeting autobiographical document that compares the movement of our constantly screen-tapping fingers with Erkmen’s protean artistic practice. The decorative air of those wall panels, like so many pleasing Pantone swatches arranged in an Instagram carousel, found their echo in Scrolling, which likewise let viewers feel they had consumed or understood something without needing to do much.