Patterns of Identity

Baklava is the name for both a traditional Turkish dessert pastry and the diamond pattern often used in rugs woven in Anatolia. Comprising layers of phyllo dough laden with chopped nuts and soaked in a honey syrup, the sweet, addictive, diamond-shaped delicacy is a favorite among tourists in Turkey, and so is the baklava-patterned Turkish rug, or kilim. Since arriving in the region in the eleventh century, Turks have woven carpets using geometric and stylized natural patterns; common among them are tulips, hyacinths, twisting branches, birds, gazelles, and diamonds. The oldest surviving rugs date from the thirteenth century. Eda Sütunç, a performance artist with an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD in communications from Kadir Has University in Istanbul, has recently explored baklava’s double role in food and weaving.

In 2018, Sütunç presented Weightless Burden, a nine-hour performance for the whole of which she lay on the floor with a suitcase on her back, indoors at Istanbul’s KüçükÇiftlik Park. The valise contained an electronic tablet screening a looped video of falling rocks. This endurance piece evoked the unrecognized burdens of female emotional labor, leading the artist to identify with traditional rug weavers, all of whom are women. Around the same time, Sütunç happened to read “The Future Looms,” Sadie Plant’s 1995 essay on looms and cybernetics. The British theorist’s account of looms as a catalyst for the invention of computers spurred Sütunç to examine weaving’s potential for liberating female agency in the digital age. Her investigation has involved videos, sculptures, and machine learning, all represented in her solo show at Sanatorium.

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For Baklava (2017–20), Sütunç placed 126 pastries in individual resin boxes, and assembled them with metal rings in a grid. Mounted on four suspended rods, the structure resembles a draped kilim. When the motorized rods are activated, the sculpture undulates like a flying carpet. A trope used in folklore—and in literature, at least since the medieval collection One Thousand and One Nights—the magic carpet transports passengers to distant lands “in the twinkling of an eye.” Playing on the dialectic between freedom and confinement, Sütunç’s mechanized carpet simulates a wavy sailing-through-the-air movement, while also displaying the decomposition of the pastries in their boxes.

Eda Sütunç, Genderless Nipples, 2020, light box, concrete, duratrans prints, 92 ½ by 87 ¾ by ¾ inches; at Sanatorium.

Genderless Nipples (2020) features twenty-one light boxes placed on an aluminum rack in a pattern that melds two classic rug designs: “animal horn,” which represents power, and “hands on hips,” which symbolizes female fertility. The light boxes themselves each re-create the “burdock” motif: a plant symbolizing abundance and offering defense against the evil eye. Duratrans prints set inside these light boxes offer nipple images captured by an artificial intelligence engine that Sütunç fed with data from porn sites. The gender of the people who exposed these twenty-one nipples remains unspecified, recalling the @genderless_nipples Instagram initiative, which posts anonymous “nipple donations” daily. The goal, in both cases, is to subvert the centuries-long bias of censoring (and so eroticizing) only female nipples.

A similar suspicion of binaries pervades Artificial Tears (2020), a seven-minute video showing Sütunç’s struggle to cry “naturally.” In the first scene, she exposes her left eye to a hand-size plastic fan; next, she applies VapoRub beneath both eyes in front of a mirror; eventually, she finds that chopping onions does the trick. The Weeper (2020), a related sculptural installation, also probes the compulsion to produce what is expected of the female gender. Sütunç made a mold of her face using alginate plaster and resin casting, and set it at eye level on a metal stand. Attached to the life cast, a dual intravenous apparatus feeds water to the eyeholes. Just below, “teardrops” fall on a stainless steel tray. The tray and the infusion bottles produce a clinical mood, while Sütunç’s ersatz face sheds cold tears. The piece, like the exhibition as a whole, challenges viewers to distinguish between the natural and the artificial, the sentimental and the scientific, the material and the immaterial.


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