Yonca Keremoğlu in conversation with conceptual artist Serkan Özkaya (b. 1973, Istanbul, Turkey). Özkaya's work deals with topics of appropriation and reproduction, and typically operates outside of traditional art spaces. The artist lives in New York City, USA.
"Ideas, like butterflies, do not merely exist; they develop, they enter into relations with other ideas and they have effects."
~ Paul Feyerabend, Three Dialogues on Knowledge
When we think back to devotions to Antiquity in the Renaissance, at that time new works and techniques emerged through fresh examinations, calculations and imitations of old Roman and Greek texts, and evolved through processes of building from and on the past. Considering it as an ongoing process, Michelangelo’s David is now a concrete symbol; is your ‘David’ a new reproduction of the same propositions made by Michelangelo? What kind of query did you aim to reveal?
To me, I'm trying to query several layers. One of them, I thought, based off the education of art since junior high school, was that they taught us that “there is such thing as Western Art, and such and such are the specified masterpieces.” For example, David is one of them. 'David' is the highest point in the art of sculpture. It is one of the most iconic artworks in our knowledge which we accept as if beauty and aesthetics emerge from it, without any judgment. Just like we accept the sun, sea, mountains and trees without questioning, some icons of Western art have become part of an institutionalized knowledge beyond the artwork itself. Therefore, we're looking at a lot of artworks as cultural assets rather than as works of art, like looking at a sunset. I wanted to re-judge David in an area of deconstruction like I have re-judged Mona Lisa by turning it upside down in 'Mona Lisa Upside Down.'
In 'David,' the interesting point that is created by the sculpture was the feeling and experience of the people who see it when I put it in a place surrounded by mosques in Istanbul, standing upright in the middle of the streets, and was neither coherent with the architectural nor the social structures of İstanbul. Another good and meaningful point was the unawareness and ignorance of the people, not recalling it as a copy of Michelangelo's famous sculpture but as a statue of a naked boy. Still in Istanbul, a lot of people who saw this said, "Oh, you did this, it is beautiful," as if I am the founder of the form... I have generated this deconstruction without any calculation in other ways. For example, in the Istanbul Biennale the sculpture broke accidentally and spontaneously became sensational, which was not my plan.
Later I did not want to leave it broken and it was repaired. In New York, with a similar deconstruction, this time I put it horizontally to the ground like a rover among the people. There were a combination of different factors, such as David being in a larger size than the original, covered in gold painting, being hand-made and in the context that is fitted, was Photoshop in itself. My main motivation was to bring two different things together that would not normally overlap with each other.
My reason for choosing Michelangelo's David is that David is considered to be the masterpiece of sculpture. So I did not judge it, not as a fan as but as someone who has learned it like a good student. In this context, I think it is different from Antiquity and the Renaissance as it is closer to inquiring accepted masterpieces. On the other hand, I've never seen Michelangelo's David. I recall it from the computer and books, and actually there is a selfish factor in this as I did it [the work] to see it for myself.
Serkan Özkaya, David (inspired by Michelangelo), 2012, Lightbox 77.5 x 52.5 cm.
Michelangelo's David is the concrete representation of the city he preserves, with the weight of the explosive potential energy and frustration in his eyes and the strong hands with veins symbolizing the city of Florence. As this is a city different from your own, how do you approach to the concept of representation?
There are different approaches to this. For some David is Michelangelo's lover and assistant, a child, and for others David, with a sling in his hands, is made to preserve a religious point of view. Further still, some see him as an opposition against the government, a protest against the Vatican in Rome with a political stance. David's story is also interesting, but as I said, these are my things I did not calculate in advance. What was tampered with was the art history book idea of “the most important painting is Mona Lisa, the most important sculpture is David." If another masterpiece were accepted like that, I would reproduce that one as well.
The experimental works of ‘Steven Toole’ are very ironic in your exhibition 'Today Was Really Yesterday,' which took place in February 2014 at Galerist. How did ‘Steven Toole’ come about?
At first, in 1997, Toole sent a telegram to the Philadelphia Museum stating "My friend is coming to do a small stool." I invented the character of ‘Steven Toole.’ The funny side is that including the works 'Museum Watch' and 'Overall photo Guggenheim' none of the works are actually displayed and there is really no difference between whether they actually exist or not. For example in 'TRT photo,' Toole displayed Bush's devilish image on TRT channel’s news, but the timing of the display made people too oblivious to notice who they were watching and see that it was Bush’s visual image. Sometimes I think I made Steven Toole do my not-so-bright ideas or the ideas that I can’t dare myself to do. In such a way, all the works by Toole are there but not there If you think about whether it is real or not, fantasy or not, you can consider it as both real and fantasy.
Serkan Özkaya, Steven Toole The Art Lover, 1997-2013, mixed media. Photo courtesy the artist and Galerist.
In the exhibition, is 'Levitation by Defecation' some kind of criticism of the art world?
I do not think so; it totally appears more in form to me. I like to put two different images on top of each other, such as putting a worthless thing like a stool underneath an object of innocence such as a doll. It is not necessarily a metaphor of an art scene but it is suitable as a metaphor, both of a political environment or an art environment. My point is to turn a futile thing such as a stool into something grander with the union of contrasts, like a baby’s innocence on top of the soiled object. I do not have the exact metaphor for something in my mind to name it.
Serkan Özkaya, Debaters, 2014, mixed media. Exhibition View 'Today Was Really Yesterday' with the artist at Galerist 2014. Photo: Yonca Keremoglu.
In talking about the concept of ‘value,' Pop Art has altered the ‘ordinary’ or ‘banal’ objects, which we may define as worthless, into valuable art forms through various methods, such as replication, scaling, installation and imitation. Your suggestion of David seems parallel to this approach, reproducing an icon in Western art but re-sizing and displaying it publically for the element of surprise. In this sense, might one say that by changing an object that is considered ‘valuable’ and making it ‘worthless’ actually re-values it?
David’s story was already valuable and could not only be narrowed to Michelangelo's genius. As such, the actual making of the sculpture was technologically interesting to me; I guess you can call it the largest three-dimensional printing. In my early years, I made sculptures by hand but eventually also did so through three-dimensional printing, which is technically the same. And yet, the point is not making it like a sculpture, but making layers through the computer and stowing them. We could not predict how it would turn out when the layers were put on top of each other... Computer printouts are made by cutting the islets. Many factors such as resizing, using the technology etc., and other values stepped in. When you look at the result, it is both the work of American research and technology and Italian craftsmanship. Further to this, there were situations during the Istanbul Biennial where it broke so that it was smashed to smithereens, turned into trash, thrown away crumpled, and then recovered again; it thus gained a new sense of value. I also like this journey of recovery. The dynamic and tension between what is trash and what is valuable is always present in the work’s journey and in life.
When the work is finished or on display, is it still in a process? Can you say that David's journey is over?
It is considered finished, but the other day I offered the museum that took David to put one more next to it. The idea for this came from my exhibition 'One and Three Pasta' at Galerist. A mathematician friend of mine and I made these mathematical equations for 92 types of pasta, with computer models and three-dimensional outputs. On each of the 92 shelves, there was the real pasta from the pack, its mathematical equations and the three-dimensional artificial pasta that we produced from the computer. These binary models offered a different experience to people. In contrast to the people’s faith of being unique, of being one in the sense of “I am one, my body is one, my perspective is one looking outside from this body," seeing the same two units side by side left a strange feeling. In fact, they were not the same and the space they occupied was not the same. They were separate objects occupying different spaces despite looking exactly the same, which reminded me little of the idea of parallel universes. It also feels strange to people when the object is large in size and ‘artsy’. So, as a result I suggested something similar for David but the idea did not got accepted. It is a big project that takes time.
Q: Do you intend to do a new project / installation in Istanbul or elsewhere?
I recently made 'Mirage,' where in an empty gallery, a shadow of an airplane goes through every four minutes. I want to do more projects in the public domain, but I'm trying to enter the public sphere in different ways, such as newspapers or vitrines. For example, the newspaper project ‘Today Could Be a Day of Historical Importance’ (2003), with Özkaya’s drawing of two pages of the Turkish daily Radikal) has been printed and distributed and in a way, that seems to be an intervention in the public domain. I'm looking for investigating different ways, and Steven Toole is in this sense compatible with this idea.
Serkan Özkaya, Mirage, 2013, video installation. Exhibition View at Postmasters Gallery, New York, 2013. Photo courtesy the artist
Does reproduction also apply in literature? Can the reproduction of a work of literature create a new context? How do you compare reproduction in literature and plastic arts?
There is a difference in literature. Something performative occurs in contrast to the plastic arts. For example, rewriting Don Quixote or Ulysses, the literal act, seems boring compared to reproducing a work of art. It is easier to see and analyse a work of art. Reading a book like Ulysses is an adventure on its own, something that you cannot share. You would not want to read someone else’s Ulysses. I have myself copied Ahmet Karcılılar’s 'Photo Series' that was exhibited at Borusan as in the newspaper project. I made 500 copies by hand, which were exhibited at a gallery next to the Robinson Crusoe bookstore. You could get the book for free from the gallery whereas you could also buy it with money from the bookstore next to the gallery. In fact, the one you took from the gallery was also considered a work of art. I can’t quite imagine what happens when the adventure of reading is involved, but it is not like sculpture or painting.
On the other hand, a work of literature, a book, is very convenient to copy, as it is a replica of the original anyway. When reading it, you know that you are not the only one who is reading it, experiencing that adventure. However, in the plastic arts, a work of art is often unique and single, and thus it is a more interesting comparison to see its copy standing next to it. I wish that what we called art could be copied like music and literature. We could relate to each other easier if we could see them like downloading music from the internet or looking for images. You could simultaneously experience it with hundreds of people where there is no such thing as the original, and the original copy of that painting is nowhere but everywhere, stored as information somewhere.
The Mona Lisa was stolen by an attendant of the Louvre Museum and then put back later. This act of disappearance and return added a new value to the work and led to your own attempts in asking the Louvre administrators to put the Mona Lisa upside down, or suggesting to an institution to put a dollar sign in front of a Mondrian painting. Without the need for approval or positive responses from the museums, do you continue to contact with museums or corporate institutions with similar requests?
A few years ago, I sent an e-mail to the United Nations to organise a happy hour all over the world, to occur at the same time so that we may feel like brothers and sisters, selling drinks at ninety percent discount. In addition to this I am planning to write to the Municipality of Paris to put an Eiffel Tower hologram next to the Eiffel Tower. In these attempts, an individual’s encounter with the institutions seems interesting to me in seeing how the singularity and smallness of an individual may show an impotence of power and how it can turn into an agility that can overthrow the structured power of an institution. The lower you get, the smaller and upside-down that giant structure gets. Even if it does not get overthrown, to conceive of that possibility in our minds can be satisfactory in itself.
Which artists do you find inspiring in Turkey and abroad?
In Turkey, I find Can Altay and Asli Cavusoglu’s works very inspiring. Outside of Turkey, I am a huge admirer of artists such as Janet Cardiff, Tom Friedman and their interesting works.
In 'Mirage' and in many works of yours, a reflection and a shadow of an object forms a work of art it itself without the need for that object. How did you establish this idea and 'Mirage'?
'Mirage' was the shadow of an airplane, which passes over us and is created with light. The first exhibition of 'Mirage' was in New York and was important to me, considering the events of September 11. The venue was illuminated with lights and we mapped the space in three-dimensions. Normally, when you watch the video there was a freaky image. However, through the projected angels in the venue, the ratios of the surfaces and their distance from the projector lenses created an illusion throughtheir mapping and overlapping. Normally white light projection would be used, which creates the feeling of entering a dimly lit gallery. It is technically quite complicated. Thus far, 'Mirage' has only been exhibited in New York. It will be on display at Borusan in November 2014 and also in a museum in Cincinnati. However, I have some reservations about exhibiting it again due to its technical complications.