Özlem Özdemir in conversation with Istanbul based South African artist Diana Page (b. 1965). Page’s artistic practice deals with an interconnected complex creative process of drawing, thought and painting which can only be separated from each other by the perception of the viewer.
Diana Page’s exhibition ‘FLOW: Sketchings, Drawings, Paintings’ was on view at BAUART Gallery Istanbul from 4 February until 29 March 2015.
Diana Page, it sounds very exotic – a South African artist, coming from Cape Town, living and working in Istanbul. What’s your own take about your position? Do you feel that your existence is somehow an exceptional one?
There were only a handful of South Africans when I arrived here with my family, and even now they tend to pass through the city quite quickly, whereas for me, Istanbul has become my adopted city. I like the fact that I live a pretty ordinary life in a Turkish neighbourhood. I love to walk the city, and enjoy my time spent on public transport. I arrived as an awe struck traveller, but eight years on, I live a much more settled existence, living close to my studio in Çayırbaşı. I spend a lot of time on my own in my studio but eventually you have to go outside, ride your bike and play with friends! So my time is divided between the solitude of my studio, and collaborating with other artists, designers and performers. I like to do things wherever I find myself. In 2012 I collaborated with ceramicist, Joicy Koothur, from India, in a two person exhibition entitled ‘Between Colour and Line.’ We also embarked on a series of workshops with young people, ostensibly teaching English through video art, but perhaps more importantly encouraging young people to think in a way that embraces ambiguity, chance and humour in a re-examination of their own lives.
Due to your artistic work you also have relations to London and New York and you love to travel. According to that, you developed the notion of “wa|ondering artist” in order to describe yourself. How did you come up with this linguistic creation? What does it mean for you to “wonder” and to “wander”?
It’s the artist’s job to notice and to think, and to ‘wonder’ and to pass on that capacity. In my work I realized that my life as a curious wanderer and observer in the city – informs all the work I do.
You once pointed out that Cape Town, the city where you come from, is a harbour city like Istanbul, which obviously should be a hint to the importance of the water and the sea and ships, all playing an important role in your oeuvre – and in your Istanbul-period. Can you tell us about these pervasive cross-border elements?
I suppose it’s about that sense of transience, people moving in and out the city all the time, over seas and centuries, and then my own sense perhaps of floating in between, not exactly part of this world I find myself in. Perhaps the ship paintings have also been a vehicle to explore what David Elkins refers to as the alchemical aspect of painting. Elkins asserts that paint is water and stone but it is also liquid thought. I am interested in the suggestive and the philosophical potential of painting.
What in essence has Istanbul as a particular urban situation contributed to your development as an artist?
Edward Said says the exile, including the expat, has a peculiar opportunity to cultivate a ruthless but not sulky subjectivity. He writes of a contrapuntal awareness that is peculiar to the exile: most people have one home, exiles have at least two and this affords them a particular kind of awareness. I think I have an opportunity as an observer to appreciate the city in a new way. I try and fathom something from the ordinary experience of a commuter or citizen.
Having lived here for seven years I have been aware of the accelerated change of the city landscape: as the focus fell most dramatically on Gezipark I watched the hillsides shaved in preparation for the third bridge. Perhaps idealistically, I still believe the images I make redeem something from the wholesale and thoughtless gentrification of the city.
And what do you think about Istanbul’s art scene?
Over the years I have attended many gallery shows and fairs here and elsewhere and it is interesting how painting prevails, although video, photography and project-orientated art seem to dominate. Painting is far from dead in Istanbul, in fact I think like elsewhere it is having a resurgence, but I think painting has to be somehow rehabilitated properly; it is often viewed as too traditional, something associated with a past vision. There is something eminently practical about painting, drawing, doing stuff where you get your hands dirty. In our slick, commercial, technological world it can remind us of our humanity, our bodies, and also the physicality and fragility of the earth. I like that about it.
You have worked in Cape Town for close on two decades and you had many exhibitions there too and of course you still have connections to your home country, but now, having lived and worked in Istanbul for nine years, I guess you have already reviewed your own development since your beginning as an artist, especially as a painter. What I’m curious about is the way you think your style has been influenced by this relocation and also by this regular commuting between different cultures.
I think it’s become an intrinsic aspect of the language of my work – this layering of meaning. While the paintings reference things in the visible world – because I like the tension created between recognizable visible detail and the fact of the paint – the images layer different experiences within time and space. In Greece, and of course here in Turkey, I discovered something about sacred space and geometry that continues to pervade my work, whether I’m painting the walls of Çayırbaşı or evoking a memory of Ephesus or Delphi. It’s this layering of time and space in a new kind of narrative that really interests me at the moment. Kapuscinski in ‘Travels with Herodotus’ quotes T.S.Eliott speaking about a provincialism in attitudes towards not only space, but also time. Living in this part of the world, I have become more aware of these other worlds, both geographic and temporal, that inform our world.
I’ve read that you had a lifelong fascination with the French painter Pierre Bonnard. Could you tell us something about what impresses you about Bonnard’s work and are there other influences you would like to mention?
Last year I came across two paintings during a visit to Prague: there is a kind of visual shock you get from his paintings – it’s in his visual language which utterly transforms the quotidian event of his subject matter. They are hugely entertaining, full of visual wit and agility. But many things influence me. I am inspired by Marlene Dumas, also originally from South Africa, I think she paints with bravery and intelligence. Her oeuvre is a real life work. She is courageous in the ideas that she tackles but also in the way she handles these ideas in paint. And she’s funny and humble too. But I am inspired by many things, including film. In 2008 while improvising the New York voice performance ‘Pitch Blue’, I caught Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel in conversation at the Tribeca Film Festival, talking about the making of Reed’s ‘Berlin’. I realized that the relationships that exist between the people in the making of film and directing performance can become key to the meaning. Julian Schnabel is a painter and filmmaker: in a visual sense the film works on quite an abstract level, incorporating Lola Schnabel’s scratched and drawn film, but it also focuses on the performer’s faces and beings in a very intimate way. I like this combination of abstraction and intimacy. I saw the same thing at work in the film ‘Le Quattro Volte’ (‘The Four Times’) by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino. All sorts of things have an impact on my work, not only things I see: exhibitions, novels, films, conversations.
Diana Page, Pitch Blue, 2008, voice performance in New York. Photo: Gary van Wyk
Having seen paintings of yours like ‘As the city wakes’ (2005) and ‘Jazz City III’ (2005) I was reminded of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, a Portuguese painter, who also travelled a lot during her childhood. In these paintings of yours urban space, with all its hidden structures, rhythms and perception of layers seems to be very important, as it was for da Silva as well. On the other hand one can discern quite a different period in your work, which suggests a Turner-like atmosphere in paintings like ‘Sea Change’ (2011) and ‘Trip’ (2012). Could you tell us something about these periods which are quite apparent?
These are not distinct periods in that they actually happen at the same time; rather, they are parallel activities and a way of working which allows me to work in quite different ways simultaneously. I usually work on about 5 or 6 different canvases at once. The ones which happen quickly are usually quite graphic and sometimes atmospheric, usually a transcription in the moment of a very specific feeling. I think I’ve reached a particular point in my life as an artist where I feel a tremendous freedom to do what I want. It’s no longer an issue whether I paint abstract or referential images, with thick or thin paint, very layered, worked images or quickly realized paintings. I have a confidence in my visual language and this, linked to an insatiable desire to make new discoveries, creates surprising compositions. Drawing continually refreshes my vocabulary. Some works finish themselves almost effortlessly while others become like palimpsests, several different paintings layered within one. Some works become almost completely abstract while others suggest, teasing the viewer with a subject that ultimately must elude him or her.
Like Da Silva I have always been interested in the layers in paintings and in the layers in cities: what emerges below the surface, what cannot be hidden and continues to give life to the surface. In Cape Town, I was drawn to these weathered, colourful, corner cafes, crossroads of conjoining histories and communities. A recent series like the charcoal drawings are almost like movie stills.
I know from my visits to your studio that you really are a prolific artist, not only in terms of your openness to so many different mediums, like oil, charcoal, ceramics, painting, sketching, performance and video, but also in terms of how much you produce.
Yes, it’s about balancing my time between solitary hours in my studio, and getting outside into the world. Recently I have been collaborating with artists working in performance, poetry and dance. I am pursuing a project bringing together voices as a way of animating the city from its rooftops. So far the performances, first initiated in Istanbul (‘Kadının Sesleri’ – ‘Women’s Voices’, 2007) which sought to bring women’s voices into the public sound space of the city, have also been completed in New York (‘Pitch Blue’ 2008) and for ‘Infecting the City’ public arts festival Cape Town (“Ek sê”, 2012). Ziya Azazi, contemporary dervish dancer from Antakya, Turkey, participated in the Cape Town performance. Key is the input of the participants in these encounters or conversations. Each performance, emerging completely anew with each new rooftop, is spun from the city itself. The rooftop is not unlike a painting, in the way in which its formal constraints create a discipline within which the performers are compelled to develop relationships, forge a new language in specific response to the rooftop and the surrounding city.
Sketching plays an important role in your working process. You have a fascinating collection of sketchbooks, in all possible sizes, which sparkle with energy, playfulness and zest for urban – life. What can you tell us about this working tool, which almost seems to be an art of its own in your oeuvre?
Yes! This is the aspect of my work that Jochen Proehl has chosen to focus on as the curator of my current exhibition at BAUART Gallery: FLOW: Sketchbooks Drawings Paintings. The exhibition includes a digital presentation of approximately 500 double sided pages from my sketchbooks. The sketchbooks are where I develop my language – it’s the playground and the laboratory of all my work. The exhibition also shows some works from my recent sketchbook, an ipad! In these the idea of process is taken even further as I have been able to record the passage of a drawing from its initial marks right through to completion. So these together with the sketchbook presentation really add to an understanding of the paintings and charcoal drawings.
Diana Page, digital presentation of a sketchbook at BAUART Gallery Istanbul, 2015. Photo: exhibist.
It’s always a delicate question to ask an artist about how she would ‘classify’ herself amidst the vast variance of styles and directions in the art-scene. But perhaps there is always a kind of subconscious pre-occupation with this question: ‘Where do I belong in terms of ‘art theory’ or even ‘art history’, or to which artistic movement or artist/s, whether from the past or the present, do I feel close.’
At the end of the day the art world is a fickle place and I think it is far more important to pit yourself against yourself, trust your intuition and judgment and keep courage in the pursuit of your vision. Having said that, one has to be curious about everything and see as much as one can, all the exhibitions and the fairs. As an artist you do need to have an awareness of what you are up against but there are also times you have to close your studio door. But yes as a painter I am crucially aware of being a part of a long line of painters stretching as far back as the first marks on a wall! I feel a real kinship with contemporary painters like Marlene Dumas, Peter Doig, Neo Rauch, Julie Mehretu, Leon Kossoff (a lesser known painter of London whose recent exhibition at Annely Juda completely blew me away!) These are painters who have gone the distance and for whom painting has become a way of living and liking and exclaiming the things of their own time. That’s why it’s exciting to have Mehmet Güleryüz having a major retrospective at İstanbul Modern at the moment. In Turkey I also like the paintings and ideas of Gülsün Karamustafa, Irfan Önürmen and Antonio Cosentino. I have always liked the conceptual work of Hale Tenger and I recently discovered the work of Handan Börüteçene and the videos of Ferhat Özgür and I am discovering more all the time.
Finally I would like to ask you about your current work and if there are any exhibitions or other projects you’re preparing for. What about future projects for your Istanbul-period? Are there any kind of dreams you would like to realize while you’re living here?
Recent images take as their starting point the Cayırbaşı neighbourhood and particularly the square, site of football matches, weddings and the daily passage of its inhabitants. Not unlike a painting or a rooftop, it is an arena for a conversation, a ritual or a happening. Cayırbaşı is a neighbourhood surely poised for change; it is a fragile history I am recording. In 2012 I came full circle, in Cape Town, completing the trilogy of performance pieces. I am currently editing the final videos of the trilogy. In the BAUART show I have been working closely with curator Jochen Proehl in putting together a presentation of the recent years of work. It is important to me to be able to link the various aspects of my work: the sketchbooks, drawings and paintings and also the recent series of ipad drawings. I think there is something filmic about the way that I work both out in the city and then back in the studio. I hope that this exhibition will share this process with the viewer. The exhibition is more about a process of working, the drawing, the layering and also a poetic distillation than it is about hanging some pretty paintings on the wall. I realize also that the performance and video work is as much about a way of being in the city, or indeed in the world, as it is about the finished product. I would really like to bring this aspect of all the work I do to the fore, and to do this I need to show the paintings together with the drawing books, film and performances. Like choosing the right rooftop for a performance, this is going to require finding a particular kind of space to present the work.