Turkish artist Azade Köker explores the relationship between man and nature.
Hybridity is central to Azade Köker’s work, whether it is material, cultural, social, political, natural or other. Multilayered references and elements populate her work, from photographic collages and mixed media to evocative installations.
Istanbul’s Elgiz Museum is holding a major solo exhibition of works by Turkish artist Azade Köker entitled “Enkettet—Dissolution”, running until 7 January 2016. Pivotal to the show’s concept is the relationship between man and nature, and the destructive force that humankind exerts upon the latter. As the Museum writes in the exhibition press release, the artist “explores the resistance that nature shows towards its destruction and urbanisation”. Köker addresses a variety of socio-political issues of our times through an ensemble of mixed media, photography and collage, and installation works.
As quoted in the press release, Köker explains the exhibition concept thus:
The links of the big chain that connect one process to another sometimes come undone, fall to the ground and pile up there, thoughts lose their flow, the connections between time and space may rupture, all of this may signify an end. But perhaps this end is an end to a routine, to an addiction of a rote. The flow and continuity of every good thing and all the thraldom and negativity of dependency is as strong as the links of the chain that carries them. The chain of life and the chain of thraldom. The exhibition “Dissolution” promotes the questioning of these two opposite formations.
An art of hybridity
As art critic Ahmet Ergenç notes in his catalogue essay “The Politics of Hybridism and Azade Köker”, hybridity is “the key element” in Köker’s art. He says that an acceptance of ‘hybridity’ also implies the acceptance of the idea that culture and identity are multi-layered.
Azade Köker was born in Turkey and trained in the Sadi Diren Atelier at Istanbul Fine Arts Academy Ceramics Department between 1967 and 1971, before moving to Germany in 1972, where she studied ceramics and industrial design at the Berlin Fine Arts Academy (1975-1976) and worked in sculpture with Lothar Fischer between 1976 and 1979. Since 1978, Köker has been based in Berlin.
Understanding her geographical movements is one way to see how the artist has been confronting the notion of hybridity in her work. Moreover, Köker’s treatment of ‘identity politics’ and ‘hybrid’ identities, which are historically central to Turkey’s cultural and social make-up, can be strictly related to the country’s policies on diversity. As Ergenç notes in his essay, in Turkey “’different identities are forbidden from blossoming’ or as Yaşar Kemal put it, forbidden from becoming ‘a garden of cultures with thousands of flowers’”.
Köker’s exploration of hybridity has also moved from a man-centric one to a macro perspective incorporating the culture-nature hybridity in her more recent work, such as Bodrum Rubbish 2, in which a triple layer of people, nature and city come together. But while the three elements are clearly present, they all are hybridised – crowds of people blurring into the rubble of a city engulfed by nature. The work is like a testimony to the demise of man’s progress in the face of nature’s force. A similar effect is achieved in Tank and Forest, where a tank in a forest draw attention to the dichotomy between nature and industry, serenity and war, calm and destruction. Two opposites which do not normally appear together – a tank and a forest – make each other more visible and stimulate new perspectives.
Burcu Pelvanoğlu, Associate Professor at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, quotes Köker’s thoughts on hybridity in his catalogue essay “Azade Köker: The Tension between Culture and Nature”:
There are two types of hybridity: the first is the hybridity that form our character as we internalize the millions of pieces of data that the world offers; the second is the political hybridity that is imposed. Some media and political groups utilize images of supposedly hybrid and free situations.
Pelvanoğlu notes that the two types of hybridity correspond to the notions of multicultural and multiculturalism, where the first is the natural coexistence of different cultures, while the latter is the imposed form of the first and thrives on highlighting the differences. According to this observation,
The themes and concepts of women, anti-militarism, patriarchal discourse, permanence – temporariness, deconstruction, disappearance of boundaries that Köker dealt with in her artistic practice take a position against both imposed hybridity and multiculturalism.
Hybridity in Köker’s practice also takes the form of a material one, through which the artist combines and juxtaposes a variety of media in the same artwork. A clear example can be seen in Fugue, a mixed media work that uses photographic collage and video on canvas.
Tension between culture and nature
In her latest works at the Elgiz Museum, Köker has been focusing on the relationship between man and nature, and particularly on nature’s resistance against man’s cruelty and destructive force. Made of paper, Entkettet (‘Dissolution’) resembles a real, giant, rusty chain from a ship, hanging from the ceiling. The work references the dependence of man on urban life – here represented by the pairing of the ideas of ship and sea – rendered fictitious and ephemeral as the material (paper) of the chain itself.
The “dystopian feeling”, as Ergenç calls it, awakened by the chain is further embodied in another paper installation entitled Abandoned City. It is a diorama of huge, abandoned buildings rusting in decay, testimony to overly ambitious, failed engineering and urbanisation projects, which are now being reclaimed by nature.
It is perhaps Rhizom which best incorporates the hybrid relationship between man and nature explored by Köker. Resembling the root of a tree dangling from the gallery ceiling, the sculptural work takes its name from Deleuze’s idea of ‘rhizome’, a biological concept that the French philosopher used to represent unpredictable and sophisticated structures against organised systems. Rhizomes scatter around in nature in a disorganised structure, and they could be a model for breaking human societies’ hierarchy and rigid organisation. While the growing roots of the tree remind of human society’s relentless spread and desire to control, they also reflect the spontaneity, versatility and fluidity of nature.
Nothing is what it seems to be
Art editor and writer Abigail Esman writes in her catalogue essay on the exhibition that in Azade Köker’s work “nothing is what it seems to be”. She continues:
[…] space is unusually complex, rich in layers both of form and meaning, actual and metaphorical, in works that challenge their viewers, forcing them to question what they see, what they believe, what they know, and even the contexts of their own lives.
Referring to the artist’s photographic work, Esman explains how Köker builds up “her pictorial space both through image and through form” as well as “waves of metaphor and meaning”. An ominous presence recurs in her images: a skull that is “not about death, but rather a symbol that embraces concepts of time (and mortality), of timelessness (and life itself), and, so, the eternity of art”.
Köker mentions Dutch Master “Vanitas” paintings as an important influence on her work and her use of skulls. Esman quotes her as saying:
Two things remain of the human after death. The skeleton, and the idea.
The skeleton images are visible and invisible at the same time, they hide, appear and reappear as different things, creating illusions of faces like in Justice Palace (2014), of cities such as in Beirut (2014), and of forests in Landscape of Silence (2010).
New media art specialist curator and critic Nat Muller writes in his catalogue essay “Azade Köker: Between Representation and Reluctant Forms”:
The urban environment, and memory, history and narrative play such an important role in Köker’s oeuvre. She infuses her works with anthropomorphic qualities making these cities, and the objects therein, seem at times like rapacious monsters, at times like caring mothers. Her practice is punctured by the uneasy tensions between construction and decay, order and disorder, the ephemeral and the eternal.
This sense of illusion as well as decay is present in Köker’s sculptural works that address social gender pressure in a male-dominated society, such as in Wedding Dress, a traditional symbol of joy and personal achievement, of love and nurturing, now lying on the floor solitary, akin to a rotting corpse in a coffin. The beauty and happiness associated to such an item now only point to a distant, forgotten memory and serves as a reminder of violence – of man on women.
Another illusory installation hangs from the ceiling, resembling pieces of meat hanging from hooks at an abattoir. In Orthopädische Zustände 2 figures hang from the ceiling by bandages and clips. The scene both reminds one of survival and the consequences and aftermath of violence.
Illusion, says Esman, is at the basis of Köker’s oeuvre. Her photographic collages as well as her paper sculptures are illusions of a reality that is true and yet also fabricated. Esman concludes:
This, maybe, more than anything, defines the essence of Köker’s art: nothing is what it seems to be. […] And so the artist becomes the ultimate creator, the forger of a new reality that is both tangible in the (art) object and forever beyond touch, captured in her vision, the ideal held only in her imagination: “they appear ‘real’ but they are not real: they embody only my impression of things.” In sharing these impressions, Azade Köker generously invites us into her reality; but more, she invites us to question the impressions we, too, carry, to challenge and reconsider what we see – or think we see – surrounding us – and so, perhaps, to recreate our own.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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