Aslı Sungu in conversation with Angelika Stepken, 2008
I started studying painting in 1993 at the academy in Istanbul. It was a very strict and difficult program. There was only canvas and paint; everything else was forbidden.
Did you know what would be awaiting you when you started studying painting? Did you know what it would mean to be an artist?
I wanted to be a painter by all means; at first I could not think of anything else. Initially I enjoyed this classical program. But later I felt there was something missing. It was only about form. I took a year off, and in this period I met Ayse Erkmen. Thanks to her, I started thinking about what it really meant to be an artist and about going to Berlin. My parents thought I should get a degree in Turkey first. Then they would support my Berlin plans. So I took the exam and barely passed.
Barely because you did not meet the expectations?
I was supposed to paint portraits and copies for the exam. I made a copy of a Gerhard Richter painting and blurred large self-portraits. The professors there found them pretty bad. They thought contemporary art was a fashion that would come and go, and then proper painting would return.
Back then is only ten years ago. The Istanbul art scene has changed enormously since then. What are things like today at the academies?
At my academy, in the painting classes, things are exactly the same as they were back then. There are still reproductions of Expressionist paintings hanging on the walls, and art history ends once Marcel Duchamp is mentioned. In other departments, for example graphic design, the course of study is very interesting.
Did you follow the first “Istanbul Biennials” at the end of the 1980s?
I first became interested in the Biennial in 1995 when it was curated by René Block. For example, Ben Patternson came and we participated in his Fluxus performance.
In the video “Ganz die Mutter/Ganz der Vater (Just Like Mother/Just Like Father)” from 2006, I asked my parents what their idea of their daughter was and asked them to dress me up accordingly. I simply wanted to see what idea of their daughter they have in their heads and who I am. Sometimes I am curious about others’ expectations, as well as my own expectations.
What do you mean exactly?
For example, when I made the work with the shirt (Steckengeblieben [Stuck], 2003), my idea was to choose an activity that would be very difficult for me to carry out without a third, helping hand. So I had a shirt made with buttons sewn onto the back. I knew it would be impossible for me to unbutton it alone, but I wanted to see myself in this situation. It was one of those ideas that come to me and stay with me, that I then occupy myself with and work with. They usually concern disappointing experiences: not being successful or being full of flaws.
But you show this with a certain amount of comedy, which sometimes has slapstick qualities, because the spectator can see what is coming…
You always see an excerpt of something that perhaps had a beginning and that should have had an end. But the woman in the blouse, for instance, cannot go forward or backward. You think she is putting on the shirt to get dressed up before going out. But she cannot leave, she cannot button up the blouse by herself. She remains stuck in this moment. In the kitchen work (Pfhh!, 2002), with the objects that continually fall down from the shelf, I had similar thoughts: These objects know where they belong, but they cannot stay there, they slip away. But they are stubborn; they want to stay on the wall though they know that is not possible.
This excerpt-like quality also means that you are not concerned with reproaches or pinning blame. The film ends and nothing has changed.
True. When I made the parallel films showing my parents, it was an interesting experience. The camera played the role of society for my parents, as though thousands of others were with us in the room. We were not alone with the camera.
But you had the professional advantage?
For me, it was okay. When I as an artistic work in front of the camera, I do not feel naked. My mother wanted to dress me up in front of the camera like a little girl, because she thought she and the others would find me pretty. My father had other ideas, he wanted me to look more like a businesswoman. Of course I was aware of these ideas; there were discussions about them. But I wanted to actually see them and do it. I am a grown-up woman; presenting myself to my mother and having her dress me up again was an interesting experience for me.
But the film also dealt with power structures between parents and daughter, with gender-specific attributions and the power of directing. You all acted authentically yet at the same time for the camera.
In retrospect I noticed that at first my parents always say what I should wear. At some point I start asking a lot of questions: Is this good and attractive? Is this okay? What do you think? The balance between us changes. At the end, I am in the position of a child again.
That reminds me of the dynamic in your new four-part film (“Faulty”, 2008). For example, a dental assistant watches you while you are brushing your teeth, criticizes you, and at some point you start asking questions very anxiously…
Yes, it starts normally, I brush my teeth. I get anxious because of the strong criticism. Either I wait for instructions or I ask what I should do.
These are subtle transitions to subjugation?
No, I do not see it as being that extreme. I asked these professionals to be in the film, invited them to come to my home.
Your films repeatedly have sad, longing undertones. This is the case with “Missing”, where you project text from your mother’s calls on your answering machine in Berlin on the wall.
That was my contribution to the Istanbul exhibition in the Martin Gropius museum in 2006. I thought about what connected me to Istanbul, and realized that it was my mother’s phone calls. And that made me feel guilty at first…
Because you made a work out of family intimacy?
No, I do not feel guilty about that. I feel comfortable working with that; I need it. What disturbed me was the content of the messages: the worries and longings of my mother on my account. I collected her messages for a whole year, but not for work. I did not know what I should do with them, yet I could not erase them. Then I brought them to life. In Missing, you hear the answering machine and my mother’s messages in Turkish, and you see the sentences appear on the wall in German and then fade out, as though the wall is inhaling and exhaling.
Home is a major theme in your works. It is predominantly positive. Even when you spent a month in Beirut in 2005, you made a film about houses and shot another in shops.
I find my themes and ideas in everyday life, in everyday objects and activities, and they stick with me. In Beirut, I was curious and surprised. During the day I saw a lot of abandoned buildings that looked like they would collapse with the slightest contact. But in the evening you saw light in them and nicely furnished apartments with flowers and books. Most of them were small, two-story buildings from the French colonial period. The Lebanese government wanted to tear them down, but most of the residents refused to leave their apartments after the war. I rang the doorbells of two apartments and talked with the residents.
Because you were moved by their resistance? By the fact that they did not give up?
Yes, they told me they stayed in their apartments although the city was divided into Muslim, Christian, and Armenian sectors after the war. They did not organize a big protest; they simply continue to live there together. They are practicing something like defiance or stubbornness.
Did you have specific ideas for projects when you went to Beirut?
I had read a lot about the city and the Middle East. But I got the ideas when I was there. I could not implement one of them because of the military situation. In the second video, I looked for and filmed little religious images in stores. I went into the stores and knew there would be something: with the Muslims usually a page of the Koran and a prayer, with the Christians a Jesus figure. The images are small. The products are the same in Muslim and Christian shops, but when the camera looks for these small images, it suddenly seems as though an apple or jewelry has religious significance.
Let us return to your move from Istanbul to Berlin. You came to Berlin because of your studies?
Yes, because of art and my art studies. In Berlin, I had my own apartment for the first time. I learned German for a year and wondered whether I could make works of art. I did not consider anything I had done until then to be a work of art.
When did you first use a video camera?
In 2002. Everything I had done till then always had to do with walls. At that time I had a new apartment with plaster walls. Everything I hung on them fell down. I saw these things fall and wanted to film them as they were falling. That is how it began. There was an idea and the idea required this implementation. The works are what happened during the filming. There is no post-production in my work; I cannot even think that way.
When you started using a video camera you didn not give up painting…
No. I knew that I could not keep painting the way I had learned in art school. There were reasons I could not paint and I worked against them.
Can you give an example?
Painting seemed to me to be an illusion — colours come together and show something that does not exist in that way, something representative. Then I made this floor painting on the wall (Mein Zimmer [My Room], 2000). I painted the parquet floor of my first Berlin apartment, very simply, by moving the brush back and forth, the way anyone could if they felt like it.
Does your relationship to painting have something to do with a non-Christian pictorial tradition?
I have always been interested in the history of painting, not in Christian or non-Christian pictorial traditions. Before I started studying in Berlin, I read a great deal by and about Daniel Buren, Sol LeWitt, and Bruce Nauman, who also started with painting. Then with Make Up (2002) I tried to show the wall alone, only embellishing and covering its rough areas with painterly make-up. That is more or less the case in Ganz die Mutter/Ganz der Vater: I tried to clad and embellish the wall, to correct it, just as I had asked my parents to embellish me so that I would look better in their eyes.
Meaning that such an embellishment refers to a three-dimensional, corporeal reality, and is not something that is hung up. Yet you work with pictorial ideas…
Yes, and how I can do things differently.
…so that the image does not distract from the body or seem manipulative?
The reality of a painting should not distract from the wall. Wall and colour can be combined and presented together.
Then the ground and motif become one, as in your new work Sticky. Wall paint becomes painted wall. But you choose the color, the format, the way the wall is built.
The wall section is as big as the wall between the two windows in my Berlin apartment, about 130 by 300 centimeters. Incidentally, my studio here in Florence is the same height.
So your room plays a role here too?
Yes, and the color shade comes from an old orange wall at Humboldt University. It was right outside my window; it was the only view from my old apartment. This wall changed colour depending on the daylight, as though it was changing clothes. In the mornings and evenings it was an almost unreal orange. Before making the parquet floor painting, I painted light switches and sockets on eight to eight centimeter small hardboard panels and attached them to the wall as though they could be real switches and sockets. I thought, if I paint something, then it should be things that belong on the wall.
Light and its imaginative and deceptive power also play an important role in your short video “Als Ob” (“As Though”, 2003).
Yes, I saw a projection on the windowpane in the dark, as though the spherical lamp really wanted to be a full moon but could not manage it. When the lamp goes out, then the full moon in the window disappears. In the video you see the lamp for 40 seconds before the light goes out. But the deception is apparent the entire time: you clearly see the cord of the lamp.
Do you think that your work on the image in painting can become exhausted?
I am not really sure. I will continue as long as I do not repeat myself.
This interview was first published in the exhibition catalogue Freisteller, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin. (c) The authors and Deutsche Bank. Frankfurt/Main 2009.