© Onur Gökmen und Fatma Belkıs, VG-Bildkunst Bonn, 2022, Foto: Kayhan Kaygusuz
Onur Gökmen, Belkıs Hanım and Onur Efendi, Installationsansicht, Ausstellungsort: SALT, Istanbul, 2021 ©
© Onur Gökmen, Foto: tinyBE, 2021, VG-Bildkunst Bonn, 2022, Foto: Wolfgang Günzel
Onur Gökmen, FIRST, Stampflehm, 2,4 × 4,5 × 3,5 m, Garten des Hessischen Landesmuseums Darmstadt, Teil der Ausstellung tinyBE #1, 2021 ©
© Onur Gökmen, VG-Bildkunst Bonn, 2022
Onur Gökmen, He leads the way, but all travel the same road, Videostill, 4k-Video, 2017, Ausstellungsort: Öktem Aykut, Istanbul ©
© Onur Gökmen, VG-Bildkunst Bonn, 2022
Onur Gökmen, Sweat and diarrhea V 2.0, Videostill, 3.2k-Video, Ausstellungsort: Atonal Berlin, 2018/19 ©
© Onur Gökmen
Onur Gökmen, Habitation, welded pots, metal, 2015 ©

scholarship holder onur gökmen

Born in Ankara in 1985 and currently resident of the Hessische Kulturstiftung in the foundation’s studio in New York, Onur Gökmen normally moves between Istanbul and Berlin in pursuit of his artistic practice, which mixes varied methods and forms, including sculpture, photography, video, installation and performance. Onur’s works have demonstrated a fascination with and often troubles the authority of historical precedence, and have often examined archaeological structures and related ideologies. His work has been exhibited at numerous institutions internationally, including SALT, Istanbul; tinyBE #1, Darmstadt; MMK, Frankfurt; MoMA PS1, NY; Asia Culture Center, Gwangju; BAHAR, 13th Sharjah Biennial; Delfina Foundation, London, and DEPO, Istanbul. In 2011, Onur was awarded the Akbank/RHMD Contemporary Artists Prize in Istanbul.

Onur’s residency in New York this year marks a return to the United States, following completion of his MFA in Sculpture at Bard College (he also simultaneously completed studies at Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main). In this interview with Andil Gosine, Professor of Environmental Arts and Justice at York University in Toronto, and author of Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex and Law in the Caribbean (Duke University Press), Onur reflects on late-pandemic existence in the city, and shares insights into his most recent and current projects–including one in which he is recreating new portraits of his friends – and perhaps, himself – from afar.

Dr. Andil GosineHow are you settling into New York? You’ve lived in the US before, as an MFA student. How is this return, in this social context different this time, post-pandemic, and as a resident, not a student?

Onur Gökmen For me, the current economic situation is the main difference. Although I am based in Germany, the Turkish lira has declined 6-fold since I was here in 2015. It is much harder to imagine a friend from Istanbul visiting me, making this place more island-like, isolating, in a way. Also post-pandemic, the city is more expensive, and the issue of making enough money is more grueling. Still, most of the art market is US-based; I could see that more clearly from here.

Gosine You have previously registered your frustrations with the economics of the art market in 2019, in your piece Main, Bosphorized.In this homage to Füsun Onur, who tossed her sculptures outside her studio, you threw your sculptures into the Main river in Frankfurt.

Gökmen I really like Füsun Onur’s work and I still think she is undervalued. She came to the United States in the sixties and then right away returned to Istanbul. In the 70s and 80s, she was doing a lot of work, but there was no market for it. She threw her sculptures out because she could not afford the space to store them. Her story really resonated with me. Being Turkish in Germany, I have had the feeling that the issue of identity becomes more centered in the creative process; a white artist can do what they wanted, but I had to examine myself, or at least frame that I am coming from Turkey. Throwing my work in the river was a symbolic gesture. The five pieces were collaborations with friends, with the intention of disposal of the work. We were responding, in a somewhat humorous way, to the realities of the art market, of having to think about having to store work that won’t sell… It was this kind of reverse thinking, to start with the question, “how do I store this work that won’t sell?” I don’t know how the art market has changed since Füsun Onur’s act of discardment.

Gosine In nearly all of your work, your curiosity about historical antecedents to the present comes across very strongly, especially in relationship to politics, architecture and the environment. Why has this been your trajectory?

Gökmen The topic of architecture rather appeared haphazardly in my work. I guess it was more of a desire to process the unconscious at the time. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with someone and she suggested candidly that I looked and talked rather “like a German.” Her suggestion was I adopt “a more Turkish demeanor,” whatever that means. Ankara was supposed to be a modern pinnacle of Turkish modernism as the new republic’s capital. In its design, lots of German and Austrian architects were involved. I grew up in the vicinity of Middle East Technical University in Ankara, where my parents were professors. It was brutalist architecture. Somehow their university is more an American project, as an extension of Marshall Plan, in a country which was the cold war frontier. In its early development, Turkey received considerable financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Central Treaty Organization. So even in this anecdote, I find it hard to separate the personal from the politics, architecture, and the environment. After all, I am in a way shaped by the architecture, the architecture is shaped by ideology. Also, I find architecture interesting because it stays around longer than other human artifacts.

Gosine You began to incorporate video into your practice as a sculptor, how did that happen?

Gökmen Actually what drew me to the video was sculpture. At that time I was annoyed with the static nature of sculpture, and because of that for the next few years I was making sculptures but then in a way animating/or using them in performances, and making videos of the process. At the moment I am more interested just working on sculptures than making and then filming them. Especially in the period where I was working with the videos, I was interested in various objects, especially objects which seemed “neutral”, such as a silo, or various forms evoking modern machinery. I was interested with the question whether they also represented something ideological under the guise of neutrality. Such as a silo represented industrialisation.
There was a particular magazine I was collecting, La Turquie kémaliste, which was for a foreign audience, but published by the Ministry of the Interior in Turkey. The texts were in German, French and English. It was in a way to prove to the West that Turkey was “catching up,” that it was a modern country; and to prove, they included pictures of the new architecture, consisting of concrete and metal. So my interest for sculptures began with a desire to play with the ideological meanings that are veiled in such objects.

Gosine Your recent work Modern Cemetery (2022-ongoing) is more clearly personal than the others. You share and explore intimate details of your family history, we see your family members on screen. This strikes me as a distinct evolution in your practice, in which you are turning more inward? Is this true?

Gökmen Yes, that work is definitely more personal. It wasn’t premeditated. I lost my grandmother Gülten in November 2019. Her will was to be buried in her grandmother’s tomb. The burial revealed a story about our family history, which runs parallel to the timeline of the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration and the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.

My great-grandmother was born in Rožaje, Montenegro. Her husband, a military officer, died in war. One day, her house was raided, and she managed to hide her children in her oven. After that, she decided to leave Montenegro for the Ottoman Empire, eventually settling in Ankara, where she passed away in 1947. Her unassuming tombstone had a spelling error, which seemed very strange to me. Her name is “Emine Mayko”, but it is written, “Emine Manyak” (Emine Maniac)(1). My father was also surprised about the “mistake”, but my grandmother evaded his questions by saying that it was only an error. When my uncle accessed the archives of Ankara Cebeci Asri Mezarlığı (Ankara Cebeci Modern Cemetery) to prove Gülten’s kinship to Emine, he found a document that was signed by his uncle Sabahattin. This document strengthened this possibility: Sabahattin argued with Emine before her passing, and he took revenge by changing her surname to Maniac on the tombstone. I believe Sabahattin was psychologically unstable, as he died by suicide when he was in his thirties.

Of course in a way it is a “personal story”, but also there is the aspect of intergenerational trauma passed through generations. I still have to deal with this in a way, not just mentally, but also physically. The emotional neglect and the trauma of the war definitely affected my dad’s upbringing, and he also passed some of those to me. Although I am just looking at the tombstone as the manifestation of the trauma, its story also runs parallel with the timeline of the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration and the foundation of the Turkish republic.

Gosine Your current work, in New York, is also quite personal. You are in the midst of making portraits of your friends in Istanbul.

Gökmen Here I am in New York City and a lot of my friends are in Istanbul. I have been thinking about them. Even if they wanted to come visit, it’s too economically prohibitive for them to come here. I had this idea for a project in which I would create portraits of these friends.

I asked each of them to send me an object of their choice and a passport photo. Then I start with packaging material. In New York, there is so much packaging, I feel like it’s impossible to bypass all this waste. I start cutting parts of foam and cardboard, and while doing it, I think about this particular person, and then it’s really an intuitive process to arrive at the final shape. I then add and take away parts to the packaging material, and coating it. I am considering if and how to color it, and do I add other materials or text to it.

I have been thinking about abstraction in my practice, about what it means to abstract something or someone… I am trying to solve that problem also. They represent my friends but they are not figurative portraits… I am exploring various ideas. For example, my friend Belkıs sent me her cellphone case, and it prompted me to think about the identity of an artist, how we have to sometimes to package ourselves for the art market, recreate our subjectivities as a kind of brand, objectifying ourselves for sale. As part of the preparation for the project, I made a watercolor of her. She’s holding an orange because she came from a place with orange agriculture. I painted her as this villager dreaming of London, New York, Paris. It’s meant humorously… I am looking at her, but projecting my own anxieties and dreams upon my portrait of her. Another piece is about my friend Mochu, who is a very rational guy. I wanted to bring out a sense of contrast in the materials. I also started making a companion piece about his partner, but as I shaped it, I realized it didn’t really look like her, it was more about another friend, someone that I didn’t yet approach for the series! A curator friend, Zeynep, sent me a tea strainer which I incorporated into the piece. Tea is such a big thing in Turkey, and the strainer she sent me is old, there’s a sense of past tradition, and of burden. I might hide it; sometimes you want to show it, sometimes you don’t want to show it.

1 The Turkish word “manyak” can be translated into English as “manic” or “crazy”.
2 In 1935, the German architect Martin Elsaesser (1884-1957) won the international competition announced by Ankara for the cemetery design. In his design, Elsaesser planned the cemetery as a “modern facility”, but it was not fully realised.