Men's Year Dog's Year.
In: HAKSIZ TAHRIK. UNJUST PROVOCATION. Ed. Aysegül Sönmez BirSergiKitabi – an exhibition book. Istanbul. 2009.
„Those were possibly the worst years for us but they were good years for you. That´s how contemporary art started. It started after the military coup of 1980 as a protest against the military, I guess. And women artists were among the strongest. At least, that´s what I think.”
Interviewers: Yasemin Özcan Kaya – Dilek Winchester
With Sony launching the portapak camera in 1965, artists found a brand new medium. In this period, video was standing as opposition to television and was used widely by activists. This camera is of historical importance for the art production of woman artists. You are one of the first women to use the portapak camera. When we searched the internet, we ran into something. Sony´s advertisement for the Portapak camera at the time was very interesting. In the ad photos, we see 4 woman cleaning workers using the camera. Do you recall that advertisement? The photo caption reads: ”Maybe we made the new Sony Videocorder too easy to operate.” Ironically, you shoot the “Headless Woman or the Belly Dance” video in 1974 with the same camera. What was the significance of portapak for women artists and activists of the era? What was the spirit?
You used the term “activist”; it´s a very important term. The first ones to use portapak were men and women activists in Africa. As you mentioned, Sony´s advertisement is extremely anti-feminist. However I believe that the reason woman artists immediately approached this medium is that this was the first time they encountered a medium, unlike painting and sculpture, outside the domain defined as masculine. Nobody had used it before.
Since you mentioned that advertisement…In 1974, I participated in a symposium of sorts in Germany. There were 10 German artists and 10 French artists. We created some work and they were exhibited there. I shot the cleaning woman who came to clean the exhibition space. That´s because I recalled the advertisement. And that village was right in the middle of the area where the concentration camps had been. The people living in that village were very much neo-Nazi. The fired shots on national holidays and wore leather pants…I dealt with two things there. The work done by the cleaning woman at the exhibition place and the space women couldn´t enter where men fired in the air annually on national holidays. That was my work. I don´t know if I still have it somewhere. It was shot by a portapak camera. I´m thinking of amplifying it and converting it to beta format.I bought the portapak camera in 1973. I took a liking for it right away. European artists started using it at the same time as I did. But American woman artists had started using that camera before us. When I talk to them, I see that they had developed the same passion for that camera. I can only describe it as such.
Women always existed as objects. Shooting yourself and looking at yourself at the same time…Being both an object and a subject. The most interesting thing about the feminist generation of that period is that they look at themselves first…
That whole issue of looking at yourself, without anybody else´s help, was important back then. Our own gaze as opposed to the men´s gaze. In all my work, I show the camera.
You have many works you choose to shoot from the mirror.
I direct the camera. The camera looks at me and I look at the camera. Perhaps that is narcissistic but one can say pretty interesting things from that point of view.
The Headless Woman is at the moment in Istanbul Modern´s new collection but one of your most important work, “La Roquette Women´s Prison” has never been exhibited in Turkey.
The La Roquette Women´s Prison has never been exhibited here, yes. It remained unexhibited for 30 years. I made it in 1974. It is an installation that includes video, photography and drawings. It was first exhibited in New York. Initially it didn´t get exhibited anywhere. When we showed it to feminist groups (not feminist artists but feminist activists as a whole), they claimed that it was too artistic and asked us why we didn´t go inside the prison and hold a demonstration. When we tried to show it to art circles, they told me in 1974 that this wasn´t a work of art but rather a sociological work. They claimed that it was a “political” piece. That´s why for a long time, meaning a few years, we left it aside. Then, in 1976… there´s a gallery in New York called A.I.R., you know. It is like a woman´s cooperative. In those years, they organized an important event in New York, which consisted of inviting 5 women artists from foreign countries and holding an exhibition with them. I participated in one of those exhibitions. The only video work was mine. We showed the women´s prison in parts. In the gallery, there was a space called the Kitchen, that´s where we showed the video. We displayed the photographs and the drawings in the gallery, all fragmented. We got excellent feedback upon our return. Actually, upon our return to France, this work was purchased by FNAC (Fonds National d´ArtContemporain). It was locked away in the basement of that museum for 30 years. Later on, they decided that they definitely wanted this work to be a part of the “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” exhibition and it travelled around the world for two years. Los Angeles, Washington, New York, Vancouver…
There are other artists living in Paris such as Komet, Sarkis and YükselAslan. Perhaps they had stronger connections with Turkey. Those were the artists whose names we kept hearing in Turkey.
I didn´t come to Turkey even once between 1980 and 1993. I broke off all my relations. My mother and sibling would come to Paris to see me. I didn´t come here for 13 years. And when I returned after 13 years, it was a shock.
Was it a choice?
The reason was the military coup of 1980. I had political engagements in France. We had established an association, sending out information to the European press, especially the French press. They declared us traitors in Turkey. In that period, conducting anti-Turkish propaganda abroad was considered the worse thing you could do. I was a member of the secret Turkish Communist Party. I can say it now. After all, the party and the communists are no more. That was the reason I couldn´t come back. Not because of my art. I don´t have that sort of a claim. In 1993, it all calmed down. And I´ve been coming here since. So it´s not a big deal.I wouldn´t gone to prison for a year or a few months but I didn´t want to be there even for a day.I´m not that heroic. There was nothing I could do anyway. Those were possibly the worst years for us but they were good years for you. That´s how contemporary art started. It started after the military coup of 1980 as a protest against the military, I guess. And women artists were among the strongest. At least, that´s what I think.
The post 80´s is considered to be a period when the feminist movement rose at the point when the energy of the leftist political movements was drained. There is even the criticism directed to feminism that they were able to run a riot because they had no competition.
Maybe these things are tightly connected. Towards the end of the 1980s, I saw an exhibition in Paris. An exhibition of Hale Tenger, GülsünKaramustafa and FüsunOnur. It was entitled The Turks Are Coming or something like that. It was a great exhibition. There were also male artists but I found the works by the women particularly impressive. I met Hale Tenger during the exhibition. I congratulated her. She didn´t know me, for instance. She didn´t know my work either. That´s how unknown in Turkey I was. I wasn´t even known by the artists who succeeded me and produced the same sort of contemporary art. Following that, upon my first trip back to Turkey, I saw a group exhibition at the Atatürk Cultural Center in 1993. The women artists there were also very impressive.
That´s exactly what we have a hard time understanding. We find it surprising that your name doesn´t appear with FüsunOnur´s, an artist from the same generation as yours.
How could they mention my name if they didn´t know it? I was working all the time and traveling frequently. In 1980, I participated in a very important exhibition organized by Lucy Lippard at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London. However if this information doesn´t reach Turkey, what can be done? I didn´t send this information here… I had truly broken off all connections, thinking that´s what I should do since I can´t go back there. Of course I did travel nostalgically. I went to Greece for holiday, thinking it would be similar to Turkey but it didn´t feel the same. I went to Corsica, that didn´t work out either. I cut off everything.
Was it because the art scene in Turkey at the time was very introvert? Not being aware of an exhibition taking place at ICA?
Our art scene has always been introvert. It was begun to open up only in recent years. The contemporary art scene in Turkey used to distance itself from the Turkish artists residing and producing works abroad. That´s less the case now because artists are working here and at the same time opening exhibitions all around the world.Ayse Erkmen, for instance. They invited me to Berlin in January. Ayse Erkmenhad opened a personal exhibition in a very important museum, Hamburger Bahnhof, together with Joseph Beuys. It´s not a problem anymore.
The construction of art history comes to mind at this point. Would you like to say anything on that? It´s an issue that always concerned feminist artists, you know. Do you think the concern remains relevant?
That should be over by now. Feminist artists have made it to art history with the Wack exhibition. According to articles by male art historians in the Washington Post, NY Times and Los Angeles Times,Wack is the exhibition of the last art movement of the 20th century. Like Dada, Fluxus, Surrealism and Constructivism; the last one of these movements. The Wack history of feminist woman´s art started in 1965 and ended in 1980. The final art movement of the last century, they say. Of course, this is a big responsibility. I would never undertake that responsibility but the people who organized the exhibition and the 120 artists who participated in it as well as those who wrote about it obviously did. And they wrote that article. They have accepted it as an art movement. That means it´s made it to the pages of art history. Wack´s catalogue is like a historical document in itself. When we heard this we knew it was history. Now, there were some deficiencies. They invited me to that exhibition as both a Turkish and French artist. Since the exhibition went all the way up to the 1980´s, why wasn´t GülsünKaramustafa included? What about FüsunOnur? You know the Americans better than I do. They are very polite. Yet they do what they´ve decided. There´s no way you can interfere. You can´t tell them there is a Turkish who resides in Turkey you should invite… That exhibition was more the reflection of a Anglo-Saxon movement, in my opinion. The number of French artists was limited. There was only one Algerian and she had moved to the USA some time ago. They claimed to be universal but it was rather Anglo-Saxon dominated. There were a lot of people from Denmark. I´m sure there were no African artists. I´m sure there were no Russians. How can this be possible? There must have at least been one woman in those places in the 1970´s.
Can you talk about the Wrestling Women´s Cooperative, which you joined in 1974 in context of the relationship between activism and art?
Such a collective was established. “La Femme Enlut” derives from the term “wrestling”, not “fighting” as some think. We formed that collective in 1974. With the dynamism and energy of the events of 1968, the feminist women´s movement grew very strong in France. For example, it was in those years that women struggled for abortion rights, equal rights and equal wages. The woman artists carried their own struggles and continued wrestling over here…In those years, we made no discrimination. There were artists in the collective as well as theorists and painters…We gathered in someone´s studio and conducted discussions once every 10 days. We asked what woman artist´s place in the art scene was…In those days, UNESCO declared a woman´s year and later a children´s year. They let women use their space for that year and women held an exhibition there. It was a women´s exhibition. As activist women, we didn´t participate in that exhibition. We protested it. Why should there be a women´s year when there is no men´s year? Have you ever heard of dog´s year? No! We held serious protests against the exhibition outside the space where the exhibition took place. We explained why we weren´t in agreement with them…Why such a year should not have been declared…UNESCO is anyway a rather dubious institution. We protested all against that.
You state that Simon De Beauvoir´s book The Second Sex, which you read when you were 18, holds an important place in your ideological formation. A few years ago, a French magazine (Le NouvelObservateur,2007) was heavily criticized for putting a nude photo of Simon De Beauvoir on its cover (later on, it also came out that the photograph had been retouched according to today´s aesthetic criteria.) What do you think about Beauvoir, an influential figure of feminism, being unable to avoid becoming some magazine´s commercial concern through her photograph, even after her death?
That really put us feminists in despair. Not just the painting, the entire article. It was very misguided. It was a photograph taken by her lover…If she were alive, she wouldn´t be upset with that picture but she´d be upset with the article inside the magazine. In 1974, we had opened an exhibition criticizing such covers and advertisement photos. Actually, with this cover, we saw that what we did in those years hasn´t done much…So, that´s how they portray Beauvoir, whom we admire. Last year was the Simon De Beauvoir year. I gave a conference to a large number of people, together with another feminist art historian. Not much was done that year in Simon De Beauvoir´s name…That´s because the French, including the women, have little sympathy towards feminism. Unfortunately, they don’t truly understand and love Simone de Beauvoir. French intellectuals always prefer Sartre over her. They tend to make such absurd comparisons. Whereas, in fact, the whole point of their relationship was it wasn´t the subject of any comparison. Actually, there is still a feminist movement in France which hates Beauvoir. The feminist movement is divided into around this Simon de Beauvoir issue. Imagine, in those years, we were cutting out images featuring the exploitation of the woman´s body in lingerie commercials and organizing exhibitions in opposition to this whereas today, in order to sell lingerie, images that may be termed pornographic are displayed inside and on the buses. I guess we couldn´t succeed in that sense. However, I don´t think that´s something keep pondering because in my opinion, that would be a waste of time…Feminists from America, Germany and other places… none of us have been successful in that sense…If the pornographic use of women in the advertisements we see today were used in those years, all hell would break loose. American feminists would burn down those posters and buildings…Today, people have stopped resisting it and it all seems so normal. American feminists and feminists from other nations have different concerns now, we need to understand that as well. In that article, they had written that Simone de Beauvoir was in a state of confusion and inner conflict. That´s the most important feature of feminism, the fact that it embodies both the thesis and the anti-thesis simultaneously…Of course, there´ll be certain contradictions…That´s how women´s minds work. The fact tat she is a great philosopher and intellectual does not mean that Simon de Beauvoir has to think and act like a man. That would be ridiculous. Consider Beauvoir being against having children…imagine that in those years she wrote that book, the women did not have the right to vote. And she goes on to tell women in France not to get married, not to have children and not to raise families…What else could she say? Today, things have turned the other way around. Especially in countries like France, people have begun to have at least two children again and the streets are full of strollers. They ride these stollers over your feet and when you say something, the mother of those children arrogantly answer as if to say “how dare you, I am a mother whore bore children…”That´s frightening…The idea that women have to bear children is becoming widespread again. I don´t know about here but that´s the case in Europe. As the right-wing governments made a comeback, this business about the kids suddenly skyrocketed. Elisabeth Badinter is a very important feminist and mother of three children…Her husband was the Minister of Justice in France who abolished the capital punishment. She wrote a book, Mother Love (1992). In that book she claimed that no woman had a desire to be a mother and have children in the 18th century and this desire to give birth might not actually be natural phenomenon. In that period, any woman who had the means, didn´t raise her children herself. The children were raised by nannies, sent to villages and came back when they grew up. Imprisoning the women inside the home began as a result of industrialization in the 19th century and the bourgeois class starting to dominate the economy. How is it possible to make women´s duties conform to bourgeois rules? By attributing to her the identity of the mother…The man is outside the house….It´s the beginning of the 19th century and the man is establishing factories. Industrialization is emerging and the man is working in order to exploit others. We need to read Madame Bovary from a feminist perspective. Flaubert holds great importance. So many men died in the First World War that villages and cities were run by women. The Second World War followed shortly after. Later on, after the events of 1968, ruling powers suggested that women should have children in order to elevate men´s social status…Don´t get me wrong, I´m not arguing that women shouldn´t bear children…But a woman may as well not want a child.
Three of your works, namely The Bolus House (1973), La Roquette, Women´s Prison (1976), which you did with Nicole Croise and The Harem (1980) point out to how women´s lives are defined and limited by the patriarchy. How the public domain belongs to men…
Yes, the world outside belongs to men. The business world, even nature belongs to men…He is the one in the shelter tent. I went and found those nomads in Nigde, living in those bolus houses…The woman doesn´t take the man inside the shelter if she doesn´t want to but she never goes outside. If she goes outside it is only to bake bread…Herding sheep on plateaus, riding horses and all outdoor activities are in the domain of men…Corresponding to this, in the cities, all public space and the streets belong to men…It´s the same way in tribes… It´s the same in all traditions… Here´s the answer to the question I asked during the lecture at the Pera Museum (Feminist or 1,2, AysegülSönmez live interview with Nil Yalter, GülçinAksoy, MelekÖzman and FulyaÇetin, as part of the Unjust Provocation exhibition, Suna and InanKiraç, Foundation Pera Museum, Conference Hall, March 2009): “When will women with headscarves start producing contemporary art?” They´ll do it when the men decide they should. That deciscion will be taken by men as well but I won´t be able to see it. Maybe you or the next generation will because it won´t go on like this forever. There´s just no way that it can, because the men have screwed it all up. The world has never been worse.
In your work about the La Roquette Prison, you are working together with a convict woman named Mimi…
Her story and voice are in the video. An American artist friend and I started working on this project in 1974. Paris has 20 districts. We made 20 billboards, one for each district, with photos printed on canvas, sewn and with graffiti all around them. It was made of cloth and all. About 11 – 12 meters long. That was the kind of work we had in our mind when we started working on it. We were going around each district with a camera…Paris from eyes of two foreign artists… When we reached the 11th district, we saw that there was a women´s prison there. It was shut down and a new prison had been built. The prisoners had been transferred to that new prison. The walls and interiors of the old prison still remained. It was so striking that we decided to do the 11th district only about women´s prison. We took photos of the walls. The gate was intact. The interior architecture was panoptical in Foucault´s terms. We were wondering how we could learn what had gone on in there…
My friend, Judy Bloom, had a little daughter. They had adopted an Indian girl from Bangladesh. She was taking her daughter to school. Mimi was taking her son to the same school and that´s where they met. When they were talking about what they were doing and all, Judy told her that she was an artist and mentioned the project she was working on. Then, Mimi tells Judy “I was there for a year, I´ll tell you about it.” We meet Mimi and she tells us about all about the place.
The prison guards are nuns. There is only one heating stove for ten rooms and that stove is placed outside…She goes on and on. We note it all down. Then we draw and take photos. In the video, we see her face in front of the wall but not her eyes. As we connect the piece, we see that a women´s prison is much different that a men´s prison.
Women are actually imprisoned twice…in jail, the woman loses her freedom and also has to the same things she had to in her house. Doing the laundry, sweeping the floor and ironing. They get punishing if they don´t do the chores… So, there was a weird similarlty between being indoors and outdoors for them. Make-up and wearing pants were forbidden. Since no cosmetics were allowed, the women were using shoe polish for make-up…They couldn´t receive any news from the outside world. They had their periods, but didn´t get pads. It´s a confined women´s world.
We recorded Mimi´s voice recounting all this. Then, Judy and I thought about it. In the work, there are sixteen drawings and photos on the first wall on the left, the first entrance to the prison is very important. Undressing and searching… searching her sex so that she won´t smuggle anything inside. After that, the first objects handed to them are a plastic plate, two blankets and something that resembles a dress. That´s the first 24 hours.Their photographs with captions. On the right are drawings of the prison, which is no longer there, and the people who were in the prison.
The nuns, dressed in religious attire, checking whether the inmates are asleep or not…lesbian tales…with the nuns no less…Mimi told us all those things.
The nuns, dressed in religious attire, checking whether the inmates are asleep or not… lesbian tales…with the nuns no less…Mimi told us all those things.
The whole text is exactly the way Mimi told us. They had no money inside the prison. Some don´t like oranges and some don´t like cigarettes…one gives the orange and gets cigarettes from the other in return. They sent messages to each other, using yoyos. SevgiSoysal´s book (SevgySoysal, Yildirim District Women´s Ward, Alfa Publications, 1974) is very important. She has a very important book on women´s prison. We documented all these with phootgraphs and performatively. Nine minutes of the video consists of just the walls of the prison, shot in that confined space. Then the necessities (dress, blanket and plate) changing hands in front of the wall. Now, Mimi´s face can be seen telling it but we don´t hear her voice. Her eyes blurred so that she can´t be identified. The last part is about the meaning of the tattoos they make. They mix ink with ash and use pins to tattoo themselves. The mixture is similar to mascara. They cut out pictures of dishes from the newspapers and eat them because the food is terrible (you can see the same thing in Japan)…They eat the meat with their hands because they have no knives. I learned that the Japanese did the same thing in prison and you can see me doing that as performance in this video. Three significant works…1974 was a very important year for me. We went to the USA, taking Mimi with us. I´m trying to sell photos to people so that we can buy a ticket for Mimi.When the work was sold, we gave a share to Mimi as well. We were three artists but we divided the money in four. I continued to see Mimi for many years, I still see her sometimes. Actually, all Mimi did to spend one year in prison was going to a store with a friend of hers when they were very young and getting caught stealing dresses. However, in France, there´s something called preventive imprisonment…I don´t know if we have it in Turkey. It took a long time for her trial to take place. That´s why she had to stay in prison for a year.She hadn´t done anything that would require her to spend a year in prison, actually.All sorts of women, murderers and pretty criminals, all in the same prison.
We´d also like to talk a little bit about The Story of the “Skin”. You had used your body in 1974 in your work “The Headless Woman” and 36 years later, in 2006, in “Skin”. We see you both as the object and subject of your work. And the image of the woman hyped in today´s visual world: young, fit and thin, a woman with a wrinkle-free and cellulite-free body. The Story of “Skin” is actually about the aging body, which is ignored and rendered invisible…
The body is entirely husk. Without the skin, it would all fall apart. That´s your husk, whether you´re a man or a woman.
You say that “The skin is a surface under attack from nature, men, violence, illness and death.”
Yes, yes, yes. There´s a lot going on there. It isn´t just about the skin of an aging woman artist… As in all my work, I´m taking myself as a starting point and trying to expand from there.
In conclusion, we can talk a bit about how you witnessed the France of the time. We know that you´re a close friend of Tülay German. There´s also the concert with Nesimi Çimen in your studio in Paris.There´s also Sevim Burak. Maybe you´d like to say a few things about that period.
That´s the period between me coming to France in 1965 and until 1972. I didn´t do much, mostly abstract paintings. I wasn´t opening many exhibitions but rather trying to digest it all… Tülay Germen and I were very close friends… we were close friends from Istanbul before we came to France. Ömer Uluç, was also a close friend of mine. I knew him and SevimBurak from Istanbul. That period for me was about digesting all that I was exposed to. It was a period of suffering, agony and gadding around, all in one. I´d have to talk for hours to tell you about it. It´s kind of like the era of our beat generation. Hard to explain, it´s so complicated… Not just the concert, I also made a record of NesimiÇimen with the same ethnologist friend, who organized the concert with me. I had him do a radio show. Nesimi came to Paris twice. The first time was for political reasons, he had to elope and we held the concert to collect money. We collected the money and bought tickets. But it was SevimBurak opened my eyes. Sevim Burak had such astuteness, such intelligence that even though she wasn´t an art historian and knew nothing about contemporary art, she grasped everything instantly. Once she said to me, “stop spending your time on these little things and move on to something else.” I was still struggling in those days, striving to be like those I admired but couldn´t. It was really difficult. I´m glad that you didn´t have to live through all these. I gave up so many times, swore that I wouldn´t have anything to do with art anymore. You went to art school, you know it was possible to study it now. In 1965, I came from Turkey, where there was nothing, to Paris, Europe, which was full of so many things. It was hard to digest for me. I could see that my paintings weren´t any good and wanted to move on to something else. It´s easier to move on to something else today, perhaps. In those day, I didn´t have any academic training that would allow me to know where to start either. I didn´t learn any of those things in school. That´s why it was much harder for me.