Istanbul-based artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan has a storyteller’s skill of imbuing the prosaic with a sense of poetry and beauty. With a few ordinary objects her installations can tell a story that will transport you to another world and time, filling the space in which they are placed with magic, or weighing it down with history. The results are spaces that transcend their materiality, spaces that we imbue with meaning and that can either allow us to find ourselves, or lose ourselves to the story of others.
Büyüktaşçıyan weaves a narrative of personal and collective memory into her installations in order to address the past and bring to life her conceptual works. She often draws on her own Armenian and Greek roots and fuses this with metaphors from local myths, symbolism, and history to explore ideas of absence and invisibility, identity, memory, space and time, and exile. They are timeless themes and particularly poignant in our current global geopolitical climate.
The artist was one of the youngest participants in the Armenian pavilion exhibition, Armenity, at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Marking one hundred years since the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the exhibition, for which the artist presented two site specific installations titled ‘Letters from Lost Paradise’ and ‘The Keepers’ (2015), explored themes of displacement, territory, justice, and reconciliation.
For this year’s Art International Istanbul, Büyüktaşçıyan will be creating another site-specific installation titled ‘Falling Waters’. Read her interview below to find out more about her practice and her upcoming installation for Art International.
You refer to yourself as a storyteller, and growing up you were exposed to a ritual of story telling from your Armenian grandmother. What is the role of story telling in your work to reveal personal and historical narratives?
Storytelling is a type of a language that is structured to make certain realities and histories ‘unforgettable’. It is a way of putting life in words or forms. For me, it is an instrument that is used to explain ‘truth’ or certain realities in a different way through which it becomes easier to accept certain aspects of life. In a sense, it is very much connected with time and life itself, but it also enables people to experience different timetables at the same time, and let them gain new ways of seeing. On the other hand, storytelling makes certain realities about life and memory easier to accept and enable you to better deal with the tension of the matter’s realness. The language of storytelling encourages the listener or the audience to accept, face and also begin to question things by positioning themselves within the narrative: this is something I do myself very often whilst listening to a story. In the same way, the narrations I create are intended to allow the audience to put themselves on the other side and allow the piece, as well as the spoken-memory, to continue living in this way.
You will be creating a site-specific work for Art International titled ‘Falling Waters’. Can you tell us a little about it, and where people can see it? Why did you choose this location to present the work?
‘Falling Waters’ will take place at one of the lecture/ concert halls of Halic Congress Center, where I was invited to realize a project. My first intention was the names of the halls, which are the names of old neighborhoods within the city such as Tophane, Pera, etc. The idea of shifting a space to another place says so much with the current status of societies, cities and their floating memory itself within the current age that we are living. This constant shifting often sweeps away all the traces of what has been lived, what has existed, and forced to sudden invisibility. At this point ‘Falling Waters’ addresses this unexpected flow that bursts out from its root. In this case the curtain of the theater stage becomes a river that finds a moment to flow out from its root and cover the whole space. The theater curtain, which is supposed to inform us about the closure or the starting of the play, now informs us about a moment in timelessness.
Water is a recurring symbol in your work, with a number of works referencing it: ‘The Recovery of an Early Water’ (2014); ‘Places Water Holds Together’ (2009); ‘It takes a few more buckets of water to turn the mill’ (2012); ‘Changeables & Transformables’ (2009). What significance does it hold for you?
Water is the ultimate source and the instrument that nurtures our memory. Different than all the other elements, it has a multitasking poetic reality, which reflects, connects, divides, purifies, dissolves, maintains, emerges, hides and transforms each and every fragment of life. Similarly, memory itself, which is beyond time and space, has the same fluid quality of water. Whether hidden or visible, water connects and imbibes all sorts of existences within itself just as the mental space stores a huge variety of fragments of time in its depths. In this sense, I think water reflects the fluid ground of memory itself. Water seems very silent from a distance but actually it waits to raise its voice, like when a stone is thrown into a pool. It carries various liquefied narratives within it. So in many works of mine, it has become an incognito connectivity point between history and now, which also allowed me to let the waves bring certain aspects of those histories to the surface to make them visible again. The narrations of each piece comes naturally in the same way water represents a fluid language that dissolves certain histories.
You often revisit old works and subjects, reworking them or expanding on them, like your upcoming ‘Falling Waters’ piece which references an earlier work of yours from the 2014 Jerusalem Show VII named ‘The Recovery of an Early Water’. At what point are you able to let go of a piece or a subject and decide that is all that can be done with it?
For me every story has a continuation in the sense that I see things as a part of an unending cycle. Some pieces that are created at different times and in different spaces may connect with each other because there are mutual aspects and problematics that repeat themselves in every different space. Yet their way of manifesting themselves or their sense of physicality or coming to life is different from one another. For me the flowing of water and flooding of spaces are related with the current status of the world where history repeats itself yet makes aspects of the past visible with a very turbulent way. ‘The Recovery of an Early Water’ and ‘Falling Waters’ touches each other from certain points such as making invisible hidden facts of time, visible and witness how timetables flood each other and cover all the traces. Of course, both pieces draw on different stories and different geographies, yet they collide on aspects of invisibility politics.
Seeing and blindness, the visible and the invisible are also themes that recur in your works, such as in ‘The Land Across the Blind’ (2014).
‘The Land Across the Blind’, shown at Galeri Mana in 2014, analyses fragments of time and memory that have become invisible through a certain politics of blindness. It tries to build up an experiential and experimental language to emphasize different perspectives of seeing and questions blindness with its reverse meaning. The title itself comes from the myth of seeing and blindness that is connected to the discovery of Byzantium. According to the story everything begins with the prophecy of the oracle of Delphi advising King Byzas to go and find ”the land across the blind” to set the foundation of his new empire. The king and his people sets sail towards this unknown land and after a two-year journey, they end up at the Marmara Sea. When they stop near Khalkedon (currently Kadikoy) they see that there is another tribe settled there. Whilst looking around, Byzas turns his back to gaze at the other side which is today Sarayburnu. He says ‘one must be blind not to see this beauty’ so he understands that the land across the blind is the opposite shore and he settles there to put the base of his empire. Here the simple gesture of him turning and seeing to the other side underlines the thin line between seeing and blindness in our daily lives. Blindness is a state of mind and also a method that is being imposed on contemporary societies as a way of ignoring certain realities. In a way, this condition of ‘looking without seeing’ creates a voluntary darkness, which later causes all types of negativities. By contrast, in the case of a physical blindness, vision seems to become unlimited – it knows no borders. In this dimension of sight, reality is being restructured according to the role of the senses. Here, blindness as a physical limitation becomes a state of seeing that transcends what is visible. So at this point the show was undertaking the different levels of the relationship of what is being seen, what is visible and invisible and the level of our blindness as a way of ignorance.
How much of a role does research play in the shaping and direction of your work?
Research is an indispensable part of my practice that nurtures the essence of every work, yet does not always necessarily direct the flow of the work. It often becomes the base of every story. However, the work itself gets out of the limits of all written history and creates its own aura.
Your work encompasses installation, sound, performance, sculpture and video. How do you navigate the requirements and demands of all these different media? Do you prefer one medium over another?
I think the work navigates me by choosing its own language, and uses me as the instrument to materialize it. Of course there are certain mediums that attract me. I like to play with three-dimensional forms and work with wood, bronze and fabrics. So, I can say that installation and sculpture are my main attachments yet in every piece, whether its an in situ piece or a sculpture, I often prefer to use all my senses, so I like to include performance, sound and video as well. For me they are like the parts of the body which function according to what is needed and collaborate with each other for giving breath to the work itself.
Armenity, the exhibition for the Armenian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale explored themes of displacement, identity, memory, reconciliation, many of which are central themes to your work. Did this exhibition allow for a more personal exploration of your history and identity?And to what extent did the history of the island, and also your own connection to the Armenian language, tie in to your work for this exhibition?
I guess through Armenity I got the chance to be able to unfold my own personal history and explore parts of my identity that were unknown to me. My relationship with the Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni started growing from the moment I first visited it in 2013, and as a person who has graduated from one of the Mekhitarist schools in Istanbul my interaction with the island was very deep and personal. I began to question many things about the identity itself. Through this voyage I realized my deep connection with the language that suddenly got revealed from the moment I stepped on the island. Although I use Armenian in my daily life I often thought that I had a weak connection with the language. Yet the moment I stepped in to the lagoon things began to come to surface and both the pieces I had in the pavilion helped me to dive deeper into this aspect. The life of Lord Byron, as well as San Lazzaro as a cultural treasure, directed me quiet a lot. Lord Byron studied the Armenian language at the age of 28 and translated several books from English to Armenian. He also wrote a grammar book half in Armenian and half in English. I referenced Lord Byron’s attempt to learn Armenian, which he calls “the Language of Lost Paradise”, with my kinetic sculpture ‘Letters from Lost Paradise’ where the existence of Byron is reenacted as if he was writing letters at his desk. The moving wooden blocks, which resemble letter stamps, also commemorate the printing history of the island, and try to revive the no-longer functioning printing machines. This act is connected to the relationship between oral and written histories, and to the way the printing tradition in Armenian history has had an important role in documenting/recording time and memory. The text (Letters from Lost Paradise) formed by the stamps is written in English with Armenian letters. Through this movement of the letters, the piece not only points out to Lord Byron, but also to the island itself as a utopian sphere, and of course to the many intellectuals and creative thinkers that have lived on this island from the Enlightenment era until now – and, in a sense, it gives a breath to the space. ‘The Keepers’ is another sculptural installation inside Lord Byron’s Room, which is in dialogue with the Egyptian Mummy located in the room, a gift to the Monastery. Just as the mummy is an instrument of preserving physicality and obtaining eternal life after death, the wax-casted hands holding bronze letters and words in their palms, placed at various spots among the books in the library, work as reminders of a long lost or invisible fragment of life. I titled them ‘The Keepers’ because they are installed between books on the bookshelves that surround the whole room. They resemble small-scale monuments, reminders that stand and welcome the audience by keeping their treasures in their palms. In a sense language became a tool for me to discover many invisible aspects deep down within the memory of the island, as well as myself as an island.
What are some of your favourite sites and art places in Istanbul that you would recommend to visitors?
Firstly, I would recommend for people to visit all the sites of the 14th Istanbul Biennial which is spread around almost 35 venues in the city which allows the visitors to explore the city from one end to the other as well.
Secondly, I would recommend institutions that have an intense programme such as SALT and DEPO. Exhibitions at galleries such as ; Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin at RAMPA, Can Altay’s solo show at Öktem & Aykut, Volkan Alsan at Pi Artworks , Mixer and many others.