Meeting the Universe Halfway
With Yeşim Akdeniz, François Dey, Jen Liu, Kubilay Mert Ural, Ceel Mogami de Haas, Christoph Westermeier, and Müge Yilmaz.
Do we need words to look at an exhibition of artwork? Usually an exhibition provides a leaflet or hand-out that lines up the works and the titles, and gives an introduction or “explanation.” Such a paper can direct the viewer’s attention, but it can also distract. “I often see visitors looking at the paper instead of experiencing the works,” Ceel Mogami de Haas remarks. He is one of the participants in the exhibition Meeting the Universe Halfway. Words are very important in his practice, but not to explain—rather to arrange or create a work. Some works start with a line of poetry, or a title that speaks to him, such as The Hollow Men, a poem by T.S. Eliot from 1925. Reading that poem led to a visual work about writing, about voices that can speak through a pen. The installation The Hollow Pens (2017) stages a conversation between four pens, animated on four separate screens. Maybe “conversation” is not the right word, as the pens are not necessarily listening to each other; each of them speaks or hums its own tune. The composition is conceived of as a kind of a capella piece, where the different voices create harmonies, moments of convergence and conflict, density and pause. The pens are like human characters, each defined by their limitations and possibilities, and connected to a historic time frame. The four-color pen constantly doubts its identity. The blue marker cannot write, only quote. “I am the trans humanist pen,” the e-pen remarks, having caught up on the latest theory. And there is the eraser pen, who is more like an editor. “Somehow they have all become obsolete,” the artists remarks. A touch of melancholy is not foreign to his work.
The title of the exhibition, Meeting the Universe Halfway, comes from a book published in 2007 by the physicist Karen Barad. The book title is in turn derived from a poem by Alice Fulton, which is quoted in Barad’s book. The relevant lines of Fulton’s poem “Cascade Experiment” read:
Because truths we don’t expect have a hard time
making themselves felt, as when thirteen species
of whiptail lizards composed entirely of females
stay undiscovered due to bias
against such things existing
we have to meet the universe halfway.
Words move through time, attaching themselves to different events, objects, books, or even an exhibition. Reading the poem, I understand the title of the exhibition as an invitation to walk towards the unknown, to be open to new forms of knowledge and facts not yet comprehended.
I am meeting the artists halfway to the exhibition date, weeks before the opening, while they are still preparing. I am curious about their drives, and to get a glimpse of the work. The show, as it unfolds, does not just feel like a display of objects; it is a coming together of conversations, a meeting of mentalities, of thinking about the relationship between objects and human beings in a world that looks rather grim. Yesim Akdeniz is a Düsseldorf-based painter, who was invited to develop a show for the Kunst im Tunnel (KIT). She found Barad’s ideas inspiring for an exhibition, and she asked the photographer Christoph Westermeier, with whom she had cooperated before, plus five other artists, to join in. Most of the artists know each other already, which allows the connections between the works to be less explicit. There is an understanding without words. I also see connections that are not meant to be in the spotlight. For example, three of the artists in the exhibition are originally from Turkey; they have a history and active relationship with Istanbul, a city that in recent years has lost many of its artists, looking for better times elsewhere. One of the sculptures Yesim made for the show is called Submission, the other is called Europe (both 2018). We are looking at imaginative objects, with their own range of expression. But as a pair with these titles, they seem to present an existential dilemma, from Istanbul’s perspective: two modes for further development. In Yesim’s work, we are looking, through objects, at possibilities for transformation. Or, at things that hold and hide a collective rather than individual memory.
It is interesting that Turkish artists know how to talk about the situation in their country without mentioning the ruler’s name. They have ways of not saying things. Yesim talks more about a past time in Turkey: “Under Atatürk, in 1935, women got the right to vote. Not because they protested for it, but because he wanted to give them rights.” It was part of the secularization and modernization of the country. “The developments under Atatürk had to have a backlash,” Yesim reflects, referring to the current state. She lived in Istanbul for the previous ten years, also during the Gezi protests. She had to physically pass the protesters to reach her atelier. Art is not a form of activism for her, though, even if other artists, especially under oppressive circumstances, see it like that. “I want to be in my studio,” she says, summarizing her drive, even if that is a hard-to-read statement for the outside world. She adds, “As a painter, you always have one foot in the water.”
The room in Yesim’s painting in the exhibition looks organized and well designed; everything is in its place. The objects in the room seem charged with meaning. They are not just there; they tell us something about the universe: the painting on the wall shows a view into outer space, the empty chair offers a place for reflection, a snowman has become a sculpture of stone. Art, in Yesim’s case, seems to be about the balance of the universe as it can be experienced between the walls of a room, in a perfectly peaceful interior, and yet charged with invisible disturbance. With the title, new words come in, and new meaning: He called my name and my heart stood still.
Thinking about objects is very much part of Christoph Westermeier’s research as a photographer. He calls himself a flaneur. He is on the move with his camera, walking the city and recording surprising sights, and in between he reads, most recently works by Siegfried Kracauer, a fellow flaneur who had to leave Berlin when the Nazis took over. Kracauer’s Straßen in Berlin und anderswo delivered Christoph the title for his current piece: Passagenmajestät (2018). He collects images and then makes a selection, like for this exhibition. He wants the work to be about objects and their ambiguous visibility, which is one reason why he chooses to present the photos hanging from the ceiling, half hidden in metal constructions which have hole patterns cut out of them. The photos want attention, but they are not entirely accessible for a visitor who wants to see the work from the front.
The photos are taken up close to the motif: a car, the shell of a turtle, a stone relief from Roman times. Through the close-up view, we see a way of looking. Objects have a skin, cars have eyes, and things have human qualities, but humans themselves are absent—or, one should say, humans are implicit in the objects. The closest we get to the human figure is the photo of a Roman relief showing a face in stone, taken at the Landesmuseum in Trier. “How could we imagine things from the object’s perspective, rather then from ours?” Christoph reflects while we meet at the KIT, and he moves around a small glass vase with a flower in it. The question is: Is this possible? Can we imagine and see things without our own bias and perspective included? The artist’s contribution could be seen as an attempt to show object-ness, not to be confused with objectivity.
Jen Liu is the only artist I cannot meet in person, as she lives in New York, too far for a studio visit. I am lucky though to find a work of hers on display at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, as part of the Berlinale film festival. The film Pink Slime Caesar Shift (2018) has also been chosen for the exhibition in the KIT. “Do you need to illuminate your dark matter?” somebody in the film asks, and then we enter what seems to be a descent into DNA structures, a meeting of the letters G, T, C, and A, with faces and objects. A storyline is there, quite a hilarious one in fact, about secret messages hidden in the DNA of in-vitro hamburgers. It is surprising to find out that these coded messages are being produced in reality, in order to support communication between labor activists in China, where such activism is banned by the government. Again the relationship between words and image comes to the fore. In this case, there is quite some room for interpretation between spoken words and visuals. The artist used texts from existing sources, such as education material of labor activists, accounts of industrial poisoning, and corporate bio-tech brochures. Visually, the movie seems to present a surreal digitalism, where letters move through space, bump into a face, where a slimy landscape appears out of meat. It seems a virtual world where everything is connected, but not in a way that is reassuring. The atmosphere is cold and detached; people are puppets, figures in a machine-like system, radars in a economic efficiency force. The film could be taken as a tale about the cruelties of capitalism, where the individual is still visible, but only as an appearance, a utility, without any psychological depth or power to act.
Kubilay Mert Ural used to be a factory worker in a village in Turkey. In his free time, he painted, which is how he started, and he still feels like he is learning. One day he got a letter of invitation for a residency in Amsterdam. There, in his studio, he shows me the paintings that will be on view in the KIT, plus two videos. The videos are banal, cruel, beautiful, and with a strange, associative flow of things and actions. Spheres of life come together in a chain of association, put together in rough, unpolished footage. There is no contradiction, as everything seems to happen in the same flow, a dreamlike passing present. Or is it all a memory? “I am a storyteller,” Kubilay says. Compared to the films, the paintings have a different texture. They are more focused on one situation, and the scene is articulated, also in color. In a kind of naïve style, human and animal behavior merge: there is aggressive, possessive love-making, there is a table tennis match between two mountains, or are they veiled figures? The painting medium, with its layered expression, allows him to depict things fragile and violent at the same time. “We are so primitive,” Kubilay remarks, referring to how people behave in physical ways.
In the hairy, life-size sculptures of Müge Yilmaz, the distinction between animal, plant, and human has faded. We are looking at creatures, at funny, scary monsters not unlike ourselves, though. One of them is greenish; the fur looks a bit like the pattern of an army camouflage suit. “Animals use the ability to be invisible. They can hide to protect themselves, but it also helps them to hunt, to attack,” Müge reflects, and adds an analogy: “Humans feel invisible when they move to a new country.” The artist herself was born in Turkey, studied in Rome, and now lives in The Netherlands, and thus has some experience with changing skin, grades of visibility. When we meet, she is still considering how to paint the “Preppers,” as she calls her sculptures, for the exhibition in the KIT. She wants them in colors that blend with the surroundings; they should be ready to vanish, visually. In this case, she will have to make them fit in an urban, concrete surrounding. Thinking about the current state of affairs does not make her optimistic, neither about her home country of Turkey (“everybody is in jail”), nor about global issues, such as the scarcity of water and care for environment. All of this seems to inform her work. Art cannot really change these things, she thinks, “but it turns things around.” Meanwhile the Preppers are prepared for the worst, for the apocalyptic. Just in case.
It is hard not to think about cars when visiting the KIT. The knowledge that three tubes of passing cars surround the extended space of the tunnel—in fact, it is leftover space made available for art—makes it very present, even up to the smells and sounds of traffic. For François Dey, it was clear that he wanted to work with this situation after he visited the exhibition location. He wanted to bring cars into the art tunnel, but in a different way than with the usual traffic. As an artist, he does not like to bring an object that is ready; an immaterial starting point is essential to his method. He prefers to come with “empty hands,” or rather, with a plan for how to proceed once the exhibition is on. When I meet him in Amsterdam (“We can meet in a café, as I do not have a studio practice”), he is still in the process of developing a performance, for which he plans to engage six people in Düsseldorf to perform as a car. It will start in the art tunnel, and then go over the stairs, outside, and leave the tunnel to make a walk in the neighborhood—or should I say, “a ride”? The sketches show how the car can elegantly dissolve into six separate entities, six people, each wearing a piece of painted cardboard almost like a shield, and then, at the artist’s indication, can merge again into the illusion of a vehicle.
There seems to be a paradox in the works of art, as I imagine them in the exhibition together. The role for humans seems to be limited—or better put, there is not much focus on individuality or a subjective stance. This seems to be in line with Barad’s thoughts in Meeting the Universe Halfway, where humans are no longer the measure of all things, and the focus shifts equally to objects, and the constant interaction between the two. In the works of these artists, it feels at times like some foreign principle has taken over, and humans have become just facets of some larger machinery—moving materials, like molecules. Meanwhile, objects and the material world become very lively, even animated, and in that sense, they are not unlike humans. One enters a space where the complex relationship between humans and material things is imagined anew. To quote once more from Alice Fulton’s poem:
Nothing will unfold for us unless we move toward what
looks to us like nothing: faith is a cascade.
The exhibition is funded by