Narratives Interview Series: Ferhat Özgür

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Interview: Seniha Ünay /About
Translation: Burçin Nilay Kalınbayrak / About

The first guest of the Narratives Interview Series is Ferhat Özgür, an artist whose works are exhibited in important national and international art spaces, art events, and are included in many collections. With this August issue of the series, we had the opportunity to talk about Özgür’s versatile production process involving different disciplines such as painting, video, photography, and installation.

“While my inner world is more dominant in painting, it is the realities of the outside world that direct me when I’m using other mediums.”

You usually focus on Turkey’s political, sociological, and cultural issues in your art. Can a connection be established with these issues and the place where you were born and raised, what you experienced there, with whom you came into contact, the space, and the time?

It must definitely be like that. I can say that in the contemporary art scene of Turkey from the beginning of the 1990s to the mid-2000s, this situation was one of the general characteristics of a generation born in the 1960s and the 1970s. In this period, the main point of the works of the artists was the autobiographical aspects. They used themselves as subjects and included their families, friends, relatives as performers in their works or they turned towards socio-cultural, political parameters of the geographies they were born or lived in. Either way, the main characteristic of the period was that the artists emphasized the realities specific to Turkey through their subjective stories. It is even possible to claim that such trends showed a general feature in and outside of the West. These were the natural result of the globalizing world. In other words, what Fukuyama calls “the end of history” in theory was almost identified with “the end of great narratives” in art. Artists were experiencing discovering their own essence. In this period where historical, grand and iconic mythological discourses in art were replaced by more individual and self-directed expressions, and where narratives evolved into “personal mythologies” as Paolo Colombo put forward, my subjects were mainly the people and places I came into contact with. In many of my works, my family and my relatives were the main performers. Most of the stages and venues were my home, my street, my neighborhood in Ankara where I lived until I migrated to Istanbul.

Ferhat Özgür, “On My Own Way“, Photography, Dimensions Variable, 2004.

Your name is the first one that springs to mind when it comes to video art in Turkey. However, your art is not limited to that. There are also photographs, installations, and paintings (watercolors, drawings). Could you please touch on the advantages of this multidisciplinary approach in terms of your production process?

As you know, although my whole academic education is entirely on painting, my tendency to different forms of expression such as video, installation, photography, and performance coincides again with the mid-1990s. But I have never drifted away from painting. I know that I have made an impression in Turkey as if I am not painting anymore because my works circulating abroad are mainly video, photography, and installation. But my website does not say so. In 2019, almost all of the works in my solo exhibitions at the Heike Curtze Gallery in Salzburg and Vienna were paintings. However, we warmed to the mediums of video and photography with the examples that we can see in person in biennials, large-scale exhibitions and museums due to the relative ease of going abroad in the globalization process. We were impressed by them and they entered our blood. The subjects you choose sometimes determine the technique. Of course, any kind of subject can be expressed with any kind of medium. However, video and photography as technical requirements work for me as follows: I perceive it as a kind of social responsibility to record the outside events in their very own environment with my camera, despite the risks and to collect materials that can be processed later. Painting, on the other hand, is an experience of returning to myself. While my inner world is more dominant in painting, it is the realities of the outside world that direct me when I’m using other mediums. This gives me the advantage of switching between fantasy and reality.

“I do actually nothing but reveal an existing observable situation in my works.

Ferhat Özgür, “Healing Tactics“, Drawing on Paper, 95×95 cm, 2018/2019.

It is seen that you have built your critical language on social issues with a very humanistic perspective in your art. This point of view occurs especially in your drawings with powerful images centering on animals, nature, and living humanely. Could you tell us how you built this critical but non-exclusionist and integrative language while shaping the relations between nature/human, animal/human, human/human in your works?

In a speech that Ali Akay gave on Felix Guattari’s book, “The Three Ecologies”, which he also translated into Turkish, he talked about Guattari’s “assemblage of enunciation” concept. In this utopic assemblage, animals, plants, human beings, insects, all kinds of living beings are in a unity based on mutual consensus in which they can freely express their rights. Similarly, in my last solo show, “Animal Farm”, at the Pill in Turkey in 2017, there was an integrative and constructive critical stance on nature and human conflict – unity, as you mentioned. I do actually nothing but reveal an existing observable situation in my works. In the videos, I am searching for ways to express critical points without especially being partial but also without sacrificing them only for observation.

Ferhat Özgür, “Documenta Steps“, Photography, Dimensions Variable, 2007.

We can see that the exhibition “Leaden Circles Dissolved In The Air”, which you curated at Elgiz Museum in 2018, acts on the book “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf. In the same way, your last solo show, “Animal Farm” in 2017 at the Pill, was named after George Orwell’s novel with the same name. Could you explain, especially through your exhibition “Animal Farm”, how your interest and passion for literature affects your thought and production processes?

Novel, story, poetry, essay, whatever form it takes, literature is a passion for me walking arm in arm with art from the very beginning. I have been glued to books. Especially when it comes to novels, they offer me a tremendous visual treasure in terms of staging and envisioning characters. I read literary works as if I am in the scene they describe. W. J. T. Mitchell states that in order to express something, painting and sculpture have to resort to manipulation due to the nature of their materials. Poetry, on the other hand, has the freedom of playing with words as it wishes. Even in ancient paintings, when painters failed to portray the figures, they hung labels on the mouths of the figures and wrote characteristic features of them as an explanation. Similarly, Bilge Karasu defines the novel as a layered image generator. According to him, the topic of the descriptions in the novel and the boundaries of the activity called “description” lead us to some other images. Naturally, along with some of my works, some of the exhibitions for which I take responsibility inevitably flirt with literature which reinforces my questioning between description and image.

Ferhat Özgür,”Maybe Happy Ending“, Video, 40.14 min., 2020.

In this sense, I can say that the exhibition “Animal Farm” is exactly the result of such a relation. Because, it was a spatial installation which I carried out in collaboration with Efe Murad Balıkçıoğlu, litterateur, poet, and translator. I made a large wolf sculpture, and lamb and sheep sculptures accompanying the wolf by breaking into pieces the decommissioned ballot boxes to point out to nationalism which arose both in Turkey and Europe. I tried to depict general politics in reference to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” with a mural which I designed specifically for the space, a large-size wall photograph, and watercolor animal depictions. For me, this was an experiment in which I tested the limits of visualization. Efe Murad, on the other hand, produced a video fable using the freedom of playing with the words to the end by addressing the issue in the context of the linguistic “description” that I mentioned. This fable, which could be read on a double screen as a text, was added to the installation as a video. On the other hand, “Leaden Circles Dissolved In The Air” group exhibition which I designed based on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” was a transitional phrase that Woolf used when describing the character in the novel. I took this sentence as a starting point to signify the transitions between the artists in the exhibition.

Ferhat Özgür, “Wolf”, Ballot Boxes, 483x248x145 cm, 2017. “Tower of Democracy”, Ballot Boxes, 130x284x127 cm, 2017. From the Exhibition “First Round – A Selection from Banu-Hakan Çarmıklı Collection”, The Private Galata Rum School, 6 March – 12 May 2018. Photo by Güncel Sanat Arşivi

We have been following your works for a long time, so we can easily say that you are a very productive artist. Even during the lockdown, you did not stop and made a new video open to access on your website. Could you tell us how you preserve your energy without losing your strength and desire to produce in any condition and period? Could you also tell us about your new video, “Ethnosport”?

In fact, it would not be a lie if I said that I am gradually getting scared of and hesitant about the word production. Because this seems to me like rushing goods to market. Sometimes I doubt my high productivity. Whatever the conditions are, let’s say I’m productive with my commitment to art with passion and love, but I often ask myself how it would be if I didn’t produce even a little bit. During the lockdown, I was able to focus more on video recordings and my archive, which spread over many years and are now waiting for free time for editing. In this way, “Ethnosport” is completed. In 2019, the Ethnosport Culture Festival was organized for the fourth time. I collected video shots from the shows at Yenikapı Arena and Atatürk Airport, which is not used anymore. “Ethnosport” is finally completed as a double screen video with the support of ALART, the organizer of the festival, who permitted me to shoot and provided other recordings that I wanted. In the context of crowds, batches, masses, and groups, I totally tried to make a comprehensive portrait of social spectacle. On the other hand, I wanted it to be a work that witnessed the recent political and cultural transformations of the festival venues.

Ferhat Özgür, “Ethnosport“, Double Screen Video, 26.47 min., 2020.

Our thanks are due to Ferhat Özgür.

  • For more information about the artist, you may visit his website.
  • Besides the photos and visual images by Güncel Sanat Arşivi, all the other photos in this interview are used by courtesy of the artist from his website.
  • The rights of all the visual and textual concepts in this interview are reserved. Quotation shall be allowed provided that the source shall be mentioned in the work where the quotation is cited. For the photos please contact the artist.

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