Narratives Interview Series: Gül Ilgaz

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

The guest of the March issue of Narratives Interview Series is Gül Ilgaz, an artist who addresses social issues with an autobiographical approach and presents us familiar images, objects, events, and situations by looking through “me”. During the interview, we had a chance to talk about the production process and works of Ilgaz in a sincere narrative. We wish you a good reading with the hope that this sincerity will reflect on you.

“While questioning the emotional states I am in, I ask myself the question of with what kind of a form of expression I can transform that by following an intuitive feeling.”

Your works shape through certain subjects such as identity, body, gender, social norms, and memory. Although these are social issues, it seems that you are tackling them with an autobiographical approach. Could you talk about your process of addressing an issue and creating a work?

In a certain period of time, as the old saying goes, I concentrate on the signs and metaphors of whatever state of mind I am in. The moments when we feel life most powerfully are the times when we are stuck, struggling, and fighting with problems. These points where life touches me become my reality that I cannot doubt its existence and constitute the starting point of my works. While questioning the emotional states I am in, I ask myself the question of with what kind of a form of expression I can transform that by following an intuitive feeling. Sometimes for this; I have to set a stage that I designed, find a place or materials according to that, and even dress up. It can take a long time to search for and find all these materials. Whenever I come across the place or materials I am looking for, then I can start that work. Sometimes it can take months to find by chance a rock that I am looking for, in a forest during a trip, or a wooden seesaw in a park.

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Gül Ilgaz, “The Stone”, Photo Print, 60×150 cm, 2011.

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Gül Ilgaz, “Seesaw”, Video, 2011.

You are the most important subject of your works, both as the signifier and the signified. Could you tell us about the “me” starring in your works from past to present? What does this “me” represent and want to say?

After graduating from Mimar Sinan University, Faculty of Fine Arts, Department of Painting, I participated in the works of STT, known as the Definition of Art Group, for five years. These works required studies that ask questions on art, that are analytic, interdisciplinary, and mentally intensive. During this process, it was frequently stated that we were in a work “excluding the personal”. In other words, the relation between the individual “me”, life and the external world was completely outside of art production. After a while, instead of big and assertive discourses, I felt that I need to say my own simple and plain words by taking the personal in. We left the group for similar reasons with Gülçin Aksoy, Nancy Atakan, and Neriman Polat and continued our works in a studio we rent in Arnavutköy. As four women artists, we organized an exhibition called “Between” in 1998 at Atatürk Cultural Center. I participated in this exhibition with a minimalist installation consisting of blank canvases whose dimensions are related to the dimensions of the space.

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Gül Ilgaz, “Untitled”, Installation, 1998.

Looking at my own life started with my work titled “The Doll and the Flag” in the exhibition “Domestic Goods” in 2000. At that time, I was questioning the effects of social judgments, rules, and manipulations on us. As a girl, I grew up avoiding shame and considering “what the others say”. “The Doll and the Flag” was a poem written by my kindergarten teacher for me to read. I found a photograph of the moment that I was reading this poem and reflected it on the wall with a dia projector in the exhibition. The poem ended with the line “I threw my baby, I hugged my flag, I said my dear flag, I took it to my lips.” This line was revealing the contrast and contradiction between the natural and the imposed.

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Gül Ilgaz, “The Doll and the Flag”, Installation, 2000.

After entering the personal with a memory from my childhood, I entered an era where I was questioning the time period and the mood I was in. Time exists not only as a phenomenon we pass through but by penetrating the body with all its effects on us. However, we respond, react, and answer to the time we live by, again, through the body. My response turns into an artwork as a formal translation of what the experienced time makes me feel. In this sense, it becomes important that I use my own body in front of the camera as a kind of performer. My works meet with the audience on common ground in terms of being experienced, lived, and exposed by others. Since I look at this world from a female body, traces of this are often seen in my work.

” Works at the back of my mind that come from the depths of art history can seep into my works.”

In your work “Wedding Portrait” in 2003, there are traces of Jan van Eyck’s painting “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434). Your work “Struggle” in the exhibition “Under My Feet I Want the World, Not Heaven” in 2009 at Akademie der Künste in Berlin shows your head and hands placed on the Athena relief in the Pergamon Altar. Again, your work “News” in 2020 reminds us of Mantegna’s painting “Saint Sebastian” (1480). Could you mention these references from art history in your works and the relations you establish with the past?

After the shooting process, a period of study, which is more mental and where I keep a distance from the emotional state of the work, takes place in the computer environment. In such a process, I let myself go with connotations and even coincidences that I have not thought of before. Works at the back of my mind that come from the depths of art history can seep into my works. It was completely evocative that Mantegna’s work “Saint Sebastian” occurred to my mind when I was thinking of using arrows for my work “News” featured in my last solo exhibition, “Breaking Point”. However, once you decide to use Mantegna’s arrows, the light and general atmosphere of the work also change. When these are combined with today’s artworks, they add a new layer to the work or they establish a connection between the past and the present by strengthening the expression. A historical similarity or contradiction emerges.

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Gül Ilgaz, “News”, Photo Installation, C-Print, 2020.

“I observe that my recent works have gained a qualification that triggers not only personal but also common subconscious or comes to the surface from there.”

In your works, it seems that photography is one of your main materials that become prominent as both a production method and a changing and transforming medium. We can see that in your works “Cliche” in 2001, “The Doll and the Flag” in 2000, and “My Father’s Slippers” in 2003. Other notable materials are canvas and tulle that you used in your works in the 1990s and in your work “Breaking Point” in 2020. There is also a house image in your works that sometimes appears as form and sometimes as content that we can see in your works “Born/Bearing into Death” in 2001, “Recovered Memories” in 2016, “My Mother’s Room” and “Domestic Sounds” in 2020. Examples can be extended that photographs, tulle, canvas, and house as materials are visible in your works. Why do you use these materials? What are the motives that make you include and transform these in your process of creating content, form, and image? Moreover, could you explain your language of thinking and producing in different mediums such as installation, photography, and video?

The process that starts with the revival of an idea in my mind also includes whether the work will be a video, a photograph or an installation in the production process. Indeed, you don’t need big productions to make good work. In fact, the glory of big productions may cause the work to lose something of its essence. What I have is sometimes enough. In this sense, in my works, there is a house image that sometimes appears as form and sometimes as content.

Home is a place where we are born, crawl, grow up, discover, eat at its table, work in its room, eat sunflower seeds in front of the TV, love, cheer up, get angry, leave, and return. It is a space formed by what we carry from there to the outside world and what we bring from the outside world. Household goods, curtains, drawers, closets, sheets, covers are full of traces of all these experiences.

Even the sounds of these goods have a place in our memory, that is to say, every house has its own voice. The sound of a nightstand drawer coming from my mother’s house was the starting point of my work “Domestic Sounds”. Especially recently, since I have been spending time alone at home, I noticed that the voices in the house accompany us and share our loneliness. In my last solo show, I exhibited an installation consisting of photographs and sound recordings of household goods.

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Gül Ilgaz, “Domestic Sounds”, Photo and Sound Installation, 2020.

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Gül Ilgaz, “Them”, Installation, 1999.

In our “Between 99” exhibition held at Istanbul Technical University Taşkışla Campus in 1999, I asked my students to bring objects that carry memory or have meaning for them. At the exhibition, I hung these objects and placed them in tubes made of tulle. Thus, tulle took the place of the canvas. Tulle is a domestic, feminine material that is both transparent and isolating. It manifested itself in my works as an indicator of sometimes life and isolation and sometimes transparency. With this work I named “Them”, I entered the personal by transforming the stories of my students.

I observe that my recent works have gained a qualification that triggers not only personal but also common subconscious or comes to the surface from there. I am talking about our ups and downs, vulnerabilities, sensitivities, inadequacies, oppositions, acceptances, deficiencies, redundancies, and being human. I think that all these have a common ground and bring us together, whoever we are.

Gül Ilgaz, “White Dress”, Installation, 2020.

Our thanks are due to Gül Ilgaz.

  • For more information about the artist, you may visit her website.
  • Besides the photos and visual images by Güncel Sanat Arşivi, all the other photos in this interview are sent by the artist and used by courtesy of her.
  • 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.

Please click for more information about Narratives Interview Series

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