Bruno Muzzolini & Iva Kontic: In your video piece “Women in Love,” you explore the three big subjects of love, violence and death through a brief, fragmented conversation between three women from Ankara filmed in a what appears to be one the protagonists’ living room. While they recall their late husbands in an informal and often ironic, cheeky manner, their stories unveil the history of domestic violence and day-to-day abuse. The striking contrast between the lightness and casualness of the women’s performances and the shocking implications of their memories on the normativity of male-female relationships within Turkish society is further emphasized by the rawness of the image and the direct documentarist mode of shooting. Can you tell us how did the idea of “Women in Love” come about?
Ferhat Özgür: Let me start by saying that my primary concern relating to women’s issues is very much to do with my childhood. When I look back I see that women, and the problems of women, come to the forefront. This concern must be related to the situation in the Altindag suburb of Ankara, where I spent my childhood, and could also be related to the autobiographical experiences that I witnessed to the oppressed, but ultimately winning, women.
Over time it has been so painful to see that not much has changed regarding these matters since then. Femicide, killing women because of their gender, is a longstanding issue in Turkey. Domestic violence crimes committed against women have seen an alarming increase in 2019, with over three hundred women losing their lives after being subjected to violence. As shown in the video, most women confess they are bound to obey whatever their husband (the so called “master”) says to them. If not, they are either beaten or murdered.
In this sense, the video focuses on several issues such as love, hate, domestic dependence, violence and crime as witnessed by the women’s own personal testimonies. Yet, on the other hand, it features economical and psychological facts as to why and how they are so fond of their husbands. Through the stories of these vulnerable figures we are dragged from the minor testimonies to the major issues which subsequently indicate that all of us have similar feelings with which we can identify.
When I exhibited the video for the first time, in my solo show in Marabouparken, Sweden in 2012, I saw several women in the audience sitting and watching it right until the very end. Then they confessed that what they had witnessed in the video was not only peculiar to Turkey but also about women all around the world. They emphasised that, although they were from one of the most civilised countries, they were suffering from the same kind of troubles.
BM & IK: In which way this work is connected to the rest of your artistic practice, in particular your video production?
FÖ: Observing and recording outer life plays a significant role in my video practice. In a way I am documenting the people. Roland Barthes says that certain forms of writing, including the documentary, are “scriptable” because they turn the reader into a kind of writer. I see the words when listening to other people’s personal stories. Listening and interviewing individuals about their own experience resembles a sort of ‘designing’ of their words. It is almost like visual archaeology. To ‘excavate’ stories, to find out what lies historically, politically and culturally behind them, is both a challenge on how to express them visually and an accomplishment of my own artistic responsibility towards the society in which I am shaped. It is an inescapeable feeling to go over the problems around you not as an artist but as an inividual, irrespective of the limitations of art in solving problems. Art can only increase social awareness by bringing all sorts of crucial matters to the fore. That is why, even from the very beginning, it has become my main occupation to observe people and their environments in order to expose and identify the most significant facts and how they impact on us. One should be careful not to discriminate between such matters. I am trying to select personal stories that might belong to others too.
So video, as a medium, can have the advantage of altering the scene in order to achieve a particular effect on the viewer who might confuse the deception for reality thereby turning the former into the latter. Of course anyone with a camera can also record images of atrocities or poverty, but not everyone can be an artist in a convincing way, as the late Okwui Envezor points out.
These were the main impulses behind producing “Women in Love”.
BM & IK: In respect to the delicacy of the topics that the women discuss and the intimate dimension of their confessions, which would be your process of creating an ‘optimal’ situation for your subjects to perform in front of the camera?
FÖ: I always try to be as invisible as I can when I am behind the camera by not ‘conducting’ my performers regarding how they should act and what they should express within the acting. This may well destroy the originality and intimacy of the performers themselves. Although there is invariably a point of departure or a main topic that I have to ensure is included yet I believe a degree of improvisation encourages the individual personalities and can contribute to unexpected results in the scripts! In “Women in Love” I just gave the main instructions and then ‘backed off’ during the performers’ conversation.
BM & IK: What would be, in your opinion, the power of video camera as a dispositive?
FÖ: The video camera presents the power of personal involvement alongside a distribution network dominated by corporations. It is a device which opens a window of opportunity: for story telling, documentation, commentary – in fact, whatever the owner of the video wishes. It enables them to create their own visual experiences.
It is not only an alternative ‘vehicle’ to analyse the relationship betwen real life and documentary representation but a way of possibly presenting the actualities of life through artistic practice. The artist handles and evaluates the reality through accumulated images or the ‘image encyclopaedia’ in their camera. The ambivalence of the video images offer themselves as a medium for a performative critique. In other words, for a practice which criticizes the logic of the medium during the process of using it.
I am always aware of these kind of limitations which can reflect the reality. However we must approach video art as a visual operation or video representation rather than the naked documentary where individualist attribution is excluded.
BM & IK: You work with various mediums such as painting, photography, installation and video. How do you approach the concept of consistency in art? Does an artist have to have a single manner/style in his artistic expression
FÖ: A single theme, a single style, a language you can recognize at a glance in the crowd. These were and are consistently identified. Art criticism was and is based on this consistency. Of course, this may be possible but consistency is an artificial phenomenon imposed in terms of market value. The artist has nothing to do with what is happening inside themselves. The artist does not formulate himself to be consistent. What may be called a “style” is a collection of contradictions that span an artist’s entire life.
I chose to ‘get lost in the crowd’ from the beginning. I have always been asked about the relationship between my work on patterns and paper, my videos and photos. Now I have an answer that I am not alone in saying: “Because it pleases me!” There is nothing better than enjoying this freedom. This is my advice to young people, young artists: “Don’t get stuck in one style. Constantly create new turns, explore new avenues”.
Ferhat Özgür is a visual artist from Ankara, who lives in Istanbul. He had institutional solo shows in MoMA PS1 (2013), Marabouparken-Sweden (2013), and Michigan University Museum of Arts (2015), and took part in biennales such as Busan Biennale (2019), Berlin Biennale (2010), Istanbul Biennale (2007). His work has been shown in numerous international institutions including Centre George Pompidou-Paris, Haus der Kulturen der Welt-Berlin, Academy der Künste der Welt-Cologne, MUMOK-Vienna, Irish Museum of Modern Art-Dublin, Salzburg Modern Art Museum, Zabludowicz Foundation-London, etc.