Photo: Cemal Emden

Photo: Cemal Emden

Photo: Cemal Emden

Photo: Cemal Emden

Photo: Cemal Emden

Photo: Cemal Emden

Photo: Cemal Emden

Photo: Cemal Emden

Interview: Nilüfer Şaşmazer

Dear Nermin, you were chosen as the first artist to partake in Yanköşe, realized by Kahve Dünyası; it is a public space which aims to host diverse artistic creations. Can you comment on how it felt to work on this space? What went through your mind when you were chosen for the project?

Firstly, I’ve got to say that working on a public space excited me, as aside from being invited to participate in this year’s Cappadox festival, this is the first time I’ve done something like this. In the festival I made interactive sculptures. There’s a difference however in both projects; Cappadox was designed for visitors of exhibitions, however ‘A Boxy Room’ wasn’t. What excited me was that the latter is intended to be a surprise for people who don’t necessarily go to exhibitions, for it to reach a completely different group. I wanted to use this opportunity to make a work that caught the attention and share a mutual emotion, of everyone who passed the wall.

You were given a space of approximately 260 square meters, when forming the work, what sort of phasing did you go through? Between your first idea, and the final outcome, how did the work evolve?

Yanköşe (which translates loosely to Sidecorner) as a name affected me. Being a visual artist, I initially thought of projects visually suitable for that corner. Though the form initially gave way to ideas, the walls being high in both human and vehicular traffic reminded me that I should be paying attention to the idea behind the project, rather than the form. I wanted this idea to somehow catch the eye of people. Seeing that this was being done for the first time, in a place where people wouldn’t expect to see art, it was important that a project, considered with the intention of creating a familiarity was conceived.

As you stated, this place is where people are in transit, it isn’t a recreational space or a park, it hasn’t been designed to accommodate art… When and how did the idea of birds fit into this?

Initially the idea was to interrupt the grey texture of the area and to impose color. From afar or from up close, this place consists of a surface of various tones of grey walls. Secondly, the idea that lately, we collectively feel physically, emotionally and spiritually tired as a result of our intolerance of living together.

By this I don’t just mean people. I mean animals too. Just like us, they have a right to live, and at the end of the day, we live in the same city. Because I was given a wall to work with, and this wall being of a certain height, I wanted to invite birds to the wall, whom I personally really enjoy looking at.

I wanted to create a colorful pattern that was reinforced by the repetition of birdhouses, which is a known icon, and make the walls visible through not only colors but also sound.

Between us, we quipped the idea was a “collective housing for birds”.

In a way it is. The collective housing projects in the city which become increasingly concrete, don't have to be this unpleasant, I think. The work started off with this small quip, however we can definitely think of this installation as a place for birds to live collectively.

Actually the name ‘A Boxy Room’ reminds me of a room of one's own rather than a pluralistic construction.

‘A Boxy Room’ I think, expresses self-sufficiency, it’s generally used for very poor families, like: “Six people living in a boxy room”… At the moment we are living in a time when people can’t even find that tiny room, which also informed the idea. One of our basic needs is to take shelter, for one to be able to handle life, a place to rest is needed.

Also, I realized that this project would take place in the winter. For this reason, if I could use this occasion in some way, perhaps it could be to give someone a small shelter. I literally go into mourning during the winter, I can’t stop thinking about street animals. It’s obvious what I’d do if I won the lottery! For this reason I guess this is one of the first things that came to my mind. Perhaps if it was summer the project may have changed.

How was the production phase? What did you take into account when producing?

From the beginning, I knew that this was something that could be followed through. After receiving confirmation that this installation would be realized, and since we would produce these things and we were going to make these birdhouses, I conducted research on how these objects could extend beyond the project itself. The first thing I did was to go to Eminönü and talk to bird sellers, and buy birdhouses from the ones I spoke to the most. Through these chats, I learned it could be a nest, by the dimensions of the entry hole, the area of the ‘floor’ and the height of the house.

After this I spoke to professors from the Istanbul University Faculty of Forestry. I told them about the project and got more information. While producing the houses, we were careful to use non-chemical conjoining techniques and the least harmful paints for its finishing. We really tried to be as careful as possible.

Most importantly though, this was a six month project. These six months would be winter, so we had to pay attention to details and with the hope of keeping the birds comfortable is how we went about constructing these houses.

The end of these six months coincides with when birds lay eggs during the spring, so I will donate these houses to the Faculty of Forestry so that the afterwards they can continue the life they created.

When evaluating the project, this was something that came to mind, not for these houses to be disposable, quite the opposite, for these birds to be able to continue their life in different areas of the city.

Of course the aim wasn’t only to serve the birds. The 120 bird houses actually symbolize something: The actual subject, using birdhouses was to approach the fact that we share the city with other beings.

The most important point of this project is the concept of living together, need be other living creatures, or other people…

To highlight the existence of birds of course carries importance symbolically. We need to find a way to live together because we come in many varieties. This is the main point. Of course people will initially see birdhouses and think of birds, however a ‘A Boxy Room’ is a proposition on the ways of coexistence. It is at least a starting point on how we can think together, there is a far-reaching idea beyond what is visible in this project.

Making a point of using different colors is also important, you could have used only one color.

Making it in different colors gave it more meaning, otherwise it would have become a more graphic expression. I’m sure it would have looked beautiful too, however I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be more inviting; for everyone who passed the work to feel included and put a smile on their faces. I like to touch people in this manner with my work. Whatever project I make, there will always be this touch, we are after all going through difficult times and we need this sort of sensitivity. Honestly though, for people starved of nature and greenery, their smiles, their outward expressions in response to the work, are a symbol of their happiness, and also an inkling for that longing. This tells me that I am on the right path.

Alongside the installed birdhouses, there is a sound installation which is also very important for this work. Did you use sound as only something to attract attention with?

This also has something to do with my relationship with and interest in nature. Growing up in a house with a large garden is what afforded me the pleasure of growing up in nature. I spent a lot of time with birds, cats and dogs, and by imitating them I thought I could communicate with them more easily. Generally I have a heightened sensitivity to sound. I find that sound is important, and as valuable as visuality, and can affect people in a strong way.

I felt that sound would strengthen the project, as a means of standing out from the grey texture, as well as the sound of cars. Sometimes, when you turn that corner, there are people who see the work and those who don’t. However when you introduce sound to the equation, it attracts your attention. This is because sound tells you that there is life there, or that there is a possibility of life. This is why I really wanted to use sound for this project.

Let’s also make this clear, you can imitate birds really well, and initially the idea was to use your voice, but then that idea was abandoned.

Yes, in the file I presented, I also added a sound I made. I know that I can imitate a bird quite well, however I don’t know what I may be saying in the language of birds. In case I was saying something bad, I decided against using my own voice, and chose instead to use an actual bird sound. As the houses we made were designed for little birds, I found recordings of various small birds, and with some editing, what you hear now is a result of that.

Is there anything that in the past particularly affected you, or when you look back is there a source that you drew from to do with birds?

I constantly watch documentaries on animals and nature at home. For example, the documentary “Birds of Istanbul” I watched years ago when it first came out. I was deeply affected by it as everyone else was. The documentary “Cat” came out and I went running towards that… In some way I am intrigued by the different species of animals that occupy our geography. In my library I have old books on birds published by Doğa Derneği (The Nature Association), however my attention doesn’t zone in on birds, there are other animals too.

From religion to literature to mythology to daily life, birds are a loaded symbol in this geography… Of course Ottoman birdhouses are an important reference point too: There is also an acknowledgement or an homage to this graceful way of thinking about these tiny animals in this project.

Of course, birdhouses were included in the constructive stages of the architecture of that time. They were very fancy these houses. In that sense it is a very valuable and graceful way of thinking, this project also is an homage to that.

Actually, birdhouses aren’t something particular to Istanbul, there are pigeon houses in Cappadocia for example. Maybe in other geographies it’s possible to find other examples. As well as birdhouses, in Anatolia, next to some houses, you can see little holes located on the wall next to the entrance. These are cat holes. As they hunt mice, rats and insects, cats are very common, and people make these holes so that the cats can enter and exit the house easily. I don’t know if this goes for the whole of Anatolia, however in our village in Erzincan, you can see them.

How do you think ‘A Boxy Room’ shares a commonality with your other work? At first I thought you would make an installation using your older works that resemble construction models as a starting point. At the end you did not make a construction-like work but because you practice with models, I guess there is a resemblance.

If you remember, in my solo show in 2015, I only made scenes from the city. I do have a tendency to ‘miniaturize’ and to make models, it is true. And in this project, the scale of the wall with the size of the birdhouses, their placement and familiarity again gives the viewer a feeling of looking at a model. I think that this is what draws people in and makes them smile, actually. There is a childish and naive element within this. Like, you know when children are playing with their little toys, they think that they are the same size as them and for an instance they step away from the ‘real world’. Just like that. In that sense, the scale of the work aides in taking people away from the ‘real world’ that they accommodate.

My previous works, of course, had been designed for a gallery, for that reason their scale was completely different. I've worked on animation characters and other designs before, and they too are different from gallery work. The relationships they have with their media deserves a completely different form, for any particular project.

In Cappadox, despite the work being presented on a large terrain, in photographs, they look like my smaller paper works. This is of course an informed decision, as you know for where the work is being made. In the winter, going to Cappadocia and taking photographs of the terrain and drawing over those photographs with a white pen was what I had planned to do, so the work was made accordingly.

I think, to sum up, what I am trying to do is this: Whatever the work is, whatever the medium, I try and touch whomever the work is speaking to.

What was the experience of working on a public space like?

Being able to see people’s reactions in both this project and Cappadox was wonderful. I graduated from Mimar Sinan University, Faculty of Sculpture. In the 90’s when I was in university, there would be exhibitions in Findikli Park, and as students our end of year project was to produce work for the park. People would come and destruct our sculptures ultimately, but to know that we may be able to make a few people smile was enough of a reason to make a sculpture at all.

Unfortunately, in Turkey we haven’t got a culture of making sculpture. The only thing we do have is memorials. Aside from this, we rarely see projects being made for the public sphere. Art, like many things requires a foundation, however without excluding them or pushing them away for this reason, it’s important for the work to be non intimidating. For people to find the work approachable is valuable to me.

Perhaps in the public sphere, work that is more understandable and approachable is becoming more apparent.

Yes, everything has its time and demands a particular effort. Where Yanköşe is located, there used to be advertisements. My work is the first artwork that came after they removed the adverts, meaning, in this space, this is the first work that people will see as part of this project. After six months, after my work has left the site, people will be asking ‘What is next?’ This means it will have created an expectancy and an accustomedness. I strived to perhaps create this reflex for people who normally walk past without looking, by making it attractive.

Aside from attractiveness, there is a language of humour that exists in all of your work.

I don’t shy away from saying this: for my work to have some humour feels really good. I feel as if it is going well from the very beginning, when there is humour involved. Specifically in public spaces, the only thing to avoid, is making work that makes people say ‘I don’t understand this kind of work’. Think of it like this, you wouldn’t run towards a wild cat to try and pet it. You would slowly approach it, giving it time to adjust to you, or you’d wait until it approached you. It’s important to give it time. Everyone needs that time in my opinion.

We talked about how you make very small works, however this couldn’t be counted as a small work: it is 17 metres high, and 14 metres wide. Still, it is difficult to call this work overwhelming.

Yes, in memorial sculpture specifically, they are made with perspective to give the impression that it is larger than it is, so that the viewer is oppressed. In our project the size of the bird houses invites one to play, people want to approach it, even if cars are parked there, they go between the cars and take photographs. Generally in large installations, there is a need got take a step back, and view it. Here, there is a sense of inviting in, and surrounding.

Perhaps the sound is inviting?

Both the sound and the perception of scale models is what creates this feeling. Also, I’m not someone who normally uses color in my work, however this project needed color. For it to be noticed from afar is a nice thing. And of course in the city, something that breaks the monotony of the gray was important for me.

This is why within the public sphere, encounters like these are important. It breaks the monotony, brings things to our awareness and breaks us from our memorized rhythms, even if just for a moment. Thank you and bless you!