Fences and barriers
Cevdet Erek stands in the middle of his installation, Çin, in the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Located in the Sali d’Armi, the weapons room of the Arsenale, upstairs from the UAE Pavilion, his work features a set of frames and barriers. The impression given by the minimal construction is it is a work in progress. Erek accepts this is one way of looking at his project.
“It’s not about building a wall, he says, turning towards the South African Pavilion on one side and Singapore’s on the other.
“We have a platform on top of a path between neighbouring pavilions and then we climb there with staircases, which we are sitting on now. Also, there are ramps climbing the staircases for persons in wheelchairs. They might be disabled or, as our first visitor was, a mother with a baby, which we saw as luck.”
At the top of the wide staircase, which looks like a set of benches for spectators, there is an array of long, horizontal panels that are, in fact, audio speakers. The panels, from which Erek’s music plays, are sleek, streamlined, modernist forms.
“There’s an abstract facade, ornamented by sound,” Erek says. “It’s decoration. Instead of the ornamental patterns, we have sound – sound replaces calligraphy.”
Erek, who is also a drummer, calls the project Çin because the word conjures up a percussive sound – like “ding” in English. In Turkish, Çin is also at the root of the word for reverberation and of the word for tinnitus.
Behind the speakers is another enclosed space, which extends to the back wall. Within that space there is an enclosure that is chained shut. If this is designed to evoke an atmosphere, that atmosphere is oppressive.
“The authority – me – wanted to have some part of the public space closed, as a reminder of our experiences in many places which are closed to the public because of security,” Erek says.
The installation, and the decision by an artist to close a space to visitors, begs the obvious question about whether the enclosures are a reference to any present-day place in particular.
“Many places, including Turkey,” Erek says. “Lots of countries are at war or under threat. Directly, in history today, but before also, in history or in the future.
“Ruins,” he adds. “Some people who were here thought about the ruins of a Greek Temple, especially with the visitors’ ramp. And this building itself is a ruin, because it’s an old Arsenale.”
As for his installation being in an old fort, he says: “It makes sense because this was a place that was used for wars, in history, important wars. Even Turkey was a part of those wars over the Mediterranean between Venice and sailing nations, trading nations.”
Erek is not being cagey or coy. Çin, as a construction, is empty space and, therefore a place that can accommodate all sorts of perceived meanings. There is all the more room for interpretation because visual images are replaced by space – Çin is more of a frame, or a series of frames, than a finished structure.
And Erek is not about to tell visitors how they should react.
“It’s not like rice that’s put in your mouth by your mother,” he says.
“Engagement is needed. Everywhere is full of ready-made images to entertain you, to teach you,” he adds, with an expression of disgust. “I want to remember things that we did with our will, to discover the world, to be curious about something.
“Everywhere is full of that ready impact. So why not lose some of the public if they’re not interested.
“My background is in architecture, the art of space,” he says, referring to his professional training as an architect.
The materials of his project – chainlink fence and inexpensive wood, calls to mind the signature materials of the early work of the architect Frank Gehry, the designer of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, who built his reputation on that kind of limited artistic vocabulary.
“I was also practising sound arts, or music,” Erek says. “I’m coming from noise art, from hardcore, from punk. As a student, I was always working in a band. I was a drummer and an image maker, including record covers.”
Erek even looks like a Turkish version of guitarist Jerry Garcia, the late leader of American psych-rockers the Grateful Dead. His design for the installation’s brochure is in the form of a record album.
Erek chooses to see the representations of Çin more universally than echoes of war or repression. The locked space on the far side of the installation seems to him like the part of a stadium where supporters of a visiting sports team are kept to protect them from violence.
“But it could be blocked public space or anywhere where people are divided from each other,” he says. Underneath the two adjoining sections of Çin is a lane of inverted triangles that form a walkway through the installation.
“I call this a vaulted route between military landscapes, this axis,” Erek says.
With so much talk of military symbols and war, is Erek speaking for the government of Turkey?
“You can imagine that I’ve given that question a lot of thought,” he says . “I’m doing this work in the pavilion of a country but the most important thing is not the representation of a country as a diplomat, but the representation of a country in the arts. It’s like saying that a rectangle represents Turkey’s borders.”
He notes that he was commissioned as the artist of the Turkish Pavilion by a committee of artists under the authority of a cultural foundation in Istanbul.
“Besides, how can I, alone as an artist with very particular interests and biography, represent a country like Turkey, or any country?” he says. “It’s such a complex thing. But I’m representing a person from Turkey, that’s for sure. I spent most of my life there, I was educated there, I speak that language, I live there.”
Erek stands near the back wall of Çin. Through a window – another frame in his site – small boats sail across a wide canal built centuries ago for military craft. Shades on the windows soften the sunlight, so that the boats look like the fishing vessels in the Venetian lagoon that the painter Vittore Carpaccio depicted in the 15th century. The soft tones of light on the dark green water – elegant and radiant – are all the more graceful in contrast with the austere materials of Erek’s project. Erek points to the windows. “They were closed and I opened them,” he says. “Maybe in a few days, I’ll find that this scene is super-beautiful and then I’ll make this ugly – I’ll close the windows.”
He turns back to Çin with its fences and enclosures.
“This is not a work that I made in Istanbul and brought here,” he says. “I’ve been imagining this work for one year. I’m trying to understand it.”
The Venice Biennale continues until November 26. For more details, visit www.labiennale.org