Born in Istanbul in 1973, Serkan Özkaya realised exactly what kind of artist he was while reading a small entry taking up maybe a fifth of one of the the last pages of a book. It was a book about the history of art, borrowed from the American Library when he was 16 or 17 years old.
“There was this picture of Christo’s islands, a tiny picture,” he says, holding his index fingers a little apart and peering into the gap between them, “and a little description that says ‘conceptual art is ideas based and these people need sponsors to realise their ideas’. And that was pretty much it – I said, Oh wow, I am a conceptual artist.”
Özkaya grew up in Istanbul in the 1970s and 80s, socialist and isolated from the rest of the world. It was a time where “we were so poor, but it was ok, because everyone was poor”, when everything was unbranded, and the tekels sold gin labelled ‘gin’ but where the beer was always Efes. From a young age, he had been “obsessed” with art, and went searching through libraries for books on the art of the west.
Özkaya describes Turkey as quietly convinced of its inferiority to the west, which it was trying to emulate. “I was told, all the masterpieces are in the west.” But then, “you go to the archaeology museum in Istanbul and there’s just crazy stuff.” Turkey’s offerings were framed as part of an ancient history of human creativity, but contemporary Turkey was seen to lack the creative freedom Özkaya saw in the west.
“I don’t know what the defense is,” he said thoughtfully, as I asked him why Turkey’s creative culture feels stifled. “It’s not progressive.” But there is more to Turkey’s creative history than contemporary lethargy; “Turkey is unique in that she is actually in the centre of everything; there is no need to feel so much envy.”
One of the effects of growing up in the culturally homogeneous 1980s, when translated books borrowed from libraries were the only resource to a creative world beyond Turkey’s borders, was that Özkaya developed what has become a central theme in his work – reproduction. “Maybe this thing called ‘reproduction’ comes from [growing up in Istanbul at that time]; it is almost mirroring or faking, acting like something else.”
In one of Özkaya’s earlier pieces, he printed large across the wall of a gallery, ‘Keith Arnatt is an artist.’ He had come across the original, identical piece and immediately thought, “I wanted to imitate this. So I did this show in Istanbul and I wrote on the wall, ‘Keith Arnatt is an artist’; I didn’t even put my name on the wall.”
The Absent Artist
There is a way in that these direct references and reproductions make Özkaya almost distant as artist from the final work itself. I ask him about this, and he explains that in the American art scene, where everything is so focused on the person who made the art, “I kind of feel pride when there is almost zero expression [of myself] as the artist.”
For one of Özkaya’s current shows, An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in New York (2016), this is especially obvious. The exhibition is made up of four cameras projecting a live feed of what is happening on the other side onto the walls of the gallery. It is as if the walls melt away, becoming invisible.
“At the opening I noticed that, on the one hand, the gallery is kind of empty, devoid of objects. And on the other it’s totally full with all these images and they all looked like art. But then I realised that there is nothing from me, there is nothing of the artist.” The artist is gone, leaving the art in his place.
But though this exhibition and others seem to be a lot about what is not there, about what has not happened, about what is as ephemeral as the people passing through the projections, his work is also often site-specific, and the audience, the people who see it, become an essential part of the works themselves. “I only come up with an idea, and the rest is the interaction.”
Writer Margie Orford was a part of this interaction in An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in New York, as she sat in the gallery for three days straight, writing her observations continuously for hours on end. During the reading she gave at the end of the three days, everyone, apparently, cried.
“They all cried,” Özkaya said, smiling. “It was very un-New York; nobody left, nobody checked their cellphones. I heard people saying, ‘Oh my god, I could sit there and listen all day long.’ I don’t know if Margie knows what she’s done but it was quite amazing.”
But what was it about the everyday scenes projected onto the gallery’s walls that was so moving? “Its fragmenting time, these mundane things that we all have to live through, all these moments, smaller and smaller like close ups, and then you hit them with a reflection, and its just elevated. People were crying about the pigeons.”
Reproduction and Play
There is the way New York pigeons projected onto a gallery’s walls can move you wonder about the nature of experience and the real, and then there is the way of a 9 metre tall, nude, golden statue can get you thinking.
In David (Inspired by Michelangelo) (2012), Özkaya used a 3D-printer model developed by a Stanford University professor to print out a larger-than-life model of Michelangelo’s David – in gold. The imposing model is made of fiberglass over a metal frame (a previous styrofoam version collapsed during installation) painted gold, larger than life, an over the top riff on the status of works like Michelangelo’s David, which are seen to define what art is, and which heavily influenced the education teenage Özkaya got through his borrowed books.
“I like to think that the work, even in the case of David [Michelangelo’s version], is just a prop. I’m not attached to it as an object or in an aesthetic way. I just took it because it was really a masterpiece of our civilisations….I just play with these icons.”
Özkaya plays with them as he has done since he was a young boy in Istanbul, copying pages from library books and remaking the art he found. His pleasure at what can be done with art is clear, as if he has not left behind the wonder of those childhood games.
When I ask where that wonderment comes from, he describes his intrigue with reproduction. “It’s a simulacrum, a reproduction, but it’s more like reproduction as a way of existing. We are all reproductions, there are no originals, so [the work is] not attached to the originals – it’s just another layer.”
At the heart of how Özkaya thinks about his work is the fact that “the simulacrum is larger than life.” No icon is so great that it cannot be made smaller by what comes after it, and for Özkaya, who described himself as an ‘art lover’ rather than an artist when he was young, this means there is infinite room to tease the art that has gone before, and to keep on his games with what has yet to be made.