Mehtap Baydu is a Berlin-based artist. Performance art comprises the essence of her work. She is currently in residence in Istanbul at the Kulturakademie Tarabya. Although we’re in the same city, pandemic we met through a video call.
We talked about her works in the current permanent collection exhibits Signs Art Spaceat Istanbul Modern Istanbul Modern Museum and Arter.As well as about Osman. Interview is translated to English by Zeynep Beler.
Cover Fotocredit: Anıl Eraslan
Wrapping in a Character
Women Are the Ones Who Give the City Its Dynamism and Energy
M: The first edition from the performance in Kassel in 2012 is in the Istanbul Modern collection. I repeated the same performance last year in Berlin, in Brazil in 2014 and in Munich in 2018. Every time the visual changes in accordance to the cultural texture and dynamics of the city. The clothes in Brazil, for instance, were full of color. The dialogue that transpires when one asks for the clothes likewise develops in the same way. As I wander around different regions of the cities, I meet someone and ask her: “Hello, I’m Mehtap Baydu, would you give me an item of clothing that you use day to day?” Not only that, but I keep their garments after the performance. I tell them to give me their garments but also that they cannot get them back. In addition to the clothing, I also ask for a brief letter. I exhibit these texts, with no restrictions, as part of the installation I make with the clothing.
S: Then of course there’s the question, what are you going to do with my clothes.
M: A garment is a personal thing after all.
S: Why do you take clothes from women and not men?
M: I’ve been working on the body for a long time. Perhaps the answer is that because I myself am a woman, I feel closer to women. I knew that this work had to be with these materials. No matter what country, what culture, women are a part of, their lives resemble one another’s. The women who live and work in a city embody a spectrum brought about by the dynamics and culture of that particular city. In truth, women are the ones who give the city its dynamism and energy.
I gather the quotidian lives of a number of individuals into a single body and then merge it with my own to create an object.
Each Time, I Remove My Own Clothes Along With the Others
S: How does the audience react to the performance? It’s as if you shoulder the burden of all sorts of societal roles when you put on all the clothes. How did it make you feel to put on and take off the clothes?
M: In my work I generally focus on the roles taken on by the individual. As you put it; they’re roles. Donning each character, becoming her, taking her place – it really is a burden. Then taking yourself off along with her.
Each time I remove my own clothes along with the others. As such I leave myself behind as well, I dissociate.
First I hang the clothes up so that they form an installation. Then I put them on one by one, as one does in day-to-day life. Indeed, day-to-day life is featured in most of my works. When you utilize this mundane object as an art object, it creates a kind of dissociation, an uncanniness. The garment is familiar but at the same time something not quite recognized.
In most of my performances, the viewer becomes a voluntary participant. There’s an interaction with those who witness the performance. On the walls will be the texts I collected from the women beforehand. I ask for them because I want them included in the performance. The performance begins with the viewers perambulating the space and I join them. Here there’s conceptual content as well as physical intervention. You’re trying to squirm out of what you’re wearing somehow. Once I got stuck inside while I was rehearsing at home before the performance. My husband had to remove the garments one by one to get me out of there. Performance art has its risks.
Bütün Serüven Kontrolün Altında Olmayabilir
S: It’s a performance where anything can happen. A viewer might do something, or you might get stuck…
M: Once an audience member told me they’d considered running over to help me. And the process of taking off the garments really is like an animal shedding its skin. There’s a reticence when you’re wondering whether you’ll be able to take the clothes off or not. Yet despite it all, I know that even getting stuck inside means something. The difficulty in performance is that you will not have the opportunity to review and improve it in hindsight.
You know exactly what you want to do but you might not have the entire endeavor under control.
The participation and attention of the audience is not always in step with your wishes. During the performance I fuse with the viewer, together we turn into a kind of mortar.
Featuring Baydu knitting herself a cocoon with skeins she made out of the shirts of men that have an important place in her life, the video performance and the resulting cocoon can both be viewed at Arter’s current collection exhibition.
The Work Ought to Be Able to Translate Itself
S: Cocoon features some similar themes. You said you felt like you were shedding your skin, for example. And once again, it concerns clothing. First of all, I think the story behind the work isn’t featured in the Arter exhibition, it’s just the video and the cocoon?
M: İş oraya çıktıktan sonra kendini temsil edebilmeli bence. Hemen hemen hiçbir işimin yanında açıklaması yoktur diyebilirim. Biraz da benim kendi işimi gördüğüm açıdan farklı olarak başkası için başka bir pencere açabiliyor. Seyirciyi yönlendirmek çok da haddime düşmez. İş kendi kendini tercüme edebilmeli.
S: I feel like it’s a precious thing for the viewer to have freedom in which to confront a work. Rather than having it dictated to you, you look at whatever is put out there and have the freedom to take with you what your own background and perspective allows you to see. I appreciate that approach.
M: Absolutely. Selen Ansen is an extremely well-equipped curator who both loves her work and is good at it. I was thoroughly impressed with the exhibition Words Are Very Unnecessary at Arter regardless of the fact that it features my work. I feel like the work is understood and in the right place.
Koza’nın ilk çizimlerini 2012 yılında yaptım. Bu bir video performans. 2015 yılında documanta-Halle Kassel’de, onlar için yapılan bir binada gerçekleştirdim. Bir yıl öncesinden gündelik yaşamımdan tanıdığım erkeklerden gömlekler toplamaya başladım. 33 erkeğin gömleği var kozanın içinde. Evimin hemen altındaki büfeci, yemek yemeye gittiğim restorandaki aşçı ya da birlikte dil öğrendiğim bir insan ya da o sırada Ankara’ya gitmiştim, eniştem, Sakal Kafe’nin sahibi Kadir, sanatçı arkadaşım Levent Kunt ya da Suriye’den sığınmacı arkadaşım.
First I cut up the shirts one by one and make them into skeins. With these shirts I knit a cocoon around myself, which takes eighteen days. I start knitting with three needles and end on fifteen, sixteen needles. The way I ask for the shirts is, “I’d like a shirt of yours for a performance but it has to be shirt you wear from day to day,” and I don’t wash them. I usually had to ask for the shirts but there were those who wanted to participate in the work without prompting. From the point I receive the shirt and take a portrait of the person in it, he is not allowed to carry it ever again. Someone forgot to bring a spare shirt and had to leave shirtless.
S: I was surprised to hear it went on for eighteen days because the video is only seventeen and a half minutes long.
M: There was an incredible wealth of material there, so it wasn’t easy to trim it down to seventeen plus minutes. One has to be very disciplined when working on long-winded performances like this one. I started at eight AM every day like I was going to work. It coincided with an unusually got German summer. In 40 degree weather, I worked from eight in the morning till ten in the evening, only taking a lunch break.
S: I asked you previously, why women? Likewise, now I want to ask, why men?
M: You know somewhat on an intuitive level why it has to be that way. The materials are never coincidental. The world of women are wrapped in a cocoon of male dominance, after all, and the cocoon carries the possibility of transformation, of turning into something else, once one emerges from it. It isn’t you who emerges, it’s something else.
S: I observed two transformations; that of the material and that of you. For one thing, the material in itself is transformed: the shirts become the cocoon and the cocoon is still there. Reading the shirts as the male gaze, you are able to take a possibly antagonistic gaze and transform it into a cocoon which allows you to protect yourself and shields you from the outside world. Finally, your hands emerge out the top of the cocoon, which is your hopeful self-transformation. Perhaps going inside the cocoon protects you so that you can flourish like a butterfly and achieve your potential.
M: You have a great read on it. Keeping that part open and my hands free communicates that I’m not trapped inside, that I can come out.
Osman is Currently in Quarantine Just Like Everyone Else
S: Before the pandemic, Osman was someone we could run into on the streets of Istanbul if we were lucky. Will we see more of him once these days are behind us?
M: Yes, “Osman” will be appearing to us in the near future.
S: I would really like to be there when that happens. Likewise I’d like to be there when Osman goes to the coffee house to chat with his friends.
M: The objective was to introduce “Osman” to the people in Istanbul in a public space. I’ve been in Istanbul for a while on the grant that the Tarabya Cultural Academy offers artists. I’ve been in Istanbul for so long for the first time since ages. It had been on my mind to live and work here for a while especially at this time. “Osman” is one of the projects I plan to realize in this time frame. He’s a fictitious characters I brought to life starting in 2009, representing the migrant workers (Gastarbaiter) in Germany. Due to this unexpected pandemic, however, Osman is currently in quarantine just like everyone else. We are witnessing firsthand how a real-life situation is directly affecting an art project.
I’m constantly in touch with the team here. Their support is a relief. I’d like to thank the team at Tarabya: Pia Entenmann, Çigdem İkiışık, Meik Clemens Laufer, Sinem Tekel, Lena Alpozan, Alma Seiberth, Tijen Tugay.
S: Thank you so much for your time, for giving your first interview to istanbulberlin and for your support.