1 March 2024

Experiments with materials conducted by Didem Erbaş in her Istanbul studio, 2023.

From an open call for artists based in Turkey, Didem Erbaş was selected for a residency that took place during the first six weeks of 2024, supported by SAHA. In the final week of her stay, we sat down and reflected on her time in London – her activities, ideas, and where they might lead.

Delfina Foundation: Your works appear to derive inspiration from a heterogeneous array of objects and materials, stemming from quite disparate locations. During your residency in London, what sites have provided such visual reference material for you?

Didem Erbaş: I came to Delfina with the aim of researching materials – their forms, shapes, colours, textures, component substances, etc. So, before boarding my flight, I had already done a lot of research into which museums and places I would visit. I first went to the Hunterian Museum, one of the oldest anatomical and pathological collections in the world, browsing the various body parts, animal organs, reptiles, and marine creatures it holds. Next, I visited the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, and the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. After, to examine more industrial materials, I went to the Imperial War Museum and Science Museum. I found it interesting that, to me, the war and hospital machines I saw there, now displaced from their original context and function, appeared to have an aesthetic akin to that of a artworks. I was also fortunate to have had the opportunity to enter the Warburg Institute Archive. Many of the objects, organisms, and remnants I saw in these museums and collections became an important part of my research.

Visual research made by Didem Erbaş in London museums.

Coming to London, I was also intrigued by the history of ‘mudlarking’ around the Thames – the phenomenon of searching the riverbed at low tide for historical treasures that began back in the Victorian era. I found various books on the subject and on my last day, accompanied by a local friend, I took the chance to go on to the banks of the river, where I saw a few animal bones and objects. After these encounters across the city with fossils, minerals, stones, and archaeological remains, all of which I almost compulsively document on my phone, I began comparing these objects to ones I have produced in my own practice.

Visual research made by Didem Erbaş in London museums.

Delfina: As part of your research process you produced a visual map of sorts; an assemblage of captured images that draw visual correspondences between perhaps unlikely objects, including your existing work, seemingly collapsing or perhaps indifferent to contexts and time. Could you speak about these connections and their significance?

Didem: Alongside my visits to museums, I’ve started to compare the artefacts I have encountered in those spaces with the artificial objects I create in my work. In making this comparison, I began to form a visual map using certain keywords. Can the remnants of the memory become materials of the present or the future? What will happen when organic materials belonging to nature, or anything that is part of nature, become artificial, something I think will no longer exist in the future? What might the materials of the future be? Inspired by ancient objects from the past, can I imagine the fiction of ‘future’ materials and objects? Starting from questions like ‘What does the future – or a future city – look like?’ I try to imagine a fiction.

Visual map of research produced by Didem Erbaş during her Delfina Foundation residency.

Delfina: What is it that draws you to particular objects or materials? And when you work with these materials yourself, do you have a particular approach or process?

Didem: My approach to materials is generally led by the development of an idea. In pursuit of an idea I might also start learning about a material I’ve never encountered before. This is a co-constitutive process, a simultaneous occurrence of the thought guiding me alongside and the decision-making and responding to the material itself. For instance, I once wanted to use stained glass in a project, so I began working with a material I had never worked with before – delving into a deep process of research both learning from information I could find and from direct experimentation with the materials. Another time, due to a project requirement, I found myself working with sound and so I went through a process of trying to find or produce that sound. Lately, I’ve been interested in processes involving latex, agar agar, paraffin, and extracting colours from various plants, and have been extensively experimenting with then in my studio in Istanbul. Examining their interactions with chemicals and experiencing the process has been very stimulating. Waiting for the result of a formula, like a scientist or an alchemist, has become an intrinsic part of my process.

Experiments with materials conducted by Didem Erbaş in her Istanbul studio, 2023.

Delfina: You have described a recent work of yours, Constructing a Field (2022), as a story of sorts. This work is formed of a kind of constellation of objects made of contrasting organic and industrial materials which are displayed together on a simple floor-resting base. As it is presented, this ‘story’ appears as a story without words, with perhaps the exception of the work’s title. What does storytelling mean for you here?

Didem: To create a piece of work, I usually draw inspiration from literature, cinema, my surroundings, or daily events. My work involves constructing an uninhabited area using materials that consist of human waste and recycled materials. For me, storytelling is a narrative of fiction. It’s like a fiction between me and the work. Constructing a Field is the state of thinking of objects’ relations and ways of being, away from being human and being alive. The work is produced using many different materials, including plastic, metal, paper, aluminium, and silicon. It seeks to question the existence of waste materials and recyclable materials, while on the other hand, it aims to underline anthropocentrism.

Didem Erbaş, Constructing a Field, 2022. Aluminium, plastic, pulp, silicone, ceramic, wood, screen, metal, porcelain tile, soap, brass wire, polyurethane foam. 74 x 94 x 274cm. Courtesy of Simbart Projects, Istanbul.

Delfina: In your residency research time itself also appears a central notion of inquiry, with allusions to antiquity and the ‘future’, even ‘post-human history’. Where is this investigation leading?

Didem: “Post-human history” to me is like designing a film about the future when looked at from the present. At times, it also feels like the storyline of a game. Examining objects with human remains in an archaeology museum is like following traces of the past and that has always been something that interests me. After this, I had an idea of comparing and juxtaposing the objects I produce and devising an imaginary narrative connecting them to these historical artifacts.

Detail of the visual map of research produced by Didem Erbaş during her Delfina Foundation residency.

Delfina: How do you see this research developing beyond your residency?

Didem: My time at Delfina has been even more productive than I anticipated. I’m typically an artist who requires a studio space for my work. My research usually progresses in tandem with production itself. Here, conducting research without actively producing and creating a visual map of my research, and having this exist as a tangible output, akin to say sketches, has provided me with a sense of security and control. The people I’ve encountered during this residency, and every conversation I’ve had, has also contributed to my research. Moving forward, I hope to translate these research outputs into my studio practice.

Didem Erbaş, Cheerful Strangers, 2023. Latex, paper mache, air dry clay, plastic, wax, silicone, paraffin, pigment, polyurethane foam, wire, epoxy, metal, varnish, copper wire, resin, iPad, sketchbook, paper roll, nylon tarpaulin. Photos Ninon Lacroix. Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris.

Interview conducted by Helen Gale, the Marketing and Communications Manager at Delfina Foundation.