30 May 2022

Erdem Taşdelen, A Moving Target (still), 2022

In early 2022, Tate curator Nabila Abdel Nabi and artist Erdem Taşdelen met for a studio visit at Delfina Foundation during the artist’s residency. Below, the pair make public some of the discussions they had that day at Delfina Foundation, and since, continued through email correspondence.

Nabila Abdel Nabi: How was your time at Delfina Foundation and what do you feel like this time in London did for your work or research?

Erdem Taşdelen: Considering how much there is to do and see in London, my time at Delfina Foundation was surprisingly productive. Aside from meeting with many people for studio visits, seeing lots of exhibitions, sharing meals and wine with fellow residents, and reuniting with old friends, I made significant progress on the new series of works I’m currently developing. Perhaps what ended up being a blessing in disguise in this regard was the postponement of my residency due to the pandemic. My original plan was to come to Delfina in the autumn of 2020 and start research for a new project while in-residence, but with the delays I was able to do this initial research at home in Toronto and when it was time for me to come to London, I had already begun producing a new body of work. In hindsight I would say this worked out really well, because the residency provided so many great opportunities for me to gather feedback.

Erdem Taşdelen, A Minaret for the General’s Wife, 2020. Installation view at Mercer Union, Toronto, 2021. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

Nabila: I understand your recent work A Minaret for the General’s Wife opened at Mercer Union in Toronto during a period of lockdown. Interestingly, the installation is very much about myth-making or storytelling, revolving around General Totleben’s motives for the construction of a freestanding minaret in Lithuania. As you were working on this project, we were collectively experiencing increased distance from people and events happening in the public realm. How did this inform or reform how you thought about this body of work? Did it give rise to new strategies of storytelling or exhibition-making?

Erdem: This was a bizarre confluence of events, where the pandemic brought into being a set of circumstances that took my intentions around the work to their extreme. At the core of this exhibition is a booklet received by each visitor. Containing twelve texts, this booklet acts as a series of narratives which have the potential be transformed into theatrical scripts—hence the seemingly provisional aesthetic of the installation, which looks as if it might have been suspended while in use by actors who workshop these stories right there in the space itself. You can imagine bodies having been in there right before you, almost as if you will sit on one of the chairs and it will still feel warm, or that these strangers will come back and start drinking wine together there once you leave. What I had conceived as a simple gesture took on a whole other ghostly presence after the exhibition sat behind closed doors for eight months during a very long lockdown in Toronto, and once it was open, it was by timed entry per household, which essentially meant that most people initially saw the exhibition alone. Although this changed over the next months, it fundamentally shaped how I thought about the work in terms of its relation to the desire to feel connected with others, and its highlighting of how the meaning of objects and structures that appear in public spaces are continuously given new connotations collectively. This exhibition is now on view at Richmond Art Gallery in Vancouver, so I’m really interested in observing the ways in which this second staging compares to the first, in terms of how the work is experienced physically.

Erdem Taşdelen, A Minaret for the General’s Wife, 2020. Installation view at Mercer Union, Toronto, 2021. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

Nabila: I was very intrigued by the constellation of texts in which you weave together different perspectives around the minaret at the heart of the show. What did your process of writing these look like?

Erdem: Something that often happens with me is that I’ll start a project with certain intentions for what I’m going to make, and then the work evolve into something different altogether. This is what happened with A Minaret for the General’s Wife as well. I initially thought that I was going to be making a speculative essay film about the Kėdainiai Minaret. I spent four days on site filming and I was simultaneously writing these fictive texts in Turkish, from the point of view of the imaginary Turkish wife that this minaret was supposedly dedicated to. I was thinking that these texts would become a poetic voiceover to the film. But the more I wrote, the more it felt like I was establishing another singular narrative around this somewhat mysterious minaret, and as long as the singularity of this narrative was kept intact, the gesture of honing in on the speculative still felt rather stale. So I figured I would try writing texts from different vantage points that touched upon the minaret, some directly and some tangentially—there’s even one text written from the perspective of someone who stumbles upon the exhibition and is trying to make sense of all the objects and images they are looking at. To me this felt closer to the heart of what I was wanting to do with this project, and that’s what really shaped the installation in the end, both aesthetically and conceptually.

Erdem Taşdelen, A Minaret for the General’s Wife, 2020. Installation view at Mercer Union, Toronto, 2021. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

Nabila: Generally, where do you see writing sitting within your wider practice?

Erdem: Writing is central to my practice in that most of the work I do involves writing in some form, but there’s so much variation between projects in terms of what my writing looks like and how it influences the aesthetics of the final work. I remember a work I made way back during my MFA titled Dear, (2010) which consisted of a series of anonymous, self-reflexive letters that I wrote and printed out which I then marked up and edited by hand after the fact. It’s funny because when I started writing these letters I wasn’t thinking of it as “a work”, I just needed to get the words out of me and I was procrastinating when I should have been working on my thesis exhibition. Then I had an “a-ha moment,” when I suddenly realised there was no reason that these very letters couldn’t be my graduation project—why was I creating an artificial boundary between writing and visual art? I think this has been my guiding ethos since that time; I don’t consider writing to be something separate from my visual practice but very much a central part of it.

Nabila: You refer to the idea of staging or the performative a lot in your work, what is it about this condition that appeals to you?

Erdem: I’m generally interested in looking at the conditions under which something comes to be recognisable, in looking at what constitutive elements are behind the scenes while something is in-progress, not-yet-quite-there, and I think the notion of staging helps me think along these lines. Similar to taking a urinal and signing it as an art object, if you take any sort of character or event and place it on a “stage” of sorts, you’ve already taken the first step towards creating a narrative world for that thing to exist inside, and then whether that world is based in fact or is a work of imagination starts to become somewhat irrelevant. I almost always have a specific cultural “anchor” in the heart of each of my projects—a freestanding minaret built as a culturally appropriative folly in Lithuania (A Minaret for the General’s Wife, 2020); a collection of 30 archetypal character descriptions collated by an Ancient Greek writer (The Characters, 2018-21); an Iranian Revolutionary Guard forced to confess his crimes on national television (I Am Manifest Proof of Deviation, 2018); a Turkish woman who published an erotic novel under the guise of a fictitious Anglo-American author (The Curtain Sweeps Down, 2017); and a young boy found in rural France and mistakenly believed to be feral (Wild Child, 2016). These are all objects or figures that have existed in reality, but I strive to create these self-contained universes where these stories are in the process of being “staged” and “re-staged”. So there really is never an authoritative, final version of any narrative, and the audience is invited to consider the conditions of the staging—and by extension, of historicising.

Erdem Taşdelen, A Minaret for the General’s Wife, 2020. Installation view at Mercer Union, Toronto, 2021. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

Nabila: You mention that your intention was to make the exhibition poster for A Minaret for the General’s Wife look like a “movie poster.” Generally in the exhibition there seems to be a strong graphic development towards building up a cohesive universe around these disparate objects and materials. Can you talk about your relationship to graphic design?

Erdem: My intention with the exhibition poster which hangs within the installation itself was to create this odd dynamic where what’s being advertised to you in the poster is the very thing you’re already standing inside, which might compel you to think, “Well, is A Minaret for the General’s Wife also something else then? Is it maybe a movie or some other type of theatrical production?” So it made sense to mimic the visual language of a movie poster for that purpose. But you’re right, graphic design is a visual language that really shapes how I approach my work aesthetically. I really enjoy typography and layout but it’s also just something that comes to me quite easily as I have an undergraduate degree in graphic design—it’s just another tool, really, like writing.

Nabila: Following your undergraduate degree in graphic design, when and why did you decide to move into a visual arts practice?

Erdem: The graphic design programme I was in was somewhat unusual in its curriculum—our projects never really focused on the commercial aspect of design or what a client might want. When I graduated, I immediately started working at an advertising agency and had a rude awakening about my professional options as a young graphic designer. At the time I also had to leave Turkey as soon as possible to avoid doing compulsory military service, and the most practical way to do this was a master’s degree abroad. I had to choose quite quickly and I thought, if I’m changing my life entirely by moving to another country, this might be the most opportune time to take a risk and see if I can pursue a career in visual art instead. This was an instinctive decision as I wasn’t all that familiar with contemporary art; in fact, I don’t think I’d seen a single exhibition of contemporary art until I was 20. But with what little exposure I’d had, I could sense that being an artist would be a really stimulating way to think about the world we live in and also to live my own life.

Erdem Taşdelen, The Characters Act III, 2022 – 3

Nabila: When we spoke at Delfina you showed me Unmade Films, a project based on designs for movie posters that play on the syntax of those posters: their titles, taglines, credits etc. The titles all appear to come from stock phrases, or cinematic clichés, which seems to relate to another work you did titled The Characters, based on the idea of stock characters and how these become entrenched over time. Where do you see that project going?

Erdem: The Characters ended up being a major presence in my life for a little bit longer than I had originally intended—it turns out that when I came up with the idea for the project, I didn’t quite realise the scope of what I was getting into. I wrote thirty scripts for five-minute monologues for this project, and had each script performed by a different voice actor, recording each in a sound studio as part of an audio installation. Due to this large scope, I ended up splitting the work into three separate Acts and staged the work as a series of three exhibitions that took place at different times, at different institutions, in different cities. I wanted each exhibition to have its own unique response to the space it was installed in, so these three Acts looked quite different from one another. The third and final Act was shown recently at the Art Gallery of Burlington in Ontario. I would really like to show all three Acts together as one huge installation one day, I think it would be great to see it all together.

Erdem Taşdelen, Unmade Films, Swing for Departure, 2022

Nabila: Let’s go back to Unmade Films then. How is that project progressing?

Erdem: When I’m working with a specific serial form, I often set goals for how many of something I will make before a project is finished. These decisions can be somewhat arbitrary, but more often than not, there are specific reasons why a certain number feels right if I reflect on it. When I first started working on Unmade Films last year, I had decided I’d make a total of 16 posters without imposing a hard deadline on myself. I’m currently working on the 14th, so I imagine I’ll be done before long. I have to say it’s been one of the projects I’ve enjoyed working on the most, since it’s allowed me to be creative both linguistically and visually in this hybrid form that’s really generative. I really could keep going after the 16th, but I don’t want it to become habitual or formulaic. So perhaps I will come back to this form again someday when the situation calls for it.

Erdem Taşdelen, A Moving Target (still), 2022

Nabila: I was very happy to view a sample from another new project of yours, A Moving Target, which is a moving image work, and part of this constellation that includes Unmade Films. Can you speak about where the footage was shot and how you structured the video?

Erdem: A Moving Target is a cinematic work that comprises a repository of 100 video segments I’ve been shooting, each around one minute in length. These segments are remontaged each time the work is activated through a computer-generated sequence, which means there are a near-infinite number of versions of this filmic experience that’s not quite a film. I started shooting these videos last summer with an intuitive approach. Instead of going to particular locations with the intention of filming something, I carry a camera around with me during my regular activities and film one-minute fragments through chance encounters with scenes that may subtly imply the beginning of a narrative. This sustained presence of the camera has provided me with opportunities to experience the world around me through a particular lens, as I become increasingly attentive to the fields of vision that surround me wherever I go. In the resulting work, each of the segments recorded carries a narrative potential that is never fulfilled, and the possibility of narrative resolution is perpetually deferred. What I’m aiming for is to play around with the very structure of narrative without intentionally forming a final one, and I want to invite the viewer to immerse themselves in visual pleasure through these dream-like, meditative, déjà-vu-ridden scenes.

Erdem Taşdelen, A Moving Target (still), 2022

Nabila: I understand you are also working on a series of short texts in parallel to A Moving Target. One of the things that struck me about the encounters which unfold throughout these texts is they often seems to end abruptly because people’s preconceptions of each other get in the way of any meaningful interaction. What was the motivation for writing these texts? And have you continued to develop them?

Erdem: These twelve short texts, collectively titled Frictions, were written as scripts for recorded audio monologues. Each one is narrated by a protagonist who describes a dream-like encounter with a stranger, where a moment of friction, animosity or resentment ensues and we’re left with this sense of a bitter impasse, a lack of resolution—much like the unresolved nature of the filmic segments in A Moving Target. These anecdotes are a way for me to think through the affective dimension of how we live alongside one another, where the focus is not primarily on how we are positioned on the political spectrum, but how the everyday actions and behaviours of strangers register in our psyche. I think of all of these recent works which I developed while in-residence at Delfina Foundation as a constellation, where each series has its own distinct parameters as a stand-alone work, but they also inform each other through their conceptual gestures.

Nabila: Is there anything you are currently reading or someone you are thinking with lately?

Erdem: I recently finished reading The Breaks by Julietta Singh, a fantastic work of autotheory that struck so many chords with me, and The High House by Jessie Greengrass, an apocalyptic novel that centers around rising sea levels due to climate change. The latter was also quite good but it was really Greengrass’s previous novel Sight that floored me a few months ago—the precision of her language is such a rare joy and it’s something I’d really like to be able to emulate in my own writing. Currently I am reading Companion Piece by Ali Smith, whose writing always has this incredible rhythm that makes it hard to put the book down.

Erdem Taşdelen, Unmade Films, Two Nights with Isabel, 2022

Nabila: You can definitely feel that in your work you have such a sensitivity to the subtleties of language. Your ability to anticipate unstable and multiple meanings of even a single sentence comes through in Unmade Films, where there is also a broader exploration of rituals and role-playing. My last question is, where can we see your new work in the coming months?

Erdem: A selection of posters from Unmade Films is currently on view in a group exhibition at the plumb in Toronto. I will be showing Unmade Films and A Moving Target in Istanbul in a solo presentation organized by BüroSarıgedik, which will open in September as a parallel event to the Istanbul Biennial.

Nabila Abdel Nabi is Curator of International Art at Tate Modern.

Erdem Taşdelen was artist-in-residence at Delfina Foundation during winter 2022, as part of the Sobey Art Award Residencies Program.