Text by Sandra Dichtl

Catalogue text: Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt, 2014 Kettler Verlag

Translation from the German by Christopher Jenkin-Jones

The Collective Construction of Reality and its Potential for Change
A Tour of the Exhibition “Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt”

Sandra Dichtl

The three themes of the exhibition—the symbolic representation of power, territorial borders and their attendant exclusion, and the materiality and symbolism of money—are one and all current political and social issues. Debates around the financial crisis or the violent struggles stemming from territorial aspirations to growth or autonomy dominate today’s news. What Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt present to us is not a direct indictment of social and political grievances, but universally shared power-political and sociopolitical constructions and their encryptions.

The artists’ ludic-aesthetic approach shows that precisely these signs and codes are socially constructed and hence can also be changed. This approach of the two artists born in Ankara in 1977 and 1978 comprises a lightness of touch that precludes their assuming a normative, or judgmental, not to say polemical, stance. Their work has a signature that is plain and non-arbitrary, playful almost, deliberately not hermetic or obscure, but accessible and easily understood. The two artists favor working with clearly differing and varying processes, since in their eyes always to work with one medium risks prioritizing medium over content.

A statement of the artists’ aims might run: to think more openly and complexly the interspaces that arise in trying to define and establish identities. The two artists work in depth with the construction and manipulation, loss and alteration, of identities collectively understood, and demand and/or promote skepticism of the supposed self-understanding and codifications of identity. The various issues and themes and their artistic implementation have their roots not least in the biographies of Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt, both of whom began their studies in the sculpture department of Hacettepe University in Ankara. Mustafa Kunt then proceeded to the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main, where he studied under Wolfgang Tilmans, who ran a non-applied art course there, finally graduating under Willem de Rooij, for whom not only motifs and themes are important but also broader sociopolitical and (art-)historical contexts. Özlem Günyol likewise last studied at the Städelschule, under Ayse Erkmen, who became known for her sculptures and art projects in public space.

Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt created a work titled Hemzemin as a public space installation in Dortmund. For this sculpture reminiscent of Carl Andre’s metal plates the artists transformed a 12-meter-long flagpole into a flat object measuring 1.5 x 1.5 meters that is level with and part of the ground for the length of the exhibition. In respect of the flagpole, the work adapts it to its environment, which it otherwise surmounts and sometimes, as a flag-bearer, aesthetically and symbolically dominates. A video work on view in the exhibition space records the segmenting and melting down of the stainless steel pole, including its positioning in the sidewalk of the Hoher Wall in Dortmund. The title of the work is a compound of two originally Persian words that have entered the Turkish language: Persian ham (Turkish hem) meaning “one,” “together,” “equal”; and Persian zamin (Turkish zemin) meaning “ground,” “earth,” “floor.” Hence, an approximate translation of hemzemin might be “to be together on common earth and ground.” The flagpole recurs frequently in the works of Günyol & Kunt. While in the work Flagpole (2007) the artists “snapped” a flagpole in Frankfurt, presenting the resultant abstract form in the exhibition space as an ironic self-parody, the flagpole in Hemzemin becomes a mysteriously shining plaque in the ground over which more or less attentive passersby walk daily. Dortmund currently seems to be the right place for the abasing of this power symbol. Only two days before the exhibition opened, twenty neo-Nazis stormed a post-election party being held at the Dortmund city hall by representatives of the democratic parties. With pepper sprays and glass bottles the rightwing extremists attacked democratic politicians attempting to block their path.1

In the work Flagpole,St. Paul’s church in Frankfurt—seat of the first German parliament—was the site of an engagement with flagpoles as symbols of national affiliation. Following this historical reminiscence, it may be a contemporary “recollection”—of the German banking metropolis and its thriving, imperious finance operations—that lies behind works around the symbolism and materiality of money. For the artists have lived in Frankfurt am Main ever since studying at the city’s Städelschule. Apart from which, radical economic insecurity has increasingly begun to infiltrate art production, also as a subject of artworks. It is precisely the countries that have been strongly hit by the crisis and their artists who have begun to take a stand, not least in the context of big art events. Stefanos Tsivopoulos, for example, staged his three-part video installation History Zero (2013) in the Greek Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. It highlighted the political and social situation of the debt-ridden country by means of an African migrant scrap-metal gatherer, an aged woman art collector who turns euro banknotes into origami blossoms, and an artist with tablet computer in search of motifs and inspiration who becomes a tourist among the wretched. Further, a heterogeneous display in the Pavilion entrance area presented thirty-two alternative currency, exchange, and economic models ranging from the bitcoin “hacker” currency to development-aid hype and microcredits. Currently, at the first anniversary of escalating protest over the development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, Özlem Günyol’s & Mustafa Kunt’s home country has again become the scene of demonstrations against corruption, economic dominance, and power-political ambitions. In this sense, too, their works around this topic both reflect their own origins and influences as well as global political and social events. The work Untitled (2014), likewise presented in Dortmund for the first time, consists of a pedestal onto which have been stacked plates of congruent format made of tin, copper, zinc, nickel, brass, aluminum, and steel—the materials, in other words, used to produce euro coins.

Formally speaking, an aesthetically attractive rigor runs through the artists’ works as a unifying theme. In the case of Untitled, this rigor is abundantly evident in the plain yet trenchant design of its pedestal onto which, as in earlier works, the metal plates are flush mounted to present a compact cube. If it is an aesthetic that tends to convey distance, not least for the viewer, this distance appears all the more fractured in the video works such as that accompanying Hemzemin, or in Game. In this latter work, a euro coin rolls uninterruptedly without toppling over. The proverbial “ruble is rolling”2 and becomes a symbolic, precious-metal “hologram.” There is also a reference here to Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception of 2010. In the movie, a spinning top becomes the sign of a dream state, while one that has toppled over symbolizes reality. The uncertainty in Game as to whether the rolling coin ultimately stops or not holds the viewer’s thoughts and interpretations in a state of suspense, the entire financial system quasi-rotating before his eyes in the symbolic image. Scheinbogen consists of the seven colors of the seven euro banknotes from 5 to 500 euros. The colors have been taken from the specimen notes on the European Central Bank website and—starting with the 5-euro note and increasing in value—positioned diagonally next to each other so that they call to mind a rainbow. The rainbow, a magnificent spectacle of nature, has left its trace in the cultural history of mankind, appearing as a motif in countless artworks from Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Anton Koch to Peter Paul Rubens. The title Scheinbogen3 contains several meanings: the German word Schein can refer to the sheen of a rainbow, to a banknote, but it can also mean a mirage or illusion.

The artist book State Paintings of 2008 presents twenty-four enlarged details of line patterns taken from international passports. Apart from security elements used internationally, these are distinct motifs, ornaments, and scripts in the watermarks that are designed to emphasize the particular character of each nation. Optically beguiling ornamentation and the intricacy of the security systems are plain to see here. State Paintings is a large, white book placed on an info stand and may only be touched and leafed through by viewers wearing white cotton gloves. This can be seen as a humorous allusion to the didactic presentational modes that are sometimes met with in historical museums.

In addition to the obligatory travel and ID documents, Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt have also been engaging in their works with state and/or country boundaries for a good while. In the wall work Ceaseless Doodle the outlines, or borders, of all the states/countries of the earth have been superimposed to form a confused maze of lines like a ball of wool reminiscent of a sketched globe consisting of nothing but pencil strokes.

Using music the artists have also addressed and symbolically fractured boundary security techniques: BTO-28, CBT-65, BTO-22 set to music, as it were, three international types of NATO razor wire that differ in blade shape. To begin with, an interjected “Ouch!” was recorded and the resultant sound-clip used to create a graphic module based on the blade shape of the wire; subsequently, via a computer program, the module was converted into a musical score. Finally, the notes were translated into the acoustic of string instruments to produce sounds that are replete with tension. Günyol & Kunt’s styles of presentation and representation, therefore, range all the way from ironically fractured didactic intervention (State Paintings) to the subtly encrypted aestheticization of horror in musical razor wire: “This type of barbed wire is known in German as ‘S-wire,’ or ‘Z-wire,’ ‘razor wire,’ or ‘NATO wire,’ because it was introduced to Germany by the NATO ally the USA and for many years was used exclusively for military purposes.”4

Günyol & Kunt’s deconstruction and contextually pointed reorganization of signs and codes is not so much aimed at a truth of the political as at the “politics of truth.”5 The concept of the “politics of truth,”6 coined by Michel Foucault, denotes a social ordering of truth that generates recognized technologies and procedures for producing and establishing this truth and that is also invariably bound up with specific power relations. Power and knowledge are interwoven in the organization and production of facts and their interpretation: “However, above all, one sees that the core of critique is basically made of the bundle of relationships that are tied to one another, or one to the two others, power, truth, and the subject. And if governmentalization is indeed this movement through which individuals are subjugated in the reality of a social practice through mechanisms of power that adhere to a truth, well, then I will say that critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth. Well, then, critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability. Critique would essentially insure the desubjugation of the subject in the context of what we could call, in a word, the politics of truth.”7

In this sense, too, it is clear that Günyol & Kunt are not polemically critical in their works, take no unequivocal stand; instead, they employ subliminal deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction to break through perceptual and mental schemata, in doing which they not only open up new ways of seeing but also critical reflection upon them and, ultimately, their change in the encounter with symbols, signs of power, and codes of promulgated truth.


1 See http://blog.zeit.de/stoerungsmelder/2014/05/26/neonazis-ueberfallen-wahlparty-im-dortmunder-rathaus_16406 (04.06.14, 10:52)

2 German proverb “der Rubel rollt” (lit. the ruble is rolling) meaning “business is doing well.” Trans.

3 Scheinbogen, a neologism based on the German Regenbogen (rainbow). Trans.

4 http://www.s-draht.de/produkte/sicherheitsdraht/sicherheitsdraht.htm

5 The artist and author Hito Steyerl has been foremost in addressing the subject of documentarisms for years. See Hito Steyerl, “Politik der Wahrheit: Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld,” springerin 03 (2013), “Reality Art”; and Hito Steyerl, Die Farbe der Wahrheit: Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld (Vienna, 2008).

6 Michel Foucault, “Technologien der Wahrheit,” in Jan Engelmann (ed.) Foucault–Botschaften der Macht: Reader Diskurs und Medien (Stuttgart, 1999), pp. 133–44.

7 Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in id., The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvere Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth (New York, 1997), pp. 23–82, at pp. 31–32.