Aslıhan Demirtaş

Nazım Can Cihan and Aslıhan Demirtaş with Kaide (Plinth), 2016, at collectorspace, Istanbul. Photo: Ali Taptık.

Aslıhan Demirtaş is an Istanbul- and New York–based architect and designer whose practice often takes on unexpected, research-based projects. In Taksim Square, she is currently showing Kaide (Plinth), 2016: one and a half tons of earth rammed into a sixty-by-forty-inch rectangular prism, the dimensions of which are based on endangered, traditional urban gardening modules in the Yedikule neighborhood of Istanbul. A farmer, a composer, artists, and collectors have all been invited to contribute to Kaide for one week a piece in order to reflect on soil, memory, and displacement, as well as on the main premises of collecting. The show is on view at collectorspace through May 31, 2017.

THE WORK WAS BORN IN TURKEY, and its title, Kaide, has multiple meanings in the language: rules, ground, foundation, as well as a pedestal or a plinth. Pedestal has a Latin root that has to do with the foot, footing—it’s pie di stallo, “foot of a stall.” But when I looked up the Greek word for plinth, it was a pleasant surprise, because plinth means a piece of earth that has been baked. It’s a brick, so it felt appropriate given the physicality of the work to name it Plinth rather than Pedestal.

My collaborators and I debated about getting the soil from Yedikule Urban Gardens, which would involve dealing with bureaucracy and paperwork, since it’s a historic preservation site. And we did actually start this project by talking with the authorities. They were surprised and asked many questions about our planned excavation—where we’d want to take the soil, the shape of the excavation, and they basically required the submission of a drawing detailing the excavation. But we stopped there and did not take soil from the neighborhood, because, fortunately early on, I realized that we as activists in Yedikule have been fighting for a certain kind of conservation of the neighborhood: conserving by giving it a future.

Let me back up a bit and explain this. The Yedikule Urban Gardens have existed for sixteen hundred years. They date back to the Byzantine emperor Theodosius, who built the last land walls by the gardens. He was the one who originally bestowed basement spaces to the farmers. Over the centuries, there have been Greek farmers, Armenian farmers, and Albanian farmers; now, there are Black Sea farmers working there. The people change, but the soil remains, adapting itself to the different produce people want to grow. The activism around Yedikule is not geared toward freezing the gardens in time against the threat of real estate speculation. We do not want to keep the urban gardens as they are, as if they are artifacts from a bygone era. We want them to be free, and basically living. So if I take soil from Yedikule Gardens and put it in a gallery, I’ll be making it a nonliving art piece. That conflicted with our axis of activism and conservation.

With the framework of migration or leaving one’s homeland in mind, I asked myself this question: What is it to feel like a refugee in your own land, without having been displaced? The urban gardens have existed in Yedikule for hundreds of years; however, bulldozers are now waiting in front of them in anticipation of clearing space for mass housing projects or parks. Urban farming has a long tradition in Istanbul, but the city actually disowns that tradition now and is about to deport it as if it were an illegal alien. What if everything else changes around you—how do you become a refugee without even moving an inch? And I think this can be applied to anyone, not just to the bostans (urban gardens) but to any individual living in Turkey.

I think the exhibition at collectorspace is a refreshing gesture in terms of questioning what the word “collection” means, what a collector is, why people collect, and this issue as well: If something is in a collection, why does this make it more important than any other thing that is not in the collection? In my mind, it also underlines the artificially made distinction between the urban and the rural, since we place the Plinth at the heart of urban Istanbul, in Taksim. I’d like to say there is no urban without the rural, and there’s no rural without the urban. They coexist, which makes the loop back to the Yedikule Urban Gardens: If there’s no distinction between the rural and the urban, why would you not farm in the city?

Özge Ersoy of collectorspace and I have devised the program in an evolving scheme. We have left the programming flexible. We didn’t finalize who was going to be contributing at the beginning. We invited people, listened to them, and kept thinking about their gestures. So, in a way, like farming, it’s dependent on the seasons. There are cycles, and the climate changes. You could say it’s a way of cultivating collaborations, meanings, thoughts, and, most important, questions. Robert Smithson once said something like, “The city gives the impression that earth doesn’t exist.” Plinth is basically founded on this profound sentence. And this sentence always echoes in my mind.