Ayşe Erkmen

“Possessions” simply does not do justice to the range of meanings associated with “Habseligkeiten,” the title of Ayşe Erkmen’s latest exhibition. Nor can other common English translations—“belongings,” “things,” “stuff”—capture the word’s rich roots: Haben (property), Seele (soul), selig (meaning both “deceased” and “blessed”), Seligkeit (the bliss of salvation or sheer joy). In German, the term is customarily used to describe the effects, always few and often worthless, left behind by a modest person; personal valuables taken in haste by someone on the move; things kept through expediency as opposed to necessity. Often portable, Habseligkeiten are possessions that can bear fresh signs of dispossession: migration, exile, death.

Erkmen, who divides her time between Berlin and Istanbul, subtly addresses local context wherever she exhibits. “Habseligkeiten” was recently named the most beautiful German word by the Deutscher Sprachrat (German Language Council). As newspapers fielded suggestions for beautiful words, other debates were droning on regarding Turkey’s impending membership in the European Union and the supposed failure of Turkish immigrants to integrate into Germany. Erkmen suggested other kinds of unions and barriers by cordoning off one room with a chain of silver rings. Made in Turkey for men and women, the elaborately crafted bands have no stones; riddled with cavities where diamonds would usually sparkle, they appear as Habseligkeiten, in the sense of worthless effects. Yet in Turkey, silver plays a significant role, with stones or without, in displays of wealth. Such silver rings—like the Turkish language itself—might be among the portable possessions a migrant takes from Turkey to Germany; they also belong to the cherished Habseligkeiten of movement and expediency.

Questioning culturally biased interpretations of value, Ring (all works 2005) seems to turn the question around the relationship between men and women. While the rings are not wedding bands, the chain links both genders together while acting as a border, if not an impasse, between two spaces. Since the rings remain empty, they suggest that Turkish gender relations are creating a division that otherwise does not exist and a debate from which Turks remain absent. The rings reflect the absence of Turkish words among the most beautiful in Germany, although the language is the second most widely spoken within the country’s borders. Erkmen demonstrated that borders have different forms of visibility by completely sealing off another room in the gallery with a solid wall. Visitors couldn’t enter the room, let alone see it; only a sign on a window reading kleine hintere Kammer (small black cabinet) alerted passersby on the street to the room’s existence.

In Scenic Overlooks, Erkmen offered an homage to a way of experiencing images that is slowly dying out. Eightyfour landscapes—generic desert, mountain, and forest images purchased from a data bank—were projected onto the barrier wall. These oversize electronic postcards “unfolded” gradually in uneven sections, from top to bottom, like an image file opening on a computer with a slow modem connection. Before ever-faster computers began to make images appear in one flash on the monitor, how many people looked at how many images as if they were tapestries or scrolls casually expanding downward across the screen? Since it takes fifty-eight minutes to look over all of Erkmen’s scenes, there is plenty of time to ponder the answer.

Jennifer Allen