Ayşe Erkmen

Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart

Visitors wishing to enter the first retrospective of the work of Ayşe Erkmen were required to pass through a security gate complete with metal detector. This initially irritating prelude is paradigmatic for the aesthetic method of Erkmen (who divides her time between Berlin and Istanbul): The checkpoint, titled Portiport, 1996/2008, resembled those found at any international airport (and, increasingly, other places as well) and announced via its light signals and alarm bells that the threshold of the institutional spaces of contemporary art had literally just been crossed. At the same time, however, this simulated border control marked a change of context that Erkmen was initiating in order to intervene in the conventions of the globalized art world—not so much overstepping the boundary between art and life as exposing its contingency again and again.

This survey of Erkmen’s work 
faced the challenge of transplanting to a new museum format a 
representative selection of projects 
that had been developed using a
 variety of other exhibition contexts. Under the programmatic title “Weggefährten” (Companions), the show brought together films as well as site-specific or site-related updates of sculptural works dating from 1985 to the present. These new versions of earlier works appeared particularly felicitous when they followed a model of site-specificity oriented toward formal parameters rather than discursive contexts: In the first room, normally hidden neon tubes suspended at various heights from an opened ceiling transformed a white cube into a labyrinthine obstacle course (Das Haus [The House], 1993/2008); in 9'45", 1999/2008, the spatial perspective of an empty room was continually changed by a wall that slowly moved toward the viewer; GM, 2004/2008, consisted of black carpeting in which two squares, like outlines of minimalist sculptures or Lawrence Weiner’s square rug incisions, had been cut out to show the underlying floor; a resonance arose between these sculptural specters and Dan Flavin’s permanently installed industrial light tubes on the adjacent museum walls, the latter’s decorative dimension further accentuated by the contrast. In linking the notion of decor to Fordist models of industrial mass production, the piece also referred back to its first installation in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where Erkmen had reprised an exhibition of automobiles on Oriental rugs organized there in 1936 by General Motors.

In works less directly related to the architectural structures of the Hamburger Bahnhof, however, art historical or site-specific references like these tended to get lost, at least without the documentation provided in the accompanying catalogue. For example, in the installation Kuckuck (Cuckoo), 2003, Erkmen had taken advantage of the fact that the art museum in St. Gallen is also a natural history museum, displaying a series of motorized stuffed animals that paraded through the halls of the museum at various intervals and took on an unsettling status somewhere between sculptural mimesis and animated Nature. At the Hamburger Bahnhof, however, the piece was merely represented by a single, forlorn black wildebeest advancing toward the viewer at a leisurely pace. The safety belts that Erkmen had stretched around pillars in Tidvatten (Tide), 2003, to create a disorienting web of barriers and views in the Magasin 3 in Stockholm functioned in the Bahnhof only as ornamental markings of the space immediately beneath the ceiling of the final room of the show (the main attraction being eight videos by Erkmen displayed on fourteen monitors). In other words, some of Erkmen’s “Companions” simply needed different kinds of spaces and reinterpretations if, in a retrospective, they were to function by marking the distance they had had to overcome.

André Rottmann

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.