CANAN, Heaven, 2017, tulle curtains, sequins, rope, cloth, bell, light, motor. Installation view. Photo: Murat Germen.

CANAN, Heaven, 2017, tulle curtains, sequins, rope, cloth, bell, light, motor. Installation view. Photo: Murat Germen.


CANAN, Heaven, 2017, tulle curtains, sequins, rope, cloth, bell, light, motor. Installation view. Photo: Murat Germen.

At the entrance of CANAN’s retrospective exhibition, “Behind Mount Qaf,” we were told that we had reached heaven. Already? Here, in an exhibition divided by floors into sections corresponding to heaven, purgatory, and hell, heaven’s inhabitants turned out to be a menagerie of sequined dragons, glittering snakes, and other stuffed creatures (Animal Kingdom, 2017) and human figures skipping along on a rotating cylinder of rainbow-hued tulle (Heaven, 2017). Amid this abundance, one noticed a small screen showing a video of engorged breasts dripping milk (Fountain, 2000). This was not the river of heaven as described in Islamic cosmology but the body of a woman with its all-too-real flesh and functions. (A little farther away, in the photograph Cybele, 2000, the artist herself appeared naked and pregnant, cast in the role of the Anatolian fertility goddess.)

If CANAN’s exposure of her own bodily experiences in Fountain disrupts the idea of heaven—and of Conceptual art as an intellectual pursuit, taking into account the reference to Duchamp in the video’s title—she also seeks to redress gender discrimination and to break the hold of gendered shame. While Duchamp’s Fountain is an inert receptacle requiring a male presence to become functional, CANAN’s work is evidently female and completes itself by generating its own fluids. The presiding figure of CANAN’s heaven, evoked by women howling on their way to the seashore in the film Women Bathing in Moonlight, 2017, is Madam Marta, a woman from the island of Burgazada, near Istanbul, who reportedly killed herself in the 1980s after being condemned for swimming naked in the Sea of Marmara.

Those who ventured up the staircase reached the next level, purgatory, where one found Transparent Police Station, 1998–2008, a sculpture and etchings that depict the artist trapped in a box, attempting to break the walls. Another installation, There’s So Much Evil Out There, 2017, was a room empty except for a single bed, with words embroidered over the sheets and scribbled across the walls, leaving no space blank and thereby creating the impression that it was once a place of confinement. Proffering a narrative to explain these scrawlings, the hour-long video Delusion, 2013, chronicles a woman’s amorous obsession as it spirals out of control. With one outlandish development after another, the video examines the content of the popular culture of romance. Like Cybele or Marta, the woman in the video is an archetype, in this case suffering from the loss of equilibrium between desire and its prescribed repression. At the end of the video, the woman turns to Islam, hoping to rid herself of evil. After she calls to tell her mother of her change of faith, guards in orange vests forcibly remove her from her home. In a country where the imposition of secularism was just as brutal as that of religion, CANAN doesn’t seem to be picking sides. Rather, she seems to argue that some groups—usually women—have no choice at all.

Reaching hell, finally, on the top floor—in an inversion of the usual order—one found oneself in a dark chamber with ghostly glowing outlines of fire-breathing djinns and serpents: The Wonders of Creation, 2017. Every two minutes, a light came on and we could see these images for what they were, luminescent paint drawn on pieces of white tulle. Hell didn’t look so frightening after all, but cool and edgy, a place to enter and exit without difficulty if only you could get out of purgatory—the places and people holding us against our will.

Zeenat Nagree