Uncovering the Heritage Silhouette: Baris Gokturk
BY Brittany Nguyen, January 13, 2021
Uncovering the Heritage Silhouette is a bi-weekly series diving into how tradition influences the creation of art. We interview artists heavily influenced by their heritage.
Baris Gokturk '20 (b.1982, Ankara) is an MFA candidate in sculpture. He also holds an MFA in painting from Hunter College where he taught for seven years. He currently teaches at Pace University and runs an art program for Johns Hopkins University’s neurology department. He was recently an ApexArt fellow in Seoul, an artist-in-residence at YADDO, and a participant in SOMA Mexico as well as Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Recent museum exhibitions include Pera Museum in Istanbul and SECCA in Winston-Salem, NC. He recently completed a mural for Columbia University’s Butler Library and a commission by the Public Art Fund as part of Art on the Grid. He is currently an artist in residence at LMCC Governors Island, and he’s working on upcoming projects in New York, Venice, and Eskisehir, Turkey. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn.
How would you define your cultural heritage?
Baris Gokturk: I’m originally from Turkey, but I also spent part of my teenage years in Puerto Rico, in an exchange program. Even after the program I stayed in Puerto Rico as I felt very connected to the culture there. I was located in a small part of the mountains with around 10,000 people. I was very close to my host mother, I just call her “mom” now. I have a weird mix of Turkish and Puerto Rican parts of myself, as far as heritage goes. After high school, I came to the city and I’ve lived here since. I would even this place part of my heritage. I arrived in New York in 2001. It’s strange to call New York a site of heritage as it’s a site of many, but my long personal experience makes me belong here as well.
How many languages do you speak?
BG: I speak French, Spanish, Turkish, and English. I lived in Istanbul, Turkey for fifteen years at least. I went to a public school where the education was in French and Turkish. I ended up with a chance to go to Puerto Rico and the large community of Puerto Ricans in New York brought me here. My identity is between places and I have the unique experience of being in-between.
You have displayed your work internationally in the US, Germany, Spain, France, Korea, Turkey and Puerto Rico. The exhibitions explore universal topics and/or highlight certain events that happen globally, so who would say your ideal audience?
BG: In a way it’s my privilege that allowed me to go to different places and be able to get the education that I have. It’s a privilege to be able to learn all these different languages, have access to all these different cultures, but because of this I have no choice other than to address a universal audience as opposed to a particular, local group of viewers. So I am actually drawn into bridging the gap of different places, with similar conflicts and/or interests. It’s not always a simple thing but I am definitely interested in finding the commonality between different locations with their struggles. I have no other choice as that is where I situated myself.
You are currently showing Public Secret, your first solo exhibition in New York. Big congratulations. The “Fire_Riot” series is featured in the exhibition. I’m curious about this project’s journey and your focus on the subject of fire.
BG: Thank you! I have been going back and forth between New York and Turkey for a long time. I come from somewhere between an immigrant, expat, and/or diasporic point of view where I watch my own country from a distance. Watching its conflicts has been an interesting experience. I often question what my role is when looking at events going on in my home country.
In 2013, there were these mass uprisings—now it is called the Gezi Park Protests—that became a historic event. It was a tiring point for a lot of young and older people in the kind of government that we had there, the autocratic type that doesn’t listen to its own citizens. A lot of things happening in the US now were happening in Turkey in 2013 already. That is when I had to respond to what was happening as an artist, an individual in-between. When I was watching the protest with this inability to be there, this project grew out of this personal conflict.
The fires are all street fires, protests. The fire itself was an interesting perspective for me because it was as if I was able to shift the camera figuratively, as the political struggle with all the people and the police in that space. The space becomes energy and this opens up different possibilities. I wanted to similarly open up space in my works, allowing different directions for the fire. The fire can burn you, destroy you and also be interpreted as a new beginning, a new generation. Fire has that type of potential in the protest spaces as a third protagonist.
I love the energy you give fire, especially its duality of being hope.
BG: I hope fire can have its double edge. And the making of the works was very physical. It was a process of rubbing paper until the image became clear. It was meditative for me as I rubbed the paper off to make the image visible and enabled me to do that. I also lost some of the image. There was a price I had to pay by rubbing too much. The process interests me as much as the finished works.
You mentioned the Gezi Park Protests. Were there other specific places globally that you referenced?
BG: This connects to your earlier question about the audience, I am thinking about who the subject is, the protagonist. I think this kind of tension between the governing bodies versus the individual bodies trying to have a space for dissent has been increasingly outspread from place to place. The ones in Turkey were also predated by Arab Spring, which has different connotations for different countries, but that also started from a fruit vendor in Tunisia setting themselves on fire as an act of protest, tired of the economical struggle. It’s not even political, it’s desperately economical.
I have been tracking protests. If you look at the past year you have Hong Kong, Chile, Paris, and so many more. And sometimes they are not even coming from the same political position but there is the need to take it out to the streets. I feel like there is a moment of exasperation towards the political bodies that are supposed to represent people and we saw it here this summer, and even before that. Especially with the Trump presidency there has been a lot of tension in the streets themselves. I feel like it’s everywhere.
Is this project continuing?
BG: It’s strange because I made the first piece in 2014 and I’ve continuously been making work from it. It’s been changing also, the focus is currently around the image of fireworks. There have been a lot of fireworks this summer in New York with the protest. This idea of the fireworks which is a celebratory tool is also being used as a weapon as well. It’s the best looking weapon, it explodes beautiful colors. This is another ambiguous object. Even with what I am working on now, I am continuing with exploring energy.
When I look at your work, I often catch myself thinking about ownership and authority. I’m curious as to how being from a Turkish, Puerto Rican, and New York background authorize or deauthorize your work that takes place in other international spaces?
BG: This is always a conversation. Let me try to split this in different ways, one will be an anecdote. In May 2016, right before Trump’s election I was in an artist residency that gathered people from everywhere. It was during the Orlando shooting. Everyone in the artist colony was feeling very emotional and it was a rough time for many different identities. During that time there was a town hall meeting to express thoughts, one in particular was an argument between an African-American person and another artist from Iran. The Black friend was talking about the frustration surrounding the Black struggle that the country had imposed, within that context. The Iranian was trying to make a point about how very different events but in spirit similar things were happening in Iran, and he wanted people here to be aware of that as well. Then the Black friend was telling him that he understood and was sorry it was happening but he needed to deal with his own issues in his own country first. He wanted to take care of his own history, his own narrative and people. I can not really take a clear position on this, but I feel like they are both right. I think the specificity of a certain type of protest, type of grief and anger with a certain type of history and then dealing in that specificity of the people is valid and important. But on the other hand, going back to the double edge thing, if people could connect their history to a larger history of the world and find the common ground of struggle, against authority, oppression, imperialism, colonization, then there is quite a bit there to share and bring us closer as people.
I made a series of work surrounding the Baltimore riots. And the question came up a lot, “is this your story to tell?” I think it is. But I also understand others coming from the position of “this is our story to tell.” It also is. I feel like one doesn’t exclude the other. If it does then there’s a problem there. It shouldn’t be about shutting down conversation or taking over some else’s place to say anything. I think the more the merrier, it’s more productive.
The second thing is that I actually started a land, art project in Puerto Rico called “Junte.” For me, the validation that I rely on with Puerto Rico, comes from my Puerto Rican mother there. She is a person from there, lives there, opened her doors to me, and is someone I grew up with. If she says I’m Puerto Rican, I believe her, and vice versa. And that is not limited to just my mother there, but also the town itself. It’s about how much one is being accepted by a certain community, it comes from within. You can’t decide that for yourself. I wouldn’t have started my project in Puerto Rico if those people from the community didn’t encourage me to do so.
In This project, participants share, learn, and connect across various cultures with the aim of fostering local communities. How did this project start? How did you gather the other artists? Were there any specific categories of people?
BG: I met the group of artists that joined me in doing this in the same residency in 2016. It was such a tough time and there was so much conflict. We had the privilege of being secluded in a natural, beautiful, and lush part in upstate Maine. The residency itself was like a social experiment of bringing together so many different people in the same place with creative outlets. That is where I met this large mixed group of people from all different places. I first went back to Adjuntas, Puerto Rico where I lived in High School. I went back there to do a residency in the forest because there was an environmentalist organization there. They gave me a cabin and I painted the forest in the night without lights. The project was working with obscurity in the dark, kind of a joke. That kind of darkness had political implications for me, how you see the dark. About the paintings and environment but also the culture and political situation there.
That was a great period for me. I had a great relationship with the foundation there that gave me the residency. They encouraged me to purchase a piece of land next to the forest they were responsible for. So I ended up owning 6 acres of jungle on top of a mountain, not the most desirable piece of land. It’s 3 acres on opposite sides of the mountain. You have to use a machete to cut through the forest.
I was talking to my friends in the residency, asking, What does a good place mean?What could be done there to be meaningful? So the group got together and decided to build a platform. It started out from dance which is very deeply rooted in Puerto Rican culture. We wanted to create an initial structure for the land and then the other parts came out from there. We wanted a meeting place, a building, but not necessarily to erect any house but rather a place to come together. The word “Junte'' means to get together, a Sunday gathering. “Junta” is hierarchical get together, like a military get together. So the word was the alternative from this word, a casual gathering. It’s not from top-down but horizontal thinking.
The people I worked with were from Lebanon, Mexico, Honduras, America, Puerto Rico, and more. A very mixed group. Everyone brought their own specialties and their own heritage to the project. For example our architect was an American with Cuban heritage. It was interesting because when we were in Puerto Rico my mother took care of him and for him it was a way of connecting with the heritage there in terms of language and the Caribbean. For everyone it was an identity journey, and it wasn’t the most pressing issue but rather it was the spirit of collaboration that brought us together. The idea is that we will pass this onto the next group of people. It’s one community to another.
You state on your website that the philosophy of the project is to “work holistically and laterally, providing a horizontal platform to collectively cultivate culture and reinforce its relevance to politics.” How was this accomplished?
BG: At first we thought gazebo, architectural structure, but then I thought it didn’t need to be, so I thought of making it a round table. It felt sort of bureaucratic. This kept developing and eventually changed to a dance floor, to bypass the verbal favor into a bodily connection. It sounds so funny now because we’re so far from that option. But yes, the dance floor connects together the culture and attitude of the island. Music is everywhere in Puerto Rico and it's truly a way of relating to one another. We spent a month there and we built a dance platform in the forest. We opened it up to the neighbors and everyone around as the land is public. To this day people can still go there and can barbecue, do poem readings, dirt biking, and a wide array of things. It’s basically just an invitation for people to take over. It’s also dormant in that way.
What are you working on now?
BG: I’m working towards a new body of work around collective dance. This is another type of explosive energy that holds potential I am interested in. Basically the potential of people coming together but I wanted to take it to a lighter spirit, a different kind of space. It is a continuation of the “Fire_Riot,” they could even be dancing around the fire. I have a visceral image, since due to the pandemic we have not been around any bodies. This moment now draws me in.
There’s an Emile Nolde painting, titled Dance Around the Golden Calf, which shows a bunch of people dancing around a fire. It’s one painting that I have been inspired by lately. There’s something about it. I’m also inspired by the Danse Macabre, the dance of the Black Death. I’m thinking about these two. A sort of death dance, and I want to also think of this in positive terms. A death of capitalism, or a type of system that pushes people to the edges of desperation. For re-birth, you need some kind of death. Right now especially we are all dealing with ends and maybe beginnings now. It’s all a connecting string. Different bodies of work but very much in conversation with one another.
So right now I am in the process of coming up with a project in a space in New York, it’s an old boiler. If this goes through I will get a chance to expand my dance project into a visual statement. This will happen before the thesis and that will be my next thing.