Unexpected Encounters in Drying Lakes

Larissa Araz
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Ece Gökalp
About More
Salda Lake, Burdur, February 2019, Ece Gökalp


I met Ece with the dream of going to Armenia in 2015. As part of a project, we would have followed the deportation route and reached Armenia on the 100th anniversary of the Genocide. Since a similar disaster was happening in the Southeast and Eastern Anatolia at that time, we could only go to Armenia as part of the project. Ece, on the other hand, was just settling down in Berlin and could not continue the project with us due to some problems. But she made this trip much later, alone by car. When she had told me about her project in Armenia, I decided to invite her and her project to the newly founded poşe. Ece's graduation project "A Mountain As Many" was exhibited in this way in June 2018 in poşe. We couldn't manage to go to Armenia together, but Armenia brought us together again. During the preparation of the exhibition we have worked together for almost a month. Remembering our daily troubles, the intersections of our practices and lives, the relief of sharing the dilemmas we faced during that time; and also considering Ece's generosity of sharing, I wanted to talk to her about the personal block (the feeling I describe in my own way as hopelessness rather than a block) I experienced during Covid-19. 

She had told me about the project she was thinking about while we were smoking together just before the opening of the group show Up Above was Fog, Down Below was a Cloud of Dust, which she was involved in at Depo. The remnants of our brief meeting planted a seed in such a place in me that it became one of the sole things I wanted to look back on during these times. In her practice, Ece usually combines her own emotional blocks with a social block, exposing the invisible connections between the individual and society with her own perspective. The research process takes an intense effort as well as the production of the work itself. I wanted to talk about the project with the unofficial name Drying Lakes, which is related to Blockage, during this time when I felt most blocked. The purpose is to share my own blockage to draw strength from each other. And I called her. Before I talk about the project Drying Lakes, I want to rewind a bit and talk about the initial process of the project. She had just finished A Mountain As Many (AMAS) and at the same time she graduated from the master's program Art in Context at the UdK Berlin. How did the process evolve after that? How did her new project come about? In other words: How did she go from looking at mountains to looking at lakes? I asked her these questions:

"Since July of the summer of 2018, with the finalization of my master's thesis, a large project, and a few exhibitions, I have been hanging in limbo. While I had been writing my master's thesis, I had started having an incredible anxiety problem. Every day I had panic attacks, shortness of breath that lasted from morning to night, stenocardia, inability to concentrate and so on. I think writing is very difficult for me since it requires a lot of concentration and discipline. It is a bit difficult for me to maintain that kind of sharpness in my mind. By the way, I always try to do writings in my projects, so the situation is a bit tragic. Anyway, this limbo and anxiety combined with the uncertainty and worries about the future made me immobile. Every day I thought about how to get out of that state while I was in a frenzy of emotions and became bedridden." 

After listening to Ece's block, I began to think of my own blocks and hesitations. This affectivity that she expresses often leads me to a terrible lack of coherence that comes from distraction and ends up devaluing myself. A journey of 50 tabs accumulating in the Internet browser, from the lack of rights and lawlessness of the earth to the feeling of "I am nothing." The pause, the distraction, and the inability to sort through more important priorities is what I want you to experience as you read this article. That's why I've crammed this article with necessary-unnecessary links. While telling Ece about my own experience, I asked her how she could become mobile again from this blocked state. "In the meantime, I came across a news story about drying up Seyfe Lake and the whole burden on my shoulders was embodied with that news story," she said, continuing, "I built a camaraderie with Seyfe Lake that I have never been before. Even though it may seem selfish, this point of view gave me the opportunity to describe how I felt about myself."

Since I've often put aside many projects I've been blocked on in preparation with the words "Maybe later" after such intense emotions, I wondered how she progressed the project research after reading the news. "Of course, there was no immediate 'Eureka!" she laughed. "Unfortunately, I have long experienced the physical limitations my mind has imposed on me, but this post-graduation state has lasted much longer. I still haven't overcome this state of anxiety and fear. I want to be open about it because portraying anxiety and depression as "one day something will happen and everything will be okay again" has always put me in a more difficult situation since I don't experience anything like that. So I have done research on the subject from where I have remained seated and realized that this actually happened at a lot of lakes. And I started dreaming about those lakes. I cannot tell you how happy I was when seven months later I left Istanbul for the region of the lakes with my dog in the car." 

I was aware that it was not the first time Ece had undertaken this kind of research trip. Although Ece has been on a journey around a project, she has mostly made an inner journey. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit explains the inner dialogue that occurs when walking as follows: "Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts." While I was wondering whether the openness that comes with walking or travelling could be a solution to the distraction-induced shifts in meaning I was experiencing, Ece continued to explain: 

"I decided that I could not exert myself in such a psychological state. I had just finished a large project and wanted to slow down a bit. As you mentioned, I worked intensely on Mount Ararat from 2015, when we met, until mid 2018. Sometimes a project becomes pure life for me and I can say that I had experienced the peak of that state in this project. I dreamed about Mount Ararat day and night and except for two trips I was able to make there, I have never felt like I could completely manage to do what I want. I still dream of going there and continuing the project, knowing that the mountain can be seen from Armenia at certain times of the year (Mount Ararat can be seen from Armenia in the fall and spring for a limited time). Since I also approached A Mountain As Many as my thesis, it was an incredibly intense and exhausting process, aside from the visual part. Although I still can't consider myself to have fully completed the project; while the dissertation defence, the solo exhibition of AMAS in poşe and graduation exhibition in Berlin followed one after the other, I felt that this heavy load would exhaust me when it was all over. So I decided to improvise a bit. I chose a few lakes from the lake region around Burdur and decided the rest on the way. After all, I read in the news that 34 out of 50 lakes in the Lakes Region were in danger of drying up, that it was already too late for some of them, and that the ecosystems of all the lakes were irreversibly damaged. The only thing I could think of that might come out of this were portraits of the lake. I am not used to photographing flat landscapes like lakes, so I remember being a little apprehensive. In fact, let me share this directly from a note I made on January 21 so you can see my despair: 'I feel very stressed. I am looking at the lakes. I feel senseless and desperate enough to look at the aesthetics of the dried up lake. I seem to have forgotten what and how things were made.' Eventually, most of these worries disappear for me after I set out, because at that moment I feel like I'm on the road, walking around the subject and pursuing what was my desire at the time. I share these things to show a little bit of the dark side of my head and talk about trying anyway."

Being able to improvise while researching a project ensures that you can change direction, take a new angle, or open hidden doors within the project thanks to coincidences and encounters. I have experienced this many times in my own research as well. Going to Southern Cyprus to chase a fig tree, I had lost my Turkish Republic ID Card and had begun to question what I was actually looking for if I didn't belong anywhere. I had watched the project grow away from the tree and morph into vanishing, fading identities. I asked Ece if such accidental encounters influenced her project: "Being on my own while traveling is actually most ideal for me. In most of my projects over the last few years, I also include the dialogues I've had with people. I want people to tell me something about the subject, the geography, and the mood I am working on. But talking to people and photographing them is a great source of anxiety for me. I also mentioned that I had my dog with me when I was photographing the lakes. Sometimes the thought of her being with me prevented me from thinking. When I am all alone and away from populated areas, I can focus on my thoughts and those moments have an incredible intensity for me. So beyond anxiety and fear, it is a much more emotional and existential intensity."

Tuz Gölü, Ece Gökalp, Konya, February 2019                                                                                                                  


While Ece talked about the despair she felt while looking at the lakes, she mentioned that some lakes in the Drying Lakes will not be included in the next atlases. So she said that the records of these lakes will be erased by certain authorities and she made this trip to take the last portraits of the lakes. Perhaps she wanted to give them back a value that had not been attributed to them and that she wanted to find in herself. As she related this, two things came to my mind. The first was the unpredictable ground of our social memory, because it seemed to me that the reason why she actually wanted to make portraits of lakes was an attempt to build memory. The biggest factor that drives me in my own practice is these memory blocks. Ece obviously does not want them to disappear like many memories that have long faded. I decided to ask Ece about the importance of recording. The second thing that comes to my mind is the subject of lake portraits... While talking to her, I realized what an anthropocentric structure it is to always think of the portrait in terms of people. I never called landscape photography a portrait. But it was a portrait, as she said, wasn't it? If portraits include the characteristic features of the subject being photographed and turn into a document of that subject, then why shouldn't a faint, ruined photograph of a lake be a portrait too? After thinking for a while, Ece began to speak: 

"In the work that I have called Drying Lakes for now, there is actually a creation of identity - based on my personal history - through social memory. With the urban transformation in Istanbul that accelerated in the 2010s, the Gezi protests in 2013 and the aggressive state politics in the following years, the polarized society that seems to be at a point where there can be no reconciliation, and finally my settlement in Germany; the connection between memory and identity has become a problematic structure for me. What we call identity is something fictional, formed from social, individual, political, geographical, cultural and other factors. I think the politics of destruction, denial and devaluation in Turkey have a strong impact on all of us."

Acı Göl, Konya, Şubat 2019, Ece Gökalp


"My main motivation in Drying Lakes is to reflect on the impact of ecological destruction on an individual and societal level. The mining resistance in Artvin was probably the first event that planted seeds in my heart. Ecological reflections on the destruction of nature in Artvin are not my specialty, but the cultural and emotional reflections on it are the subject of my artistic practice. Or what happened to the Kaz Mountains and what the resistance there means for us. The fate of the lake regions seems to me an allegory or summary of what happened to art in Turkey, or "our rights secured by democracy."

"If we look at the reasons for the drying up of these lakes, perhaps this connection I have made will become clearer: besides reasons such as disproportionate and poorly regulated mines, illegal water wells, unprotection of the lakes under preservation; there was even a lake that was drained for treasure hunting in Turkey."

It is as if everyone is seeking destruction with the power of sanction in the country, looking only at their short-term earnings. We all know what happened to Salda Lake. The main reason for the popularity of the lake known as the white beach is actually the mineral hydromagnesite. A year after the news that a public garden was to be built here, this mineral evacuated with trucks. Afterwards, it was even said that there was silica in the hydromagnesite mineral and that it could cause silicosis, etc. if the stolen mineral was put back. So the devil looks after his own. In Turkey, there is no other way but to commercialize and exploit the Salda Lake - as if we have no other lake or beach to open for tourism - to give people the maximum profit. This is not the case in every geography." 

While Ece was explaining this, I remembered the editorial essay in the last issue of Red Thread, published during the pandemic. In it, Jelena Vesić and Vladimir Jerić Vlidi, writing in April 2020, stated: "By boosting the narrative about the 'invisible enemy' the regimes in the region also made sure to make their 'real' enemies quite visible, misusing the health crisis as a cover to launch the attack on all the activists and journalists, all the opposition, all the minorities and migrants and foreigners, on everybody not cheerleading for their permanent stay on power. The right-wing governments are especially keen to rule by decrees and attack artists and intellectuals, often identified as 'elites' or 'cultural Marxist', or in the propagandistic populist rhetoric as 'betrayers of the people'. Behind the scenes happens perhaps the biggest looting ever; the companies by loyal tycoons will be supported by the millions and billions of tax payer's money, while the cuts in funds for culture qualify for the title of 'genocide.'" Destruction and genocide cooperate in Turkey. Not only ecologically, but also socially, there is a point of view like "If it is not useful, destroy it. If it cannot be eradicated, abandoned it." As far as I can see, the fact that Salda can be realized by analogy with the Maldives is not that different from that of the Armenians who are remembered with Topik. (See. Afet Gıcır, Ben Topik Değilim [I am not Topik], Charicature). I distract myself again. I asked Ece about the relation of the situation she explained to herself and other identities she has. 

"As for that in relation to artists, of course it's all my own interpretation and expression of a rebellion rooted in a very subjective state. I am a woman who feels she can no longer return to her homeland, even though she has so much to do with it. I am not sure it's necessary to repeat what has happened to art and us here, but as we've witnessed the 950th day of Osman Kavala in prison, two members of Grup Yorum have passed away because their only demand to continue their political art practice has not been met; I avoid talking about my own problems. But it is obvious that there are direct and indirect connections between them, for all of us. I can say that I am trying to somehow filter all these thoughts and feelings through these drying and fading lakes and understand what we should do with it all." Of course, she was right. During the pandemic the circumstance that there was no awareness or funding specifically in the art sector established by the state, the fact that we could not organize collectively... Isn't that a sign that art is drying up like a lake? After a short pause, Ece continued speaking:

"While I've been thinking about these lakes, which I approach by attributing a lot of meanings and tugging it, the term portrait has been in my head from the beginning for the photographs I've taken. There is a much more intense relationship here than between me and my landscape. The value I attribute to these lakes is almost as if I am witnessing a last conversation between them. Like the murmured conversations of the nearly extinct Ents in the Lord of the Rings. The personification of nature, anthropomorphism, is perhaps as old as human history. Although it can be seen as an over-stretched interpretation, I have thought from the beginning that the connection I have established through the Seyfe Lake to the dried lakes in Turkey is like a camaraderie. For this reason, their images are their portraits to me, and these lakes are a projection of my personal past and sense of belonging that is disappearing from my memory day by day. John Berger says the following about painting in the first chapters of his book The Shape of a Pocket: "Painting is, first, an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find." I do not think photography puts such an affirmation at its core, obviously he doesn't think so either. But when I read that, I thought of photography and my desire to record the cultural and political geographies that I believed would have disappeared. Perhaps my desire to record Drying Lakes dragged me from Berlin to Konya by car with such an impulse. But even if I feel a little ashamed to have such a personal approach to an ecological catastrophe, I hope that at the end of the process I may have produced work that expresses all this in a balanced way."

Aret Gıcır