On "Trace" with Ege Kanar

Ege Kanar
Şener Soysal
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Begüm Akın
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We talked with Ege Kanar about his artistic practice searching and pondering on the notion of "trace." Our conversation reflects on Kanar's stance in photography and "photography scene" which he terms as "two steps forward one step back." It involves the reasons for his excitement and sincerity in his steps forward and his steps backwards to withdraw into his shell.

On the exhibition "Anyone Could Be a Sculptor One Day"

Ege Kanar: Where shall I start from?

Şener Soysal: I may begin a bit disorderly, anyway, let's start from your last work. It has been quite a while after your exhibition, but I guess your work consisted of four pieces in two rooms.

Ege: Actually, as you know Begüm, I have been pondering upon the notion of "corporeality" for some time. In fact, during my presentation in ITU in 2012, I guess you were the first to notice it. And it is a story that came out of that actually: "What is there on a print of a photograph apart from what it represents, the imagery, and is it possible to make an inquiry from that in a retrospective fashion?" was the main point. What I experimented on are so-called scientific methods, they are all about focusing on the idea of research without believing to get objective results. Actually, I would like to see fingerprints, fractures, cracks or writing traces at the back of some photograph and there were all those questions as to what I could learn from them, and if it was possible to learn something from them, when I first started. So, I started frequenting the second-hand bookshops and collecting photographs. It was a coincide that I mostly found photos from the 30's and 40's. And I used to mind that they are "laden photographs" when I was searching; I tried to pick photos that harbor other things than what they depicted. For example, a hand writing, photos which was torn or have some trace being taped at the back or some ink stain. Then, I tried to find some kind of a method; as to how I can look what I have found or how I can make sense out of them.

I can tell you about the first piece: one day I was moving the photo facing me in light, it becomes transparent at a specific angle and the writing behind it and the image overlap. At a different angle, it becomes opaque and you can only see the image at the front and the print. I found this interesting, I mean, the text and the image overlapping...Then, I started thinking "how can I turn this into an object? should I make a video of it?" That was how the boxes took shape. I placed the photos in the boxes their back sides facing us. To turn the back side of the photos, to see the back side and trying to perceive them in a different way...There was a mechanism consisting of led lights inside the boxes both looking to the front and the back of the photos; the led lights at the back were lit for a time, they dim out gradually and then they were lit again. When the lights at the back are dimmed out the led mechanism at the front side shows the hand writing in an opaque way; and when all the lights are lit the face appears for some time, overlapping the handwriting and then dims out. Then, I found a website doing a character analysis of sample hand writings. In this manner, I got another text which reproduces the text written by the person in the photograph, the traces it left on paper, the formal features, and I obtained an analysis on that person. I had questions like: "What can we learn about this face appearing and disappearing through led animation, from the traces it left on paper, from this secondary source? Is the visual layer itself as ambiguous and open-ended as the secondary layer?" and I played with these questions. Surely, I also took into consideration the content of the texts for the whole work. These texts are usually about being remembered, not to be forgotten; especially one of them, the first one, was very influential for me. The person who wrote that text was talking about he would turn to dust in the future, and he would be happy if someone remembers him. It is like being in two minds between to be and not.

The second piece consisted of 18 passepartout frames of 10x15 cm size. The varying parts of the passepartouts have 2x2 cm of cuts and from these cuts or holes one can see the photos I placed. A very small detail could be seen from inside the square, and the rest was behind the passepartout, so the work as a whole hides rather than displaying. And the details I showed was generally focused on the body, especially on hands or the gestures, the acts of touching or carrying. These hands are also the hands which wrote the notes at the back of the photos, and instead of showing faces in which the meaning was supposed to be searched, I'd like to approach the issue from a rather indirect way. Just like Barthes mentions when he is talking about punctum it was a search for finding some detail leaking out of the image despite the photographer's intentions, but still vitalizing the image and effecting the viewer.

My piece in the second room was about fingerprints. A question came up to my mind: "Can I establish some kind of a date for each and every photo as to when they were touched? Can I find some fingerprints on these photos?" Some photos had some kind of a story before they ended up in a secondhand bookshop and there must be a lot of stories as to who touched them, from whose album they were taken out, to whom they were sold throughout this journey. Again in a presentation I have done in ITU there was a sample and this presentation triggered that thought. An essay I quoted from mentioned a photograph of a woman which was passed from hand to hand, from pocket to pocket, from wallet to wallet by occupying soldiers in Africa, and examines the status of this photo as an object of desire. Fingerprints, residues of skin grease or its being folded to be fit into some wallet. I might say I was influenced by some photo being transformed in that way. At that time, I was inquiring about the chemicals used for that kind of work; and I came to learn that I could put the photos in some box and expose them to iodine vapor at room temperature for some time to make the fingerprints visible and then, with starch I could fix the fingerprints. Iodine is a chemical important in the history of photography, as for the box, it is a direct reference to the camera; the chemical phases resemble the processing inside a darkroom, so I came to realize what I was doing was re-developing the photographs in some latent way. At first, I was too sensitive; I used to touch the photos with gloves, and give my friends gloves when they were looking at them. But, it proved impossible to find original fingerprints, these photos were left behind, they were dusted, and it was not easy to find fingerprints. After my initial disappointment, I started acting more freely. In fact, I encouraged everyone to touch them. Even at first, I thought whether I was doing the right thing in terms of the limitations I set for myself, I decided to allow for this kind of flexibility and associate the situation with my own desire. At the end, my first conception failed in a way, but the story itself was transformed into my and my friends' relation with those photographs by way of touching them and the traces left behind from this relation. So, I decided to fix those traces; I just scanned them the moment they appeared and I just let those traces to be erased again. I took some details from each photograph and I printed them on aluminum plates. Cos that metallic feel was also important, I also wanted the work to touch upon the silver powder structure of analogue photography.

Şener: The others were in a wooden frame, so they seem much more personal. That mechanism with led lights gave the feeling "I can find a frame just like that in some house." The metal part just looks cold, there is this fingerprint or something but...

E.K.: Incidentally, the light in that room was also blueish and cold. As for the other room, the light was yellowish and the two stood in contrast. I like to play with this kind of dichotomies. The last part consisted of a video. I would like to look at the photos under a microscope as well, just to know what I could see on that plane. Like how the ink traces, the cracks seem...I slide the photos under the microscope and I did a video by using these images in layers and I projected them on the floor.



Şener: The room seemed like it was inside some microscope, actually it was fun to be there as well. I just felt we were inside, just there, when you look from the outside. The place was good, and the works as well. How did they come to accept you into the project in the context of the exhibition ("Anyone Could Become a Sculptor One Day")?

Ege:  Actually, it was through Ali (Taptık)...With his suggestion I met Zeynep (Öz). And Zeynep mentioned this exhibition which she would like to do with independent artists and she asked me to propose a project. In fact, what she had in mind was a series of exhibitions which would read as one even if they are independent from each other, rather than a group exhibition. So, we talked about the ideas and practical stuff within the process, cos the work was made from scratch.

Şener: You just mentioned, this is kind of a search through past, but it is not a scientific one. It rather has to do with "material culture." They approach it in a sociological way, they try to analyze culture, people through artifacts, objects. Your work seems also close to that kind of notion. It doesn't have to include science, but it gives clues on humans.

Ege: Yes, it is like cultural history. It also involves some kind of a parody. Photography, especially in the 19th century, it had very systematical and scientific tendencies, it is categorizing, reductive, archiving. I also wanted touch upon these tendencies, the way photography try to undertake several impossible functions, because I find the ways in which these kind of modernist desires arise through photography still thrilling.

Şener: When I first saw it I found it very humane. The faces were hidden, there were clues, traces, there were signatures-writings. It makes you question who that person is, what kind of things he does. So, the project absorbs you, you start thinking about yourself through those people. The images feel close to the viewer, the likes of which you can find in family albums.

Ege: I also thought from time to time if I was doing the right thing as to what you have said. I had both sides of that photo I mentioned enlarged and hung them on the wall. I looked at that face and the note at the back for like 3 months; would he really liked his image to survive like this? At this point, I just trusted that note he left for the future.

Şener: This is really interesting to me as well. There are some photos which were precious once, and they end up in second hand bookshops. It is like you archive some stuff but you cannot really, and it is unknown where they end up in when it's off your hands.

Ege: The photos getting out of the archive they belong to end up in a pile of images is a big shift in context. I also had this idea, can one restore some context specific to a photo? Or can it be reproduced?

Şener: Surely, it generates a new context. A reputation that person doesn't have normally when he is alive, he re-possesses it after all is gone. Though he is still anonymous, the unknown heir, but his image survives.

On Relationship with Photography

Ege: I guess my relation with art and being an artist is two steps forward one step back. I sometimes feel I pass some threshold, then I take a step back. For it is a professional circle above all, and I sometimes find myself nervous inside it.

Begüm: To me, its professionalism is also open to question.

Ege:  It is not that I am against professionalism, in fact you have to be professional at some point. After all, how much you proceed is about how much you work for it, how much you think on it and the time you spend on it. And for you to survive as an artist someone should repay your time and effort. And that is only possible through establishing dialogues with galleries, collectioners, art funds etc. It is just natural, but I am confused about that network which you have to participate, and the workings of that network. I get nervous at times and I withdraw into my shell.

Şener: We have to talk about it at length really. To sustain yourself via art without getting into business you should also get on well with people like you are doing a business, appear in some places, being known by people...It is like the same thing...

Ege: Yes, it actually is. Or thoughts like "I did this, it sold well, so let me work on this more" can come into play. I don't work with a gallery. I don't know if some day I will, but I cannot figure out if I do, I feel that kind of pressure, how I react in the face of that pressure. Or you can just say yes, I can do other stuff to make money, but then completely different criteria come into play. If you want to do photography in business terms, your view is affected inevitably and in time you get dissociated. It is a bit complicated.

Şener: On one side you have to find customers, and on the other you have to admit some stuff I suppose. At least you just give the %50 of what you earn to the gallery and they find you a customer. It is really complicated...


On "I Know Where" and "Mortals"…

Şener: Can you tell us about your works "Mortals" and "I Know Where I Don't Know When" that were part of the group exhibition in Sabancı Museum? Both were exhibited before. But still your series "Mortals" seem distant to us, cos we only saw its images in the exhibition 44A.

Ege: "Mortals" consists of silver gelatin portraits printed on glass. It actually has to do with the 19th century. Back then, people have to do long exposures to take portraits due to underdeveloped film speeds. For example there were special apparatuses called photographer's neck clamps back then. You just sit and try to stand firm throughout the long exposure. It is like you are resigning some abstracted, immobile side of you to another. It can also be read from the expressions; it is a general state of seriousness, strain. I was very impressed by the idea of prolonging the subject-photographer relation and its turning into a kind of tension. At that time, I found a medium format camera with bellows. I wanted to get under the cloth, to establish an indirect relationship with the person sitting in front of me and to experience that tension by asking the person to sit for 8 seconds without moving. I asked the people I photographed to keep their eyes open within the half of the duration and closed within the other half, that is how I got the ripples around the eyes and which give the illusion of some openness-closeness depending on how you look at the image. It also reminded me of the postmortem photos which was popular at that time, I mean photographing dead people in various forms of representation. After all, the expressions are stiff and dull because of the effort to stand firm. You can just read the effort to get involved into some given photographic norm...Also, it is sort of a bond between life and death. Maybe it is one of the many functions of photography; pursuit of some kind of immortality or keeping record. That person is not there anymore but his image is still there.

The light hits the person being photographed, then reflects from him, the lens focuses this light onto some plane, the surface sensitive to light goes in some kind of a physical transformation and it leaves a wound, a trace. Therefore, the physical trace there is also important for me as well as the notion of resemblance. And that resemblance is ambiguous; another state in between dualities like open-close, dead-living and its photographical representation.


Şener: The technical method here differs from your recent work, but I think the notion of trace is similar.

Ege: Yes, it is kind of I proceed from there. I can say that beginning from the previous series " I Know Where, I Don't Know When" I started to adapt the questions I have with regards to image production and consumption into my own practice. The period before that is quite unrelated and I left it behind. I had difficulties when I was doing my master. There were very few people who knows English and with whom I can communicate with. I was working with Viktor Kolar who was a contemporary of Koudelka and who I respect as a photographer. But he was practicing black-and-white documentary photography and did not favor other possibilities, I felt I was backed into a corner. I was having troubles in associating my theoretical fields of interest and my practice, the things I could assert. I guess, in my first year I was trying to be like him, and in the second I was trying to find ways to resist that attitude. Then, I wrote my thesis on photography and memory and I guess the readings I did back then formed the basis of my recent tendencies. That was a hard but I guess essential period and when I finished my master I went on with my practice till the series "I Know Where, I Don't Know When" which started almost naturally.



Şener:  That series is also black-and-white but its resistant way lies in the fact that it was taken with a mobile phone and presented in a illuminated box. It was out of the ordinary.

Ege: It may be resistant as such: I bought myself a Leica at some point and I found myself chasing stuff like that. Then I said to myself I don't carry it around, if I do I am afraid like "oh my precious camera" things like that. So, I wanted to get rid of it. You carry your mobile phone everywhere, it's not an extra load. For another reason it is with you, its initial function is not taking photos, it's just there at the moment. You can just take it out and response spontaneously with it. It's poor in technical terms but it doesn't matter, for the important thing at that point is just the response, the reflex. And I decided on illuminated boxes to refer to the connection with the mobile phone, I wanted to mimic looking at a screen illuminated from behind. As for their size, I didn't want to enlarge it due to the similar reasons and technical limitations.

Begüm: I first met you in Ufat when I see this work. It was something we arrive at if we think through, but didn't imagine somehow, and thought like "yeah" when we saw it.

Ege: It didn't occur to me at first. It was something I started playing with that idea after my mother sent me a phone as a present, and so that work had some kind of a liberating side for me. When I presented the same images in the exhibition "Close Quarter" in Istanbul Modern, I decided to make the boxes even smaller. Maybe I could just find the nerve and use the original screen size.

Begüm: Your experimenting new things considering the space itself is also relevant to your works.

Ege: Yes, I am pondering upon this issue these days, and I hope it leads to something. I have been obsessed about Shroud of Turin which is assumed to bear the image of Jesus for a while now. There are essays explaining how it was an established myth. Carbon tests and so on. But what excites me here is not if that claim is scientific or not, but that the desire to conserve which laid the foundations of that myth is the precursor of photographic methods. And there is also a novella named Giphantie written by Tiphaigne de la Roche in the 18th century. People who live in some parallel universe are telling a foreign traveler about mirrors that can fix the images reflected on them automatically. For now, I have references like this, I am thinking on how I give them some form, some direction, how I can place them inside some space. And I also want to use texts in my next works. Maybe also different objects...I am talking a bit ambiguously but...