Displacement of a self-portrait, placement of an affinity, 2012

I ask a friend of mine, Deniz, to take a look at Freedom of Speech, a documentation of Funda Özgünyadin’s 2008/9 performance. A close headshot shows Özgünyadin’s mouth hooked on each side and pulled apart by yellow paperclips. Painful for her, hardly less so for the viewer. Her mouth becomes a violent elastic opening, stretched to cartoonish proportions as -tensed wires drag her lips into grimaces and distressing grins. When we concentrate on the gaping orifice, it’s harrowing, it seems to have a life of its own, but Özgünyadin’s accompanying expressions—her furrowed forehead and squinting eyes—yank us back to empathy and the off-screen force acting upon her lips. The Freedom of Speech title, then, can only be ironic. Deniz and I talk for a while and agree that, while this forcible opening of a mouth, prevented from speech, functions metaphorically, it also works as an opening into Funda Özgünyadin’s diverse practice and the question of what it means to speak from a minority silenced by societal assumptions.

Özgünyadin grew up in Frankfurt am Main, her parents moved to Germany in the late 1960s from the Egin, Erzincan region of Turkey. She studied in Frankfurt and Ireland, before moving to Berlin in 2009. Özgünyadin’s practice is very much in the Beuysian tradition of performance in the sense that life is drawn upon and translated in an ongoing process of experiential assimilation. As such we see her using a wide range of media—self-portrait, performance, theatre plays, drawing, and video collage—to create a cultural space of references that reflect critically on the immediate society around her, but that call out to others with shared experiences.

Deniz taps her foot as she starts to watch the first in the Displacement of a cultural self portrait series (2008–present). Oh, that’s Cem Karaca, she tells me. He was this cool Turkish musician who sang in The Mongols, as famous for making psychedelic Anatolian rock as for his left-wing political opinions. The Displacement series—an ongoing collection of black and white video collages—shows Özgünyadin editing herself into, or rather, superimposing herself on top of, iconic Turkish music clips or Fassbinder film scenes. Her silent ghostly image, appearing in various guises, is so obviously overlaid that we can’t help but notice the mechanical separation of eras. Although she uses the same technique in each Displacement video, the gap between the artist-protagonist and the scene play out differently each time—now as a bystander, now anticipating, now learning—as if continuously trying out the role of marginal figure in relation to different histories. Positioned in front of Cem Karaca to the right of the screen, the artist mimics his famous mannerisms, calling to mind the role of a signer for deaf viewers. But there is a time lag. Karaca’s poised, self-assured gestures follow Özgünyadin’s looser, memorised movements, and our reception of a past political icon is channelled through a contemporary performance trope. In this way, the artist renders the unfamiliar past familiar, quoting with her body to transmit Karaca’s attitude into one we, the hard of hearing, can understand today.

Deniz loosely translates the subtitle of the next Displacement, Sari Çizmeli Mehmet Aga,
as ‘Yellow booted head of the village’, and explains to me that while Baris Manço, the singer in the video, comes from the same era as Cem Karaca, Manço was more of a family figure. She says most kids of the 1980s know him through Adam Olacak Çocuk, a part in his TV travel show.
In this displacement, Özgünyadin has set herself up as the mirror of Manço, but where his directed gaze and precise hand gestures theatrically explain the song lyrics to the viewer, Özgünyadin stares out with the preoccupied concentration of someone learning a dance. Being positioned at the triangulation of these two gazes, we are simultaneously didactically addressed by the past and blankly alluded to by the present.

Ah, I say. It’s a search for a lost history, trying to find an identity as second generation Turk in Germany. Deniz snorts loudly (she comes from a similar background, but grew up in England). Yes, she says, that would confirm a stereotype of the migrant’s inheritance. And she’s right to snort. Because as much as Özgünyadin points to a generational culture gap, she also—and far more importantly—aligns her art practice with an ideological cultural heritage.

Seated amongst the Bavarian protagonists, in a scene from Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher, Özgünyadin plays a whimsical witness to their stagnant meeting. Where the Fassbinder characters seem trapped by his static shot, her bored, fuzzy figure registers on a different grey-scale, and can be walked straight through. The dismissive sentence at the end of the scene conveys the group’s unwelcome attitude to outsiders, but Özgünyadin is already sitting between them, becoming the watchful accomplice of the two Fassbinders—Fassbinder playing Jorgos the Greek in this movie, and Fassbinder the socially critical director.

Displacement of a cultural self portrait, then, claims ideological ancestry. The series is a displacement of identity, but it is also a powerful placement of affiliation—with resistance. With criticism of underlying xenophobic urges. With left-wing dissonance. This is carried even further in the theatre play Özgünyadin is currently working on: 4. Wand / 3. Stand, in which she mixes Turkish electronica percussion with critical theory, dance remixes of rousing Volkslieder with the swings, see-saws, and roundabouts of children’s playgrounds. The characters are envisaged as animal-human hybrids, and in the play, a lamb, a pig, a raven, and a deer (which come to signify critique, crisis, politics, and morality respectively), discuss revolution as circularity and revolution as a break with the past. Deniz suddenly asks me if I know about the meaning of her name. I don’t—so she explains it to me. The original meaning of Deniz is ‘ocean’ but since the 1970s, the name shot up in popularity and came to have more political connotations because of a well-known left-wing extremist. It’s not hard to see why Deniz, herself a signifier in a catalogue text, can make the connection between nature, a namesake, and an affinity; she gets to the heart of Funda Özgünyadin’s practice, where we find questions about an inherent will for transformation, the survival of a revolutionary ideal and its complicated relation to a lived present.

Both the photos in the Euphrates series, which takes its name from the longer of the two rivers in Mesopotamia, and the multiple video works entitled Tomatoes source from a trip back to Egin in Turkey in 2010. The village, set on a steep hill by the bank of the river, is a space of encounter and return for the artist, who uses the setting to trace out a self-portrait that she herself barely appears in. The Euphrates photos are all beautifully off somehow—wonky, upside-down, vibrating with heightened colours and dull shadows. These are the panoramas a tourist might be attracted to through the viewfinder, but the grouping implies a familiar terrain revisited, wandering with a fresh eye. There is an obvious ease between the photographer and the subjects in the photos, making them both nostalgic and intimate. Likewise, the informal documentary footage of Tomatoes chronicles the daily practices of village life—the elderly woman laughs as she packs away the needlework she has displayed for the camera, the old man shows us how he cleans and redirects the irrigation streams, a task that must be done every two hours, day and night in the dry months to keep the plants watered; a task that all the villagers share to ensure the survival of their community.
Özgünyadin manages to bring across a warm familiarity with the hand-held camera footage, and the length of the videos privileges the ambling explanations of the villagers. Both of these are qualities which give the works a feeling of loving respect for lives that have to contend with cycles of nature and realities of age, and for people who organise themselves into working parts of a communal whole.

The relocations from Germany to Ireland and back again inform the I am King series and Fitting Sculpture in particular, and Özgünyadin’s practice overall. The I am King photographs were the start of a series of self-portraits taken in her new surroundings in Berlin, and as we start to talk about these self- portraits, Deniz and I realise that they appeal to us in different modes of address. For me, Özgünyadin poses in familiar Berlin neighbourhoods amongst symbolic remnants of coolness. In applying a semi-glossy magazine finish to these images, she seems, with self-critical parody, to be pointing to the attraction of moving to a new scene, to the appalling realisation of the stereotype you might embody once you have done so. I think about the perpetual search for alternative lifestyles and their subsumption into mainstream aesthetics. For Deniz however, the photos are rich with clichés—the status symbol of a Mercedes badge for the Almanci (one who lives away from Turkey, specifically working in Germany), the Turkish tradition of water thrown, in this case behind the helmeted roller-skater, to wish her luck and a safe return on her journey. Although we read the images differently, we both recognise an attitude—with provocation, without shame, Özgünyadin gathers symbols together and reigns amongst them, forcing the imposed cultural identity to be self-critical. And that’s the beauty of Özgünyadin’s practice. Translating direct experience through cultural assumptions, she makes us aware of the voiceless without of society, whilst allying her art practice with those silenced—starting with localised social phenomena, she calls out to shared experiences of marginalisation and resistance that resonate through generations and across cultures.

Kym Ward

Kym Ward is a freelance performance artist and writer, currently living in
Berlin, she completed her Master degree in Fine Art at The Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam
She will be starting a research Residency at Jan van Eyck Academie in 2014.