In Conversation with Gökhan Tanrıöver
Looking at the beginning of your career, can you tell us about your brief medical career? How did the shift from medicine to art occur?
My relationship with photography began when I was a medical student in London. I related to photographers and artists more than I did to my own colleagues and felt the need to surround myself within a creative sphere. Although I enjoyed art as a subject in school, it never felt like it was a viable career choice for me. As a first generation immigrant, I felt more pressure from familial social circles to commit to a more familiar profession – I think choosing a career whilst a teenager has major drawbacks.
During my medical studies, I modelled for several artists working with different media. Photography grabbed my attention the most due to its indexical nature: the impact of what I did in front of the lens was more direct and predictable. Over time, I wanted to be the one making the decisions about constructing the image rather than being a collaborator at best or a prop at worst. Following my graduation, I was unhappy at work and felt the constraint of choosing a degree that was very much vocational. I fully believed that I needed to pursue a profession that I was passionate about and hence I quit my job to freelance as a photographer before going back into education.
After completing your BA (Hons) in Photographic Art from the University of Westminster, you’re now studying MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art. Can you share some of the highlights of your art education in London?
Though it doesn’t appear so from the course title, the approach to photography at University of Westminster leaned more towards documentary practices and was very academic in comparison to other institutions in the UK. I went in with an open mind and used my three years there to experiment with different genres and outputs of photography including fashion, advertisement and ultimately fine art. My final year degree show at Free Range was definitely a highlight as I felt the work I presented was most exemplary of my research and practice interests. It was then that I acknowledged I am indeed an artist whose medium is photography.
I chose to pursue my MA at the RCA because of their approach to photography: an expanded and interdisciplinary art practice with no fixed identity. Outside the core Photography curriculum the teaching occurs within the School of Art and Humanities, which offers plenty of elective study opportunities. In late 2019, I took part in a weeklong seminar titled Who’s There? – a performance workshop that is narratively inspired by the mythology of Narcissus and the perennial flower known by the same name. This was my first encounter with performance art and as a group we experienced various introductory exercises, from movement, experimenting with materials, and time-stretching durational practices. The workshop allowed a reflection throughout on the self as a main instrument in devising a performance and concluded with a 4-hour performance opera within an exhibition space, allowing all participants to simultaneously present their performative gestures. The performance itself was mostly improvised, which is very different from my photographic methodology - a very refreshing mode of working.
In 2016, you’ve curated a group exhibition titled Separation and Belonging, as a part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursday tour. Can you tell us about this curating experience? What do you like most about curating?
Separation and Belonging was a group exhibition centred on identity as a fluid notion. The works shown were concerned with how what appears to be the essence of a person, a culture or a space, as well as the relationships between them, shifts from known to unfamiliar, from new to obsolete and often vice versa. This was my first experience in curating and took place during my BA degree. I teamed up with three other lens-based artists and worked together, utilising our collective skill set. It was a collaborative project rather than me single-handedly taking on the role of the curator.
As an artist I think it is crucial to make connections between your own work and those of others, looking at the works through differing gazes and becoming your own curator in a way. What I really enjoyed about this experience however was the element of project management, which is probably the least ‘artist-like’ thing to say. The challenge of grouping works together, finding an appropriate venue, promoting the exhibition, as well as working through a long list of tasks you naively discover in the process, is what made the experience truly memorable. We didn’t want to have a label of a ‘student show’ and through an effective collaboration we managed to get the exhibition to be part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursday tour which takes place on the first Thursday of each month, with over 150 galleries in East London taking part in free events, exhibitions, talks and private views. Whitechapel Gallery selects 5 galleries to be included in their walking tour – including our exhibition in May 2016.
How do you describe your art practice? What ideas or concepts do you seek for in your photography? Is there any recurring theme/question in your work?
As a first-generation British citizen of Turkish descent and a gay man, my work does revolve around personal and cultural identity, often explored through autobiographical memory. As an introverted individual, I make the work as a way to communicate with my audience and myself; about my own reality and the reality I observe living between two distinct cultures. My research interest includes identity politics and representation, which hopefully comes through in my work.
Since very early on in my photographic practice, I construct the image and hence the majority of its aspects are premeditated and tightly controlled. I tend to place myself centrally in the work – at times literally but usually figuratively. Over the years, I have become more controlling and obsessive with the process of image making, but I have made peace with this aspect of my personality and try to use it to my advantage in my practice. Once I decide what it is that I am photographing, I construct the sketched composition – I always carry a notebook with me – and photograph it until I am satisfied with the outcome. For the past few years I’ve used 35mm black and white film almost exclusively so there is always a delay between the act of taking the image and seeing it. I then go on to print in the darkroom – a space that has become a personal sanctuary.
Can you talk a bit about your works in the series ‘Confessionals’? Is it a series of confessions about the past? What ideas did you intend to explore in this work?
Whilst I was researching for my dissertation I came across Annette Kühn’s Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. She explores her childhood memories by looking at the photographs in her family album. She begins to reveal her family secrets through a framework she calls memory work – ‘a method and a practice of unearthing and making public’ stories that are untold. She states that the practitioner of memory work does not only choose what memories to preserve but ‘how we then make use of the stories they generate to give a deeper meaning […] to our lives today’.
As a self-reflective individual I began to recollect my own childhood memories to link my current thoughts and behaviours to gain a deeper self-knowledge. The expression or performance of my identity is informed by these memories: those that are recalled and those that remain hidden below the surface. Confessionals is a series of analogue still life photographs rooted in my autobiographical memory. The studio and the darkroom serve as the physical space where a meditative state facilitates a form of auto-therapy. The accessed childhood memories, first voiced as a text-based confession, are used to construct an image. I regard the methodology I’ve used in this body of work as a way to enrich the understanding of myself and open up a channel of dialogue to take place among the viewers – either with themselves or with each other.
In the series Dead Sleepy, there’s a man lying in different setting of the series of landscape photographs. Who’s that man and how did the series emerge? Please tell us more about Dead Sleepy.
Dead Sleepy is one of the earliest series I’ve worked on: it began during the first term of my Bachelors degree. We were assigned to work on a small series of landscape photographs shot on 35mm digital camera. I was more interested in the relationship between an individual and the landscape, and whether it is the physical space that defines who and how we are or whether it is our influence on our surroundings that is more significant. Covered with a plastic sheet, lying in various spaces, I presented myself ambiguously as either dead or asleep, transferring the responsibility of the choice to the viewer, while the space too shifted from a scene of a crime to an embracing landscape. It was a challenge for me to be both part of the subject and make myself an object in the image whilst retaining the authorship of the work. I didn’t consider it whilst making the work but I was inadvertently making references to female representation in paintings from past eras and embodying a queer identity.
Currently, you’re based in London. Which cities have you lived in before? How did it affect your creative practice?
I was born in Izmir and moved to London twice in my lifetime – first, when I was toddler for a few years and then when I was ten years old. I also lived in Istanbul for three years early on, meaning that I attended primary school in three different cities. Between the two relocations to London, strangely, I had forgotten how to speak English. The struggle with language still persists but this time with a very slow amnesia of Turkish and feeling like I don’t possess a native language – be it English or Turkish. Growing up, I was often undecided which was my first language as I had gained and lost my handle on both of them at different parts during my childhood. Calling either one my mother tongue is too political, as I don’t particularly feel an affiliation to a particular geography or state.
The impact these movements have had on me is the fascination I have for visual arts and photography – a communication tool that is more universal than a written or spoken language, possessing an endless interpretation with its inherent subjectivity.
Can you give us an overview of the development of your art practice over the years? Is there any memorable project/exhibition(s) that you regard as a milestone in you artistic journey?
I consider Confessionals the key body of work in the development of my art practice. I started working on it during the final year of my BA and presented it at the degree show. Upon graduation, I continued developing the project and had my debut solo show in 2018, presenting the series in its entirety. This was an important milestone for me because half of the project actualised after graduating and hence without relying on accessible facilities such as the studio and the darkroom – it is very easy to take these for granted when you are a student. It is also with this series that I began to work outside of the single image and started to present a sequence of prints as installation, a way of working I still follow.
Who inspires you?
The oeuvre of Sophie Calle has fascinated me ever since I commenced my photographic studies. The ease of using her private life to drive her projects and its authenticity is admirable. She doesn’t see them as private moments but rather universal banal occurrences: death of family members, rupture of relationships and so on. For me it is important for artwork to be relatable at a human level.
The conceptual art movement of the 1960’s is another big influence; artists such as Sol LeWitt who didn’t have an interest in inherent narrative or descriptive imagery, but maintained that the idea behind the work is just as important. In 1971 he stated ‘if the artist carried through his idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the process are of importance. The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product’. I make most of my decisions before touching the camera and the act of photographing; especially with sequential images, it is as much a performance as it is a method of visualising.
I have been very fortunate to meet Tom Lovelace at the RCA as he empowered me to be more confident and trusting in the intention and the output of my work. His practice oscillates between photography, performance and sculpture, inspiring me to think beyond the photographic medium. I am also motivated by seeing my classmates develop their practice and experiencing together the change in our differing practices, approaches and styles in a course that is not strictly medium specific.
Do you collect any objects as an artist?
I really wish I had the space to collect a whole range of objects that are disregarded out on the street and to use them in my work – deciphering the memory infused in these unfamiliar objects and approach them as a stranger – but living in central London means having a restriction in my living/working space. Having said that I have been collecting every issue of the British Journal of Photography since 2014, the world’s oldest photography publication established in 1854. Though available in digital format, I still prefer turning pages in a haptic manner and treating each issue as a fragile material.
What are you reading lately?
Until very recently I’ve had a phase of reading Elif Şafak novels back to back, including some that I have read many years ago. She gave a talk at the RCA as part of a research initiative called OPEN, which draws on decolonial methods to explore how our world views translate, with an aim of discovering and developing open art and design practices that are inclusive of emotional work, self-care, respect and positionality. Most of Şafak’s novels revolve around characters that are considered as other or an outsider – some more conspicuous than others and often with a tale of migration and discovery of one’s self, be it in terms of markers of identity or in a more metaphysical manner.
Can you talk about your upcoming projects?
Last summer I completed my dissertation titled Evidence of my Sexual Misdemeanour: A Gendered Performance for the Abysmal Archive. I was focusing on the compulsory military service for men in Turkey as a rite of passage into a sovereign masculinity rife with nationalism. Despite homosexuality being decriminalised during the Ottoman rule, within the military of the Turkish Republic the expression of homosexuality is seen as incompatible with its values and a threat to its core strength: the homosocial bonding. The military doesn’t actively seek gay men to exclude them from service, however an individual can self-identify to evade conscription. This declaration is then legitimised by the military through a series of tests and the collection of evidence. The applicant performs for the camera and a military audience as the evidence of their sexual misdemeanour is constructed.
I gained access to one of the tests used: the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – an internationally well-known psychological screening test comprising of single statements that are responded with a Yes or a No answer. The parameter that the military especially focuses on is how gender-conforming the applicant is as they view perceived femininity as a threat to the institution’s foundation. In my new work I photographically respond and react to the statements from the test with the intention of expressing and constructing an identity on the gallery wall. This persona residing between fact and fiction aims to confront an imposed institutional identity of the gay man in contemporary Turkey and offer one of a multitude of queer identities as an alternative.
I am planning to exhibit this work, The Evidence of My Sexual Misdemeanour, at my MA degree show in summer 2021. Hopefully it will be a physical show rather than digital with the end of the current pandemic.
Lastly, how have you spending your time for the last couple of months during self-quarantine? Have you been able to get involved in new projects during this time?
Prior to the lockdown, I was working on the project I’ve mentioned above and tried to maximize my time in the photographic studio and the darkroom. The implications of the spread of the virus were unclear, so I was trying to safely get as much work done as possible. Independently of what was going on around me, I felt very inspired but I knew that this level of practice was not sustainable for a long time. The beginning of the quarantine felt like an imposed and necessary break, but it also felt paralytic because in just one day I suddenly couldn’t rely on the spaces and facilities that had become vital for my work – everything just shut down. Whilst I am aware that I could adapt to working from home by creating a studio atmosphere, I think there is an unnecessary societal pressure to remain productive in this unprecedented and anxious time. I have given myself the permission of not having to follow this rule and hence prevent any feelings of guilt or frustration. I don’t want to compromise on my methodology of image making, especially whilst I am in the middle of this project. I am however brainstorming for new ideas and sketching to create new pieces for the project, as well as considering different ways I can present the printed work. I am also in the very early stages of co-curating an exhibition in London with a colleague, which will focus on constructed photographs of performative narratives. I am hoping to safely return to the studio soon and actualise my plans.