In Conversation: Elmas Deniz
On “not to be sold common resources”, the human-nature relationship, and antique Irish laces.
If visual artist Elmas Deniz’s Made to Be Seen (2018) sounds like a commercial for Sri Lanka’s lush greenery, that is because it’s exactly what Deniz aims for: Currently on view at OMM’s “At the End of the Day” exhibition, the video underlines the capitalism-led deterioration of nature through consumption-fueling advertisements. Deniz showcases the untouched nature near Colombo, Sri Lanka, while borrowing concepts and commonly-used words from the world of advertisement such as “relaxed, fortunate, refined.” This sense of irony highlights the manipulation of the economic system and modern advertising, which has been its primary instrument for over a century.
Deniz has been consistently examining the deterioration of nature by humankind and the concerns over ecological changes for over 10 years. Here, we talk about how common resources like air, water and forests should never be sold, her takeaways from working with the themes of environment and economy over the years, and antique Irish laces.
This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.
You are a part of “At the End of the Day” with your video work Made to Be Seen. At the start of the video, we see an incredibly green landscape; however, this isn’t the Mediterranean. Later on, we hear an external voice reading a text which I find very striking and I think someone is trying to sell something to us. This could be either a perfume or a car, or even a piece of jewelry. Can you talk a little about your work?
Made to Be Seen is a video I shot in Sri Lanka near Colombo at the end of 2017. Visually, the video consists of rainforests and Sri Lanka’s nature. The name, Made to Be Seen, actually comes from advertisements so it’s not exactly about selling something but more about taking the idea of an advertisement itself as the main focus of the video work. I’m actually really interested in how advertisements affect our view on nature and our language. For instance, around the time I was shooting there was a cologne brand that was using names like tangerine and lavender, but then named their fragrance “Nature.” It just caught my attention that nature seems to appear in such strange ways over and over again in advertisements.
In my mind, the video is divided into three: The first part is about leaving the city, isolating, and the use of nature in advertisements. The second part is layered over all those images; it consists of 150 words I’ve selected from luxury consumption-based advertisements that were sometimes funny and quite absurd. These are words like “timeless” or “hope”, they are absurd when they appear in advertisements, too. The finale hints at a previous video-work of mine, The Tree I Want to Buy and it’s about people’s desire to consume. It kind of asks the question: “Do you want it to be all yours?”
This makes me think of two things: One is, “What is buying a forest good for?” And then, we live a mortal life of approximately 90 years but when you think of the mountains, the seas - which were already in existence when we were born - and if everything goes well they will still exist even when we die.
Talking about all this, mortality actually comes into play a lot. The economic system already manipulates our perception in some way. We say “the forest is beautiful”, we think it feels good to be in the forest. However, the system suggests possessing beautiful things. It doesn’t let you just look across the sea, it wants you to own a land or a house on the seaside. There is this constant manipulation of what we “need” and I see advertisements as the forefront of all this manipulation. The rainforest I filmed in Sri Lanka was later decided to be sold by the government. The people there came to me in such a shock, back when we filmed, they spoke confidently that it would never be sold.
As a matter of fact, we can talk about the commons that should not be sold in the world. You know like air, water, earth. For instance, we’re always talking about how air should not be sold, that is one of our commons. The same applies for forests. These commons should not be commercialized instead they must be available and protected for everyone living in the world.
For instance, we’re always talking about how air should not be sold, that is one of our commons. The same applies for forests. These commons should not be commercialized instead they must be available and protected for everyone living in the world.
That is the truth! However this system is growth-oriented, it absorbs everything and becomes gigantic and somehow it depends on rainforests now. That is what’s been happening in the Amazons.
I made a video called Sorrow for my exhibition, “Three Hues of Water” at Zilberman Gallery and while working on it, it occurred to me that: Our perception of nature used to make us feel good, it was refreshing but now whenever we talk about nature, there’s this sense of a terrible loss, extinction, a feeling of fear.
If “loss” is the first word that comes to our mind upon hearing "nature," where are we headed?
Since 2006, I’ve been dealing with different parts of this issue and this is what I’ve noticed: As our relationship with nature decreases - unless we establish a real connection with animals, plants and forests - their place in our culture deteriorates. I’m examining antique Irish laces for a new project. They are incredibly impressive. I observed them for hours trying to understand the difference between the recently produced ones and I realized this: These laces were made because someone genuinely went to pick flowers and later on thought “how can I reproduce these in lace”—they really look like botanical drawings. But the new ones were made over the idea of a flower figure. Someone got bored in their apartment and thought a flower pattern seemed pretty. The difference between the two are; it’s as if the flowers on the new laces do not “exist” in the real world. There is something missing. I think if people can get through this, if they can manage to create a new form of relationship with nature then we wouldn’t be so despondent. So, I’m not hopeless but it seems like we all need to work together a bit more.
You’ve been actively thinking about the environment in your practice since 2006. What has changed since then? Perhaps there’s an increased awareness in the world but the conditions that we’re facing compared to 2006 are far more severe and there’s limited time to get things back.
I don’t exactly know how to explain this but I’m sure there’s a name for it and it’s being studied for master’s or Ph.D degrees. Rather than activism alone, I believe that we need to develop new approaches to conserving nature which will ultimately liberate us. So I think it’s necessary to change our value system and the way we handle things with people. Maybe I’m speaking too broadly but activism is only one of the solutions, what changes things is your value system. If something is redeemed to be too embarrassing amongst people then we prefer not to do it. This applies both morally and ethically. As a society, since humans are social creatures, their social existence is important. For these reasons, they continue to do what they believe to be within the value judgments of their spouse, friends and family… These all add up.
Cultural production is not like applying flower patterns on materials, instead it is about how you live your life, what you keep alive and what you create. This could be anything from written work to art, dance and ways of living from that period of time, what matters the most is reflecting what people thought was meaningful.
Therefore, activism is just one of the ends, I don’t think activism itself would be able to change everything. While supporting all activism—I’m not saying it’s wrong —I'm saying it could work better alongside what I just described…This way, when all of the “fronts” are involved, I think it would be a more resilient system. And the fronts in question are new relationship forms and value systems.
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