In Conversation: Fırat Engin

Talking about consumerist lifestyles, the uncertainty of the future and slowing down with the artist.

Fırat Engin, Purification, 2011, laundry machine, LCD screen, DVD player
Fırat Engin, Purification, 2011, laundry machine, LCD screen, DVD player

In an interview on his “Boats filled with Soul, Water and Dreams!” exhibition, Fırat Engin said his intention was to "reveal the poetic aspects of the subject (the ongoing refugee crisis) in a stripped-down language. Meanwhile, mass production and different forms of power are among the other topics that sculptor and academician Engin has previously covered. The artist has been producing "free, random, flexible and project-based" works, with the understanding of self-destruction and rebuilding that has prevailed in his art practice and day-to-day since 2007.

In 2009, Engin’s photo installation I and We, which was produced for an exhibition in France, foreshadowed the world that we have suddenly found ourselves in, a global pandemic, with surprising precision: I and We consisted of transparent booths placed in a film studio with mirrored photographs for people inside these booths to watch; while establishing an individual’s place in society, it also allowed us to observe moments in which Engin discovered his own personal limits and scope.

In “At the End of the Day”, we see Purification, a similarly prophetical work: Consisting of an image of the World swirling inside a washing machine, Purification carries formerly inconceivable connotations in the post-pandemic world (in contrast to when it was first produced ten years ago.)

Here, we chat with Fırat Engin about Purification, the highway to pandemic and the unforeseeable future.

This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.

We would like to start by chatting about a work you have created in 2011, Purification, which is being exhibited in “At the End of the Day”. Would you like to talk a little bit about the story behind it?

Of course. I showcased Purification as a part of the "The Invasion" exhibition in 2011. It was also in the exhibition I opened for the Mac Art Gallery in Istanbul on June 4, 2011. Previously, in 2010, there was another video-sculpture work I made in memory of Gregor Samsa. This is how the video-sculpture series started. Purification is a continuation of this video-sculpture series in terms of its technique.

Of course at that time, the theme of the exhibition, its title, its general scope were somewhat related to cultural politics. It was an exhibition I made on the sociological images and sociological reflections, particularly in geographies like ours, through globalization, consumer culture, capitalism, cultural invasion, cultural hegemony and similar concepts.

was also an indicator of this higher theme, together with other works. The video in fact is an image of the World being washed up … It is also displayed in a washing machine. In other words, by manipulating the physical reality of the object and the virtual reality of the image together, the work actually reveals a new form, a new image. In this regard, I care a lot about the role of the object, specifically in video sculptures. Simply put, the functionality and instrumentality of the object are at the forefront. Hence, I use the washing machines’ mechanic, its action. The fridge in the same series had a similar function.

There was also a vacuum cleaner that swept birds.

Exactly! With the vacuum cleaner, or the turbo oven -which I had my own self-portrait in-I utilize the practical motions of these objects in our daily lives. I use the washing machine to wash something, I don’t cook with it. I bake my own head in the oven, but don’t add anything else in there. I can say that I benefit from an object’s potential energy in our daily lives. Therefore; Purification indeed is a new state created by manipulating physical reality and virtual reality…

To talk a bit about "The Invasion" exhibition: If we look at where we have arrived since 2011, we can see that the general context of “The Invasion” and this artwork, Purification, are still currently relevant. In fact, they come across as even related to bigger problems. Perhaps the situation was slightly better in 2011, maybe we didn't have as many primitive fears as we do now. However, currently, we are in a period where we see such tangible and such primitive results of all. How do you interpret the difference between these two frames of time and the renewed relevance of Purification?

Actually, I also find myself making that connection. OK, this wasn’t the basic approach or the main problem of the "The Invasion" exhibition in 2011; since we didn’t face a global pandemic and to be honest the pandemic is something I find quite apocalyptic. I couldn’t ever predict such a thing like many other people. So the problem was different yet still, the problems are related to each other. There is no doubt that they do because of the criticisms out there - the criticism of the world order in "The Invasion" exhibition - in truth this pandemic is a result of what was being critiqued. Back then we were trying to make solid criticisms but one of the consequences (of what these criticisms were aimed at) is the epidemics.

On the other hand, recently something similar happened with another work of mine: There was a photo installation titled I and We that I made in France in 2009. I had designed transparent cabins and asked people to go in each one of them by themselves. I mean, it was about creating an invisible yet isolated space around the individual. After many years, one of my friends who modeled for this work and I were texting, and she said “I’m reliving something very similar to what I felt back when I stood in those cabins, just in a different context.” We couldn’t predict our current reality at the time, but ten years later, it has a new connotation in the light of the pandemic. Purification is also like that.

As it came up earlier in our conversation, there are problems with the system that go way back, but we only started making note of them in the late 90s and early 2000s. And these problems seem to be at the root of all the difficulties we are experiencing at this moment.

You’re very right about this. High consumption, the population growth since the Industrial Revolution; the overflowing of money in the world, consumerist lifestyles as a result of this distribution and the mass problems that come with it… One end of the spectrum grew extremely rich while the other became extremely poor. The balance, both money-wise and in the sociocultural sense is very off. Then of course there are many issues around environmental disasters, difficulty accessing sustainable energy and so on. The pandemic is the result of all of this.

I mean in the end, we have grown so much, we have expanded so much, and we have moved around the world in such an extensive way that we went down through the ground and found ourselves in a bat's cave.

Using “The Invasion" exhibition and Purification as our starting point, we took a quick look at 2020. The sentiment is something like “we are now in a place we could never think of, yet it had already all begun back then.” What are your foresights regarding the art world for the days to come? Because this has been a period that really changed how people produce artwork.

This planet continues to surprise us, all the time. Anything we previously thought to be simply impossible has happened to us. Therefore, I can’t predict anything anymore. I think it’s necessary to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios. Both in respect to this particular geography and around the world. But it’s quite clear that none of this is sustainable. So I think there are two kinds of “minds” in our world; a mind that insists on ascribing to its old habits, doesn’t learn much from them and continues in that sprawling way and a mind that is enlightened—one who recognizes these problems, knows how it’s no longer sustainable and thinks different policies should be created instead… At least I think that’s the most sensible thing to do. I can’t say ‘this is how it’s done’ or ‘that’s the way to do it,’ you know.

What happened in my own life was, I contemplated a lot during the pandemic, especially during the quarantine. About my own process, what I have done until today and what I will do from now on … First of all, I think we move too fast. I decided to slow down. I believe that we have some responsibilities within ourselves, such as to philosophize a little more, question ourselves and internalize, to grow, and produce meaningful works instead of a lot. Maybe we can’t change the world by making up big words and big sentences, but we can contribute to this by starting a movement within ourselves.

Maybe the solution is within art, who knows?

Art can at least lead the way, it could be a road sign.

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