In Conversation: Hale Tenger

Hale Tenger on the Lessepsian migration, “tampering with” nature and the concept of “wu wei.”

Hale Tenger, Magic is the Mirror of a Deer, 2019, video, cylindrical aluminum container, museum glass, rear projection vinyl screen, mirror
Hale Tenger, Magic is the Mirror of a Deer, 2019, video, cylindrical aluminum container, museum glass, rear projection vinyl screen, mirror

Those who visit “At the End of the Day” at OMM eventually find themselves in a black room with three walls, which could be described as meditative. On the two walls opposing each other, embed in cylinders that bring submarine windows to mind, there is a proud deer and a fish, and you simply want to spend a few more minutes standing there. Only after that initial sense of calm washes over, you notice that the fish in question is actually dead.

Magic is the Mirror of a Deer
and Sky is the Magic of a Fish first met the viewers at “Where the Winds Rest”, Hale Tenger’s 2019 solo exhibition at Galeri Nev İstanbul. As with the exhibition name, the two artworks are named after lines from Edip Cansever’s poetry. Tenger, while in Eskişehir for the exhibition installation, doesn’t think twice about closing the three-walled room with a curtain or new wall. She’d rather have the works be a part of the broader open space.

Tenger has been actively working for thirty years now and has exhibited at various biennials including the Istanbul Biennial and 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. The porosity of her works, which often carry themes of identity and power is worth ruminating on. First shown at Artpace San Antonio in 1997 (and later, reincarnated for SALT’s 2015 exhibition, “How Did We Get Here”) The Closet makes one immediately feel the overall atmosphere of Turkey in 1980s—a suffocating sense of oppression bleeding from public spaces into private ones. So does the wooden guard house-space of We didn’t go outside; we were always on the outside / We didn’t go inside; we were always on the inside. First exhibited at the 4th Istanbul Biennial in 1995 (and reconstructed for Arter last year), the wooden house oozes with unease—as if the righteous “owner” of the desolate cabin may show up any minute.

Here, we chat with Tenger about her works in “At the End of the Day,” to “try not to try” as a plan of action, and the current state of the planet, which isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries.

This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.

Your two works in “At the End of the Day”, Magic is the Mirror of a Deer and Sky is the Magic of a Fish take their titles from the Edip Cansever poem, “Where the Winds Rest.” In your interview with Ayşegül Oğuz and Anıl Özcan for 1+1 Forum, you describe the titular fish of Sky is the Magic of a Fish as having “left its mind in a place where it can no longer exist” and liken the condition of this alienated fish to the human condition of dissatisfaction with a perfectly livable world. Can you tell us more about this state of alienation?

This dissatisfaction is a prevalent part of human nature. The inability to be present in the moment, or to be content with the present moment, is overtaken by the impulse to think about our next move, or imagine somewhere we’d rather be. I think this is a flaw in our nature, because other species don’t have this problem.

In my work Anatomically Modern Humans for the Johannesburg Biennale in 1998, the viewer enters a domestic space filled with abandoned, unkempt aquariums. These fishless, seaweed-overgrown aquariums are the derelict remnants of a once passionate curiosity. On the other side of this space, designed to look like someone’s living room, piles of science-fiction magazines and a giant panoramic image of Mars indicate that the easily-bored owner of the aquariums has found something new to busy himself with. Just like the perpetually distracted fish of Sky is the Magic of a Fish.

What about the production process behind Sky is the Magic of a Fish?

We needed really clear underwater conditions for this video. I did some underwater shooting in various locations, and got the best results from Kadın Azmağı in Akyaka. The dead fish in the video is native to the region. Among locals it is known as the “Stinger” fish. I began researching it and discovered that it the species is actually from the Red Sea and Basra Gulf and was only discovered in the Mediterranean and Aegean sees after the opening of the Suez Canal. This phenomenon of the Siganus Luridus species’ movement towards the Mediterranean is called the Lessepsian Migration. The name “Lessepsian” comes from Ferdinand de Lesseps, the conceptual originator and developer of the Suez Canal.

This is going to be a bit of a tangent but I just read that the water levels in the Panama Canal have dropped so low that they have almost doubled the cost of passage for ships and have dedicated a strong budget to redirect the flow of a nearby river to the Panama Canal in order to maintain the water levels necessary for its functioning. The decrease in water levels makes it difficult for heavyweight ships to pass the canal, has even caused a couple of accidents. So, we have journeyed from the fish in Sky is the Magic of a Fish to the Lessepsian migration, to Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal, to the Panama Canal. This story inevitably brings us to the completely unnecessary idea of opening a canal right under our noses, in our own geography. One doesn’t need to be an oracle to foresee the disasters that could be created by “The Istanbul Canal” project.

Could we say that Magic is the Mirror of a Deer is the more optimistic of these works?

The deer appears in various mythologies around the world as a symbol of magic or curses, so it can be auspicious or ominous depending on the situation. Magic is the Mirror of a Deer contains both of these opposites. It leads us to consider an initially positive but secondarily negative emotional state. Even though the deer in the video awakens magical and hopeful emotions at first, it is impossible not to eventually notice that the deer is not only glancing at its own reflection in the water, but also at us, at the bottom of the well.

In Appearance, at the 16th Istanbul Biennial, the viewer encounters a beautiful, overgrown garden filled with whispering volcanic obsidian stones. The work references the globally prevalent historical technique of girdling, also known as ring-barking. I feel like this also harkens back to the human impulse of tampering with one’s environment.

“Tampering”, exactly! That’s the perfect word for it. The impossibility to remain still without tampering. In my recent projects I’ve always asked the question, “must I do something?”, and it’s easy to tell from my practice that I’m not a huge fan of repetition. The phrase “Can you exist without doing?” that I used in the text for Appearance comes from Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. It’s a happy coincidence that the text for OMM’s “At the End of the Day”, The Word for World is Forest also comes from Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Chinese philosophical teachings regarding this state of tampering that are also mentioned in Lao Tzu’s texts is based on a concept called wu wei. In English it is defined as “trying not to try”, and I reinterpreted this idea with the question “Can you exist without doing?”. There’s a transformative invitation in the possibility of “being without doing”, of creating a new cycle of life without destruction or colonization.

That’s so interesting. I didn’t know about the ring-barking method until I encountered your work at the biennial. It’s so strange to interrupt the growth cycle of a tree by forcing its movement and starving its unwanted parts from nutrients.

It is! This constant need for direction, for intervention, is like a sickness… I didn’t know about the ring-barking method either. My work Life, Death, Love and Justice for the open air exhibit Silence at Cappadox in Cappadocia consisted entirely of sound. After visiting the exhibition space in the Balkan River Valley I began to research the area. I was really intrigued by the Saint Nino Church there. As I investigated Saint Nino’s story, I found out about a cross made entirely of vine trees twined with Saint Nino’s own hair preserved in a church in Georgia. From there it was a complete coincidence that I discovered the botanical technique of ring-barking as I read about vine trees. I learned from local farmers that the regional Turkish term for ring-barking, the process of removing an entire ring of bark from a tree to direct is growth, is “bracelet-taking”. The first written account of this technique was authored by the philosopher and founder of botanical science, Theophrastus (371 BC – 287 BC).

This technique consists of removing a ring of bark from the width of the tree, which cuts off the flow of nutrients from the top of the tree to its roots. When this happens in fruit trees, the overflow of nutrients to the top of the trees speeds up the ripening process, making the fruits sweeter and bigger. Trees actually use this vein near their bark to synthesize nutrients between their branches and leaves and feed both their own roots and soil in the process. In other words, they do what we in our current global order are incapable of doing. We cannot nurture our own roots. I introduced the ring-barking technique in Appearance as a metaphorical reflection of human intervention in nature, almost comparable to torture. An imaginary tree speaks its own whispered language as the viewer gazes into their own reflection in the obsidian mirrors, or that of a cloud, tree, bird or building.

Trees feed their own roots, in other words, they do what we in our current global order are incapable of doing. We cannot nurture our own roots.

There are two works in “At the End of the Day” from Ahmet Doğu İpek’s series Graft which include found tree roots stuffed with stones in order to stunt their growth. These roots also reminded me of the ring-barking technique.

I feel bad now that you say that because I had made a promise to Ahmet Doğu İpek at the opening of Graft. I was going to send him a page from Theopharastus’s book on botanics, Enquiry into Plants. In the section recounting techniques to control tree growth, there was mention of stuffing stones among tree roots as well as the ring-barking method. I hadn’t been able to visualize that until I saw the works in Ahmet’s exhibit. The book I have contains the original text side-by-side with its English translation, so my lack of familiarity with the subject in addition to the antiquated language were both obstacles in my conceptualization of the technique. That was another happy coincidence, that Ahmet and I had both come independently encountered these two methods of interventions as references in our work. Both of them are thousands of years old and were first written about by Theopharastus. The addition of stones to tree roots is also a kind of torture.

To return to “wu wei”, do you think these last few months of our new pandemic reality have taught humanity how to “try not to try”?

The pandemic has thrown a lot of change our way, and one of its positive sides has been this slowing down. This slower pace has ameliorated things in terms of climate change, but it’s probably just a drop in the bucket. What’s actually important is if we as humanity are capable of changing our way of life and our priorities. On the other hand the pandemic has dominated so much of our current reality that it seems like the question of ecological crises has been put on hold.

We know that there have been other pandemics throughout history with much higher death tolls, and when we think about the grand scale, wars, and the loss caused by wars, it’s difficult to remain optimistic.

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