In Conversation: Lara Ögel

We spoke with Lara Ögel on “learning to die” and blooming memories.

Lara Ögel, Houses Were Rooms, I Had Forgotten..., 2020, ceramics, soil, grass, wood, seeds
Lara Ögel, Houses Were Rooms, I Had Forgotten..., 2020, ceramics, soil, grass, wood, seeds

As time flows towards an unknown future, the images tangled in the web of our memories can invite us to reconcile with our past and our roots even for a single moment. Lara Ögel’s installation Houses Were Rooms, I Had Forgotten... in “At the End of the Day” exhibition presents the phantom of a familiar bedroom resisting against the rapid change of time and the world. The installation includes slats of a bed and it’s legs known as “claw foot” which are common in the living spaces of this region. Both with its color and texture, it evokes associations and offers a snapshot of the established relationships between the interior space and its inhabitants. The soil and grass cover spreading over the area under the frame brings attention to cycles of memory that come to life, die, return to soil and change form by growing again, just like in natural processes. Lara Ögel’s installation is universal as well as autobiographical, with its grass-like roots it traces the memory which surrounds all existence.

The artist lives and works in Istanbul, and uses different techniques in her practice such as videos, objects, patterns and collages. Her works are specific to space and context. Ögel, who has previously attended the artist-in-residence programs of Beirut Art Residency and Cité Internationale des Arts, focuses on the distance between the past and the future, memory and imagination. In 2018, the artist’s solo exhibition “İmtidâd” was held at Galata Greek School where she used archives to bring the colors back to the school, which had faded into obscurity. In 2019, we saw Ögel with her “Public Confidentiality” exhibition at Açıkekran, additionally she also took part in London Somerset House with her “Mushrooms” exhibition.

We talked to Lara Ögel about Houses Were Rooms, I Had Forgotten..., internalizing nature’s cycles and collective mourning during the pandemic.

This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.

You are taking part in OMM’s “At the End of the Day” with your installation
Houses Were Rooms, I Had Forgotten.... Since our format is entirely audio today, I’ll try to provide a description of it: We see a bed, or, if I may, a ghost of a bed, particularly from the '60s and '70s which some of us may remember from our grandmothers' houses, its slat frame and furniture legs known as "craw's feet". There’s some soil and grass beneath the bed frame, as if nature had reclaimed what it owns. Can you talk a little bit about this set-up?

Of course. As you said, this is certainly a grandmother’s bedroom. I showcased this artwork for the first time in Athens in 2016. It was featured in a curatorial exhibition project at an open call by Fondazione Prada. I actually met the curator of this exhibition a year ago, I think, during the artist-in-residence program in Beirut and we got along really well. Around that time one of the things I was really brainstorming about was putting down roots and a sense of belonging. Long-standing lands and geographies, particularly Beirut and Turkey, often make me think about belonging and what our identity is. I’ll call it a “family theme” but of course the family as a whole; I’m interested in all its textures and thinking that the simplest root of all is family, I wanted to do research on it. Hence, I wanted to put down my roots there. I started questioning where my roots were. I was studying and thinking about that. This took me back to my childhood memories through small associations and interactions. In fact, I thought of the scene where I first joined life in motion, touched certain things, played games, listened to fairy tales and discovered. That scene was in my grandmothers' bedroom, where I spent plenty of time. When I returned back there I thought about when I used to crawl through the room, discover, encounter some things and record them. The things that I encountered in the bedroom were what we would call the furniture’s “paws” whether it would be of a lion, a dog, a cat, whichever it may be, and about encountering the feet of the furniture and establishing a relationship with them. However, the question I asked was also this: What is transferred if people put down their roots somewhere, existed and then disappeared or migrated to another life? What will nature take away? What will it leave behind? I mean does nature take us away? What does it replace us with? In 2016, I started with questions like these and as a result of this description, a scene emerged that included small skeletons, ghosts, small root particles, objects that we use, which perhaps include some parts of us, particles and fragments, but where we also witness formation in the cycle of life, and the emergence and sprouting of another life.

Yes, a non-human life.

Yes, a non-human life, yet a life, a cycle. There's an extinction, there's a reappearance and in fact it’s about a cycle hinting at something like death and resurrection. In 2019, I showcased this again at the Hannah Barry Gallery in London at an exhibition which was on the theme of “remembering” as I would call it. At the same time there was a video involved, Dreams of Furniture. I thought of it as how could objects preserve the traces of memories we have left behind? What could they be hiding? The work was created by editing a family archive which consists of some visuals, touching moments where feelings transform into water and come over us like a flood, surrounding a city.

I now reinterpret this artwork from a curatorial aspect as well as a social one to see what has changed in our lives since 2019. In fact, I can see how much I have grown - transitioning from listening to fairy tales to another phase in my life - I can see that the artwork, the installation has taken roots and sprouted and is involved with, we can even call it chaos, formation and deterioration, which is exciting to me.

In this life cycle that I’ve mentioned before in which generation and destruction coexist, we see grass coming out of the soil. I chose grass because, just like mushrooms, it is a “network” that contains individual leaves, a sense of uniqueness, but which actually forms a holistic whole. In other words, although grass appears to be singular, we can say that it is a whole in itself. Or even though mushrooms also seem like that, they’ve got a really strange “network” that expands as they grow. That’s why grass actually refers to our uniqueness and also to our wholeness. Each human being may be a single blade of glass, so to say, on their own, but at the same time there was this idea that all together, we make up a whole - just like grass does.

Lara Ögel
Lara Ögel

It feels like after living through 2020, there’s never been a year with such a busy agenda before but there’s no such thing of course. I’m sure there have been scarier times in the past, or maybe scary is not the right word, but 2020 was a year where everybody had to go through changes, both individually and socially, on the same level. Among all current issues, what do you find yourself thinking about the most?

Actually as I was trying to say, I am expanding this piece by showing it again in its current context, by adding my own thoughts, worries and urgencies each time. Right now, I think we are collectively moving towards an unknown with a sense of bewilderment. There’s definitely a process of reminiscing! Yet we also know that we shouldn’t reminisce about certain memories, so that we can create new ones. I’m thinking about these ideas right now. The most fundamental question that involves them is the question of death; that is to face our death and our mortality. The fact that everything in reality is mortal. The world is built on infinite entropy, everything that already exists wants to move towards its sole tiny atom. The human brain is more complicated, it skips time - sometimes going back to the past, sometimes dreaming of the future - it tries to be “in the moment”. What kind of a future will we build for ourselves with all this information? What will we imagine? This certainly is not a question I’ve found the answer to. Yet some of the resources that we’ve looked and read; for instance Roy Scranton’s book "Learning to Die in the Anthropocene" explains that understanding the fragility of life, honoring what we can remember, truly grasping the concept of natural cycles, seeing that while the soil symbolizes our return to it, something else is sprouting and growing in it, and accepting this state of circularity and transformation is “learning to die”.

We talked a little bit about cycles. Actually we talked about what it would be like to make peace with cycles and how our acceptance of death or life relies on this. Do you think there's been a collective mourning since September 2020 when all we used to know suddenly changed?

Absolutely, I believe we are in a period of mourning. Of course, everyone’s mourning period can develop differently. Some like to look back and filter all their memories, they live through them and try to recall them again and again. I think this manifests itself both in politics, different geographies and different approaches. As the entire world, as humanity, we are in a constant state of collective mourning through this act of returning to the past, retrograding, reminiscing, it is incredibly strange, and this is particularly common among people our age. The arrival of the Internet, the sudden introduction of computers into our lives, mobile phones, screens, AI, dreams of going to space, living on Mars and establishing a colony there. They all happened so quickly, one after another… I believe we are mourning over certain things but how can we move forward if we continue to mourn? Should we look back, or ahead? How would we do that? What will we remember, what will we forget? What will we intentionally pay attention to? Which memory will we put effort into?

The arrival of the Internet, the sudden introduction of computers into our lives, mobile phones, screens, AI, dreams of going to space, living on Mars and establishing a colony there. They all happened so quickly, one after another… I believe we are mourning over certain things but how can we move forward if we continue to mourn?

I believe mourning raised these questions. There’s a desire to create a new order out of chaos, however, we don’t exactly know how this new order will be. We must brainstorm a lot on these issues and the main role of the artist here is to dream and to remember what we care about and what we are facing… I think this is the role of art in this period of collective mourning.

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