In Conversation: Nazan Azeri

We talked with Nazan Azeri about seeds growing on the body, and ancient knowledge at the heart of contemporary experiences.

To Grow, 2003, diasec print from the performance process
To Grow, 2003, diasec print from the performance process

The global climate crisis we are currently fighting against has a direct correlation to the everyday struggles of surviving within oppressive systems. We witness that the right to dominance claimed by humans over other living beings, and the patriarchal urge to rule over nature plays a detrimental role in the future of our planet. The association between man and 'culture' and woman and ‘nature’ that resides in our collective consciousness legitimizes the repression of the latter. Through video and photography, Azeri documents the growing and sprouting processes of the seeds which she places on her body. Through her work, the artist presents a critical approach to the Anthropocene age that marginalizes nature by granting special privilege to the human species. To Grow draws attention to the fictional distinctions that we uncover right beneath the surface of the damage inflicted upon the world today.

Nazan Azeri lives and works in Istanbul where she continues to work with painting, assemblage, abstract photography and video art. Azeri places internal and external conflicts at the core of her practice, which includes the process of transforming personal and collective memories into metaphors. The artist’s last solo show “From Dreams to Truths” was curated by Beral Madra and exhibited at the Marmara University Cumhuriyet Museum in Istanbul in 2019.

We had a chat with Azeri about her home performance To Grow (2003) exhibited as part of the “At the End of the Day” exhibition, the ancient knowledge that still holds an important place in our 21st century lives, and the parallel relationship between violence against women and that against nature.

This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.

In your work To Grow, exhibited as part of “At the End of the Day”, we witness the germination process of the seeds that you place on your body. How did this project come about? How did you make a connection between nature and the human body, in this case your own body? Does your work allude to the way in which the female body indeed has a seed producing mechanism? Can you tell us the story behind it?

This work was actually done in 2003, as the last part of a trilogy. Initially, I made a work called I Remember in 2002, in which I grew plants on guns. This was followed by Metamorphosis, where I went through the process of growing plants on plastic dolls. Finally, I created To Grow using the same techniques but this time on my body. This work is based on a childhood memory, a common memory that many people I have talked to from both within Turkey and abroad, in fact, recall. When we were kids, we used to grow lentils, beans etc. by placing them in cottons. My first work I Remember was based on this memory, where, as I said, I grew plants on guns. Now when I look back, I see that this work coincides with a period in which both the attack against Iraq and the Gulf War took place. When we think about what this memory from our childhood is based on, we see that in this current era, we are experiencing the transmutation of knowledge and beliefs from ancient times. I think that this information, what we have thought to be a very simple memory of growing beans and lentils, is essentially ingrained within our minds and is in fact a transformed version of this knowledge from ancient times. In my work that is currently on view, I grew plants on my body using the same method. This work is actually a home performance, and the process went like this: I grew lentils in cotton strips which I stretched out in my balcony, and grew them by watering them consistently for six to eight weeks. I placed the cotton strips on my body, and documented their growth through video and photography.

How long did this process take? For how long did you wear the seeds, did you lie on the balcony during this time?

Yes, I lied on the balcony. All on the first, second, third, fourth day... I watered the plants, and lied down every single day. Indeed, the plants were growing on my body day by day. To Grow is a selection of some of the moments from this process, documented by video and photography. The process is seen more clearly in the video.

When we look at your previous works, we see that the female imagery has a central role. You even have a thesis titled "First Generation Women Painters in the Westernization Movements”. Is there a reason why the female figure is so prominent in your works?

The fact that I am a woman born in this region bears an effect on my work. There is a tendency to inflict violence upon women all across the world, and within our country. When we look at the core of this, we find a patriarchal mentality that has positioned itself against nature since ancient times. Nature is fundamentally associated with women. Thus violence against nature turns into an apparatus for the exploitation of women. The Anthropocene age and the violence against women is a contemporary reflection of this. So being a woman definitely has an effect as all these perceptions turn into images.

Nazan Azeri
Nazan Azeri

You have a practice that alternates between video, photography and performance. In this context, you include social symbols, cultural objects and current dynamics in your works as a means of criticism. Do you establish a direct relationship between the materials you use in your artistic discourse, and the subjects you deal with?

Actually the production process affects my choice of material to a large extent. As I mentioned before, the making of To Grow took about six to eight weeks, and I preferred to use video and photography to pin down the process. Generally my works require both a process and a performance. Yet, in some of my works, it may not be as necessary to identify the process in the same way. I mean, some of my drawings also describe certain states of being. I also turn to drawings and paintings, but in this work I decided to use video and photography to capture the process of growth.

Amongst all the current problems the world is facing, what has caught your attention and what do you find yourself thinking about the most?

Being a woman in a region like Turkey, the climate crisis and wars affect my practice a lot. These infiltrate my perception and lead to various emotional states within my body. As a reaction to this, I follow a production process which then turns these feelings into images.

Is there a specific topic or theme that you are currently working on, questioning or would like to respond to? What are you currently thinking about?

In ancient times when the first settlements were established, humans (primarily men) started to position themselves against nature. This information is reflected in written documents and meta-narratives from the past. You know, when something is written down, that means it’s frozen in time from then on. Humans, who have stood against nature as a way of life, continue to do so and we are facing its consequences today in the Anthropocene age. Although humans are cultural beings, they also belong to nature to a great extent. I mean it’s impossible to create a culture by denying and destroying nature. We are mortal beings. Perhaps this is the most important thing that one does not want to remember, but must not forget. When we destroy nature we will disappear ourselves, since we are a part of it. I believe that this information is crucial. Both the pandemic and the climate crisis brought by the Anthropocene age keeps reminding us of this. I am working on remembering this through ancient knowledge.

Finally, is there anything you would like to add?

I think that as creatures living in a world where there is no escape from death, the act of killing is pointless. I believe that we should accept death, make peace with living in nature and realize that there is no other way out. The day we ultimately defeat nature, is the day we will cease to be human beings.

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