OMM Studio II: In Conversation with Meltem Şahin

Artist Meltem Şahin hosts us at her (currently) open air studio.

Meltem Şahin, whose works range from AR to sketches to Instagram filters, uses these various methods to create visual mementos of transience. Her affinity for Eastern philosophies of beauty and spirituality is expressed in her universal approach, in subject as well as choice of material, creating odes to humanity as well as the cosmos. We discuss the development of her practice in isolation, the art world on the precipice of total change, and #myquarantinefriend.

Can you tell us a bit about your practice? What were the biggest influences as you developed your style?

Creating work in different fields and the learning that goes into doing so, the freedoms and limitations inherent in any particular technique; these all give me great pleasure. Every medium opens a new path for me without negating my previous ones. Quite the contrary, each path connects to the others. I choose my material and technique depending on the subject matter and experience I want to communicate. The joy I experience increases in proportion with the holistic union between content, material, and interpretation.

After I graduated first in my class from the Bilkent University Graphic Design department, I did some illustration work for a couple of years, for magazines like Sabitfikir, Bantmag and Trendsetter. In 2013, my works were featured in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair yearbook, one of the biggest children’s book fairs in the world. I illustrated some books for Can Publishing. I later earned my master’s degree in illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a Fulbright scholarship. The exact name for my department was “Illustration Practice”. There I learned that illustration existed beyond two dimensions, that GIFs, kinetic sculptures, and toys are also included in this practice. Though the materials and techniques I use are subject to change, my works exist as characters in the same universe, beyond social class, race, and normative ideals of beauty and sex.

Recently, I’ve been working more on Instagram face filters, hashtags, stickers and GIFs. And of course there’s #myquarantinefriend, which you can see in the video.

Did you have an upcoming exhibition or project that was cancelled due to COVID-19 and subsequent global crisis? Will your works be shown in the near future?

Unfortunately. I was scheduled to do a live performance with the Google Tilt Brush at the Koç University Karma Lab, and give a speech for God Save Generation Y at the Grand Hotel de Londres. I was going to participate in ArtWeeks and Step Istanbul with Mixer Gallery.

My video works will be shown on June 12th at the “Art on the Screen” group show organized by Mixer. I was also a part of the play “Artchain N1 Art as Pandemic” created by Lalin Akalan in partnership with Xtopia and Based Istanbul. I think you’ll be able to see the project in its entirety within a month or so.

The new order of the art world will create a younger, mobile, decentralized new system, one that thinks globally but moves locally.

What do you foresee for the post-pandemic art world? How has this period affected your practice?

The art industry which has so far existed primarily in public spaces is trying to rediscover itself in an online environment. Many artists are responding to this difficulty with creative solutions. Orchestras have come together from their respective homes thanks to technology and created unbelievable experiences, affecting the audience through creative challenges and games. Galleries and curators are moving exhibitions online. During this whole process the art ecosystem is becoming more inventive, walking paths it hasn’t walked before and imagining new possibilities.

On the other hand, events like art fairs and gallery openings which give life to the art industry are endangered by the public health threat posed by large gatherings. Even after the pandemic, the buying, selling, and viewing of art will never be the same. Some systemic changes are unavoidable. Before New York galleries closed their doors in the wake of COVID-19, they had already begun transforming openings from two-hour cocktails to all day events. It’s predicted that after the pandemic, the distance between works at galleries will increase, thereby decreasing the number of works shown.

Galleries always have to make money; this is difficult even in a strong economy, without a pandemic. Galleries are the glue that binds artists, curators, and collectors together. That’s why the post-crisis rebuilding of the art industry will start with galleries. And their future is in the hands of museums, the government, collectors, and philanthropists. For independent artists, of course, there are other solutions. There are various funds available for artists struggling in this situation, but of course who gets access to these funds, and whether they are capable of saving anyone, is still unknown.

There’s no question that we’re going through a difficult time, but the pandemic might give way to exciting new opportunities. The new order of the art world will make us reconsider every aspect of the system, re-design the ways we experience art, shake the stability of major brands, and allow us to create a younger, mobile, decentralized new system, one that thinks globally but moves locally. As a young population, we can use this breaking point to our advantage and find our place in this new world.

Lately my practice had been very focused on the digital. As COVID-19 swept the world, my initial reaction was anxiety. Ironically, during this period in which the world has turned digital, it’s been a great comfort for me to make physical work, manually. My usually disorganized brain finds it easier to concentrate this way. I work at a slower, more peaceful pace.

What are you currently focusing on in your work?

To assuage my fears during isolation, I started the project #myquarantinefriend, shown in the video. Keeping in mind the leisurely tempo and calming nature of the activity, I decided to create my friend by sewing beads. When it’s complete, I’ll have a life-size companion. My friendship with my quarantine buddy began during the creation process and will continue afterwards. I have been passing my days with my new friend from the moment I wake up, and I’m quite happy about it.

This project also has a “challenge” aspect addressed to people who are lonely or bored at home. If you like, you can also make your own isolation friend and share it on Instagram with the #myquarantinefriend hashtag.

Have there been any artists or exhibits you’ve been especially moved by since the beginning of isolation?

Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More project has given me the most gratification in this period. The project also consists of a “challenge” and includes many varied assignments. It actually took place between 2002-2009, and 8,000 people participated. According to Miranda the structured nature of the assignments led people to their own unique experiences. Even though the project is a few years old, I find it especially relevant to our present condition. It has a special place for me amidst the craze of challenges going on. And of course it has been a big source of inspiration for #myquarantinefriend.

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