To Whom it May Concern

—Lilly Wei

To Whom it May Concern

Serkan Özkaya, a conceptual artist based in Istanbul, has been showing since the age of 18, now 18 years ago. He is a provocateur, a utopianist, a kind of merry prankster in the tradition of Duchamp and the Dadaists, shuttling between the hyperbolic, the deadpan and the serious as he explores and expands the meaning of history, creativity and authenticity. Özkaya—who has a Ph.D. in German Studies from Istanbul University—prefers, as is abundantly evident, the ludic, absurdist and subversive to the politically aggressive although his work can be rife with political implications. Nonetheless, he keeps his tropes more philosophic than activist, more interrogative than axiomatic, his subject the object and the history of art viewed from an oblique, collapsible angle, from the point of view that looks askance at the so-called center(s) of art and one sensitized to reproduction, its uses and abuses. Mischievous, not malicious or violent although inspired by the ultra-iconic to the unorthodox--usually in some relationship to each other--his projects are wide-ranging and often appropriative, a copy, a copy of a copy, potentially ad infinitum, with modifications and interventions.

Özkaya, who believes in collaborations of all kinds, shrugs off notions of originality and authorship as overrated, unnecessary and outdated. A series of processes, actions and events, his production is not focused on the aesthetics of the object per se although many works are visually stunning, such as his Lives and Works in Utrecht (Large Glass), one version of a wall of colored slides of artworks, this one consisting of approximately 30,000 slides affixed to the glass windows of a Utrecht art institution that, brilliantly lighted, resembled luminous stained glass and functioned as a egalitarian museum. Another beauty was the replica of Michelangelo’s David, painted gold. Built out of thousands of foam layers from a 3-D computer model and conceived for the 9th Istanbul Biennial, all that remains of it is the video of its construction and photographic documentation, since the sculpture crashed during installation. As a performance or an inquiry, however, its metaphoric possibilities were exponentially enriched by the mishap which Özkaya took in stride, not wedded to the object or chagrinned by his lapse in engineering.

More sociopolitical, Proletarier aller Länder, another compelling installation first proposed to an Istanbul socialist club and reminiscent of the Korean artist Do-Ho Suh’s massings of tiny figures, deploys an army of little red proles shaped from flexible plastic foam across the exhibition gallery’s floor and anchored to it. Viewers are invited to walk on them but the diminutive laborers spring back despite the trampling, demonstrating the resilience, collective power and indestructibility of the working classes.

In a recent installation, “A sudden gust of wind,” based on Hokusai’s famous woodblock print and Jeff Wall’s staged photograph of it, Özkaya conflated these two celebrated images into his own memorable rendition. Constructed out of ordinary sheets of white paper, suspended in mid-air on invisible wire, the fragile, unsubstantial paper whirlwind was a succinct critique and emblem of bourgeois bureaucracy.

In addition to several new works, the crux of this exhibition, if there is one since Özkaya, temperamentally and ideologically, tends toward the scattershot and non-linear, are the letters he has written and continues to write to bourgeois bureaucracies and cultural institutions, dignitaries and curators. This correspondence, his own paper trail of bureaucracy in (in)action, shown in its entirety for the first time, can be preposterous as well as hilarious—he has requested that he be allowed to hang the Mona Lisa upside down and re-wrap the Reichstag, for instance. Often, the letters do not deserve a response but curiously, they have usually been treated with official but unthinking courtesy, read perhaps but not comprehended—answered and then often passed along the bureaucratic chain. There are a few exceptions. The late Kirk Varnedoe, the chief curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art at the time, responded briefly but pointedly to Özkaya’s request to place an acetate sheet over Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie and then spray paint a dollar sign on it, inspired by Alexander Brener’s 1997 Stedelijk foray. (Brener painted a dollar sign directly onto the surface of a Malevich Suprematist painting—one artist enhancing the art of another, as Brener saw it--and was sentenced to a two-year jail term for his vandalism, as the authorities saw it.) Varnedoe, who failed to see either humor or conceptual merit in Özkaya’s project, refused his offer and chided him for his misplaced admiration of Brener. Özkaya, however, simply wanted to reconsider the Brener “performance,” without damaging the Mondrian, since he also admired Broadway Boogie Woogie and had no desire to harm it. His proposal was intended to be more catalytic than otherwise, structured as a search into what exists in the in-between, an inquiry sufficing if no action was permitted, floated to elicit a reaction, a reverberation, a psychological and philosophical alteration. As a joker, savant and sweetly ironic, Özkaya seeks no resolution which in his case would be anticlimactic. His star is that of re-alignment and inconstancy, and the light from it is not less.

Lilly Wei