A light breeze of piano lifted through the bright studio, as the artist sat at the end of a long, clean metal table. Immersed in a room of her own art, eccentric harmonies and playful dissonances floated in the background to motifs of white clouds and nebulous styrofoam cast in polyester and painted in sparkling, machine reds and deep purples. It was afternoon, and the artist had plenty of wine, a young guest and a twinkle in her eye.
“Memories and nice days, and we were young, so if you don’t mind can I drink my wine?” said Gunnur Ozsoy with sweet anticipation. “Will it go with your ayran? This is Turkish style darling. Please don’t try this at home.”
Özsoy spoke first about being Turkish. It’s a stigma that she faces when traveling to Europe or the U.S., or anywhere out of the country. Rarely is she believed that she is in fact Turkish. They say that she is free, that she is an artist, and of all things, blonde (although she admits it’s not her natural color). And they are, as she said, searching earnestly to translate the right word, simply uneducated. Özsoy is enigmatic, more of a silent type, an introspective, hard-to-get sort, tempting with winks and whispers.
“In the early days I went out nearly every night. In those days we used to go to Şamdan, a discotheque, though more Italian. It was an old-style restaurant, two floors. The ground-floor was a chic restaurant and after midnight you go upstairs, not clubbing, but there are tables and you sit. There’s a dance floor in the middle, and the music is nice, traditional stuff, not like hard rock,” she remembered.
“It’s not really about the area, whether Bebek, Beyoğlu or Kadıköy. It’s more about the years, and the ideas. Who was really international in the early days? Everything was new. Turkish painters were important. Who were they? Ömer Uluç, Adnan Çöker, and Özdemir Atlan. And most of them were teachers in the university, only Burhan Doğançay, who was married with an American, was different, had a different social life,” said Gunnur.
“In Ankara, before 2000, people like Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin and Vasif Kortun taught at Bilkent. If you had a chance to go to Europe, or outside of Turkey, it was from there. Gülsün Karamustafa and Hale Tenger took other paths. I wasn’t interested in being international, or local. My main interest was to work and share in Istanbul, and after that Ankara, to work, and then to see what’s going on.”
Before social media, when Gunnur began exhibiting solo shows at Pg Art Gallery, the only circulation through which to promote the visual art scene was by paper invitation. They would send press releases via snail mail to magazines and newspapers. To be social, to connect, emails were few and far between.
Gunnur’s art represents a shift in Turkey’s contemporary art history. At Pg she had total license to veer uninhibited from the representation of forms palatable to the art market, to brazenly chart the way beyond the popular appeals of painting in favor of abstract sculpture. She had unconditional support to make her art, regardless of the trappings of saving face in the scene, or the pressures to sustain a life and a business as a professional artist.
Looking at Özsoy’s first two solo shows at Pg Art Gallery, in the winter of 1997-1998 and the spring of 2002, the sculptures, while consistently abstract, gained a base. They were propped up on pedestals for her second solo exhibition. In that way, the relationship that her twisting, writhing tufts of shapes had with the ground changed.
But her work with Pg actually began in 2000, with the group show titled, “The Doors” featuring the artists Ergin İnan, Habib Aydoğdu, Hanefi Yeter, Mehmet Uygun, Mustafa Horasan, Serpil Yeter, Şenol Yorozlu, and Yunus Tonkuş. For that exhibition, she stretched herself way out, exploring forms of creative expression that were new to her by sculpting the shape of a door, as normally she avoids representational work.
Gunnur was the youngest artist in The Doors group show in 2000, where she sculpted a door out of aluminum and glass. On her own, she wouldn’t have wavered from pure abstraction, but the other artists, all of whom were older, themed the exhibition to a project in which they painted windows and doors, for example with Seljuk or Ottoman motifs. She is of the opinion that her piece was the most contemporary of the show, because she chose all new materials, in contrast to the other artists who painted antiques as they would a canvas. Her door was light, transparent, and she hung it, so it wasn’t exactly a door. It was more of a gate, installed with glass separated by her special brand of shapely forms.
Gunnur’s signature style as a sculptor emerged prior to her work at Pg, however, when she exhibited her works without a base or pedestal. They were either draped, as it were, though stiffly, on the floor, or hung. In 2002, her aesthetic focus was on a single color, a type of dark red that she describes as a shade for vampires. In those years, Chanel’s nail polish red was a guiding light for visual designers of all stripes. She used that color exclusively for her second solo show at Pg in 2002. To transform the gallery space in Bebek for her inaugural post-millenium opening, she bought photo paper to curtain the walls, and carpeted the floor entirely in black. She darkened the gallery, and installed her shadowy red forms.
When the earthquake of 1999 rocked Istanbul, its shockwaves ultimately led Özsoy to the aesthetic choices that she made for her first solo exhibition at Pg in the 2000s. She had never felt such a tremor in her life, not physically, not emotionally. There were many deaths, and people feared more earthquakes. And as she then focused her work primarily on the expression of colors, beginning with very bright hues like white, orange, and turquoise, the earthquake prompted her into an artistic transformation. Afterwards, she could only work with darker colors, such as the deep, vampire red of her 2002 show that she set within a pitch-black interior, transforming Pg’s gallery in Bebek.
At the time, she wasn’t completely conscious of what she was doing, and why she felt the need to change her colors, but afterwards it was clear. The sea was dead, and the cities around Istanbul were dead, but, to her, the dark red color isn’t depressive. It has a spirit more like the blood and energy of vampires. It typically takes her about two years to prepare a solo exhibition, from concept to show. And coincidentally, only two months before her 2002 opening, the artist Balkan Naci İslimyeli used the same striking red for his show of paintings at Pg titled “Timeless”. When they talked, he told her: “After the earthquake, how can we do another color?”
“If we weren’t in the same gallery, we wouldn’t know, because in those years, without the internet, it wasn’t easy. I don’t prefer to show my feelings directly, but it’s special how the colors come to me,” said Gunnur, who invited guests to her 2002 show with the request that everyone dress in black, to match the floors and walls. “Pg and I, we like presentation, so we served only red wine and strawberries,” she said with a hard chuckle. “It was a brilliant exhibition. It was like clubbing. You could only see peoples’ faces. They became part of the show. It was new and dark fun, vampire-style.”
She designed an interactive element for one of the pieces, offering it as a prize gift to the most thoughtful bidder. It was a hanging sculpture with a hole in the center. She told the small, tight-knit crowd at the opening, who were mostly family and friends of the gallery, that if they wanted the piece they would have to write something on red leaves of paper and throw them into a box. She would read them, and her favorite would take the artwork. Some entered more than three suggestions, such was the enthusiasm in the air, and with a playful variety of notes as direct as, “Give it to me”. She began reading the next day. It was so enjoyable that she kept the papers. One sentence stole her heart, in Turkish: “Delikli taş yerde kalmaz”, an old proverb loosely translated as, “When you see a stone with a hole in it you can’t help but pick it up.”
“I really loved this sentence, because it belongs to the old Turkish culture. We use this sentence, and many sentences like it,” said Gunnur, who soon learned that the author of the proverb was none other than the gallery owner’s father. “I thought, I can’t give it to him because everyone will think that he won only because he’s Pg’s father.” So she reread the entries again and again, trying to find another person. But she couldn't. He won.
Gunnur’s next phase of artistic development emerged during her 2008 solo show when she covered her sculptures in soft, grey shades of felt, a marked transition from the synthetic polyester works painted with reflective polish. In between, she participated in a number of prestigious group shows, such as under corporate sponsorship by the industrial group Eczacıbaşı at Istanbul Modern, for a project titled, “60 Years, 60 Artists”.
She collaborated with the art critic and curator Beryl Madra, and with Döne Otyam, director of the Mardin Biennial, focusing on eastern Turkey, where she visited Diyarbakir and nearby cities before returning to Ankara and Istanbul for two respective shows. Her work enjoyed international attention in dialogue with traditional Turkish crafts at Hagia Sophia Museum, and for her contemporaneity in Bon Génie 2005 exhibition in Geneva, Switzerland.
“Those days, I was more freestyle. I did everything to look around and see what’s going on in more group shows. I had done a lot with colors and surfaces, so I asked myself, ‘Gunnur, what else can you do? Your polyester works have bright colors, you see the light. It’s shining. What else can you do that’s opposite?’ I started thinking, thinking, thinking,” she said, vocalizing some of her characteristic chittering sounds, indicating that her inspired aura is alive and ticking.
“I decided to work with felt, because it belongs to our Turkish culture, but we don’t really use it as it’s old-fashioned now. Herders out in the mountains wear a felt cloak. We call it çoban kepeneğı [shepherd’s cloak]. It is worn over the shoulders. Under the sun it’s good, under the cold it’s nice, because it’s natural. And we used to live in a huge tent, a çadır. It used to be felt. Because traditionally we are Anatolian, walking, not like city people, but camping.”
“The felt tent is very important. It still exists, probably in the mountains. There are some Yörük people. They live in the mountains, especially in Asia. They are blonder, with green eyes. They are interesting, nice people. They make their own cheese. They are very good with animals, and they don’t have houses. They have a çadır. It’s a tent,” said Gunnur.
“You can’t really meet them. You have to go to the mountains. It’s a different lifestyle. In my mind, to be Yörük is a source of pride, because you are in nature. It’s like the American Indian. You make your own medicine. Your ideas are open, because you are in nature, so you always care for it. That’s the biggest point.”
“Felt belongs to our culture also from the Mevlana dervish. We call the dervish hat sikke, pronounced like Sikh, the other, east Indians. Those are also felt. It’s very unique,” said Özsoy. “When I was young we lived in Ankara. It was very cold. My mother used to put felt under my feet in my shoes because socks aren’t warm enough. Felt was really important to our old days. It has become touristic. But no one used felt in three dimensions in contemporary art.”
What started as an inkling, a desire to work with felt, soon left Özsoy with more questions than answers, the first of which was, “How?”. Nobody in her social, or artist circles were working with felt. She found the phone number of a felt maker in Konya, the most important center for Mevlana dervish culture. To her surprise, after calling him, he asked her to send him an email. The funny part is that she, a metropolitan woman, hadn’t a clue how to send an email. With the help of a girlfriend, she emailed the Konya felt maker her photos to design the material.
To her astonishment, when she went to Konya to meet him, she found that he was not only a lovely fellow, but he spoke perfect English, even better than her she admits. He was blond, tall, had blue eyes with a mustache, and only listened to jazz. He introduced her to a woman from Argentina, his second wife, and his son named Celaleddin, after Mevlana’s second name. They lived in the center of Konya, where they worked together.
“He was like a sculpture, very abstract,” she said, still bewildered by him, as she expected a stereotypical, conservative Muslim. That’s how she started working with felt, eventually making so many pieces that she keeps a lot of them in her studio until today. That was around 2005, leading to her solo show at Pg in 2008, although they first showed it at Contemporary Istanbul. She produced her first works of the kind together with the felt maker, and later she would send more pieces for him to make.
The man in Konya had learned the craft of felt making from his father’s father. Traditionally, felt is made in a hamam, in a Turkish bath, because you need warm and sticky places. Raw animal hair is like cotton, but to craft it requires water and soap, so the hamam is the perfect workshop, as it was in the days of old. The process of making it requires vigorous physical activity, almost in the manner of a modern dance. There is body rhythm, to hit and press the material into felt. Özsoy stood up in the middle of her neat, spacious studio to reenact the full-body techniques.
“I was really happy with the show, because I managed my ideas. Nobody really understood the pieces. They asked, ‘Are we to accept this as sculpture?’ They had parts animals and the wild, but the installation was really clever. You know me,” she laughed. “I made the same show in Ankara. I showed them on the wall, on the floor. I used different colors, but they were always natural colors.”
Before her next solo show leading into the 2010s, she produced an offsite project with Pg in Kemer, titled “I see you” (2011) for which she showed all red pieces hanging in suspension. The show went well, because she and Pırıl enjoyed a mutual course of ideas, and it was in a country setting. Even though it wasn’t in the center of the city, it’s a well populated and active environment. Many of her pieces sold. Also in 2011, with the opening of her solo show “Spiritual Experiences”, the art historian Marcus Graf described her work as neo-minimalist after evaluating her new series of marble and polyester sculptures installed with video art.
She first met Graf when he reviewed her second solo show at Pg in Bebek in 2003, and continued a friendship that blossomed into the core inspiration for her latest show, “Memories and Letters” (2018). “Spiritual Experiences” was her first show in Bogazkesen, a small gallery space that she packed with a variety of elements. For the installation, featuring her felt art, she covered the window, and invited engineers to create the effect of flight to appear from the street in the window at Pg’s Bogazkesen gallery. But on the day of the opening, the air machine contraption ceased to function.
“On that day, I was sitting on the road, and it smelled, Bogazkesen. On the street, everyone walked around and asked what I was trying for. I said, ‘I wanted them to fly.’ It wasn’t easy. I told Marcus what I was trying to do, and he always told me, ‘If you want something, do it.’ The video art was about seagulls. Different materials, different disciplines were all together at the same show,” said Gunnur, who had exhibited her first video artwork at Akbank Sanat in 2003 with Levent Çalıkoğlu, currently Chief Curator at Istanbul Modern.
“I presented my pregnant belly, and the next video was inside, all of the sonography. Inside and outside, the idea was about casting, because when you do sculpture, you never know the inside. It’s kind of like being pregnant. Levent said that I was like a natural scientist.”
In her 2016 solo show at Pg, titled “Costa Mea”, she had also dabbled in video art by showing the digital illustration of her works, which were crafted to the biblical theme of Adam’s rib as a feminist statement on the nature of the human form, as hers. Her works for Spiritual Experiences have the reminiscence of a cemetery. In 2008 and 2009, she lost her mother and lover, and after she started working the headstone form emerged, though closer in appearance to the old Ottoman style, with its thin, cylindrical stand of white stone poking upwards into the sky, only she nipped the forms off at the bottom and top, as a sharp cut from the world pointing to the pain of mortal separation.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, but when they came together, I recognized it as the Ottoman cemetery. First I made the base with polyester, and thought that inside it would be empty, transparent. Between life and reality is a very thin line. The material is thin, and inside is empty. They are big, but they are light, tragic, but white,” said Özsoy, who had followed the same two-year creation cycle as for her 2002 show at Pg after the 1999 earthquake, since her mother died in 2008, and Spiritual Experiences opened in 2011.
“I didn’t want to make a headstone. I didn’t choose it. Also, at the same time, this is interesting, I was working with marble. They were small, but all together they were like seagulls, the color and texture, but heavy, so it couldn’t fly.”
Özsoy agrees that her artworks fall into greater historical categories, social movements, and critical concepts, such as minimalism, abstractionism, and archaism, particularly the latter, which she applauds, saying, ‘Bravo’ to those who recognize it in her works, as it is an authentic interpretation of her source inspiration. Archaism in Özsoy’s sculpture exists where she draws directly from nature, from the earthquake of 1999 to the Yörük people and the shepherd’s cloak, as they are perennial muses by which she shapes and patterns her thought and creations. That said, although she is open to varying, outside perspectives, she puts interpretation in its place.
“I choose some words, like Yörük, but I prefer to talk in a general way, because if you start specifically you have to continue in that way. Yörük people belong to the Turkish culture, and of course Turkish culture belongs to nature. To have a house, to settle, came later. And generally speaking, we are living in nature,” said Özsoy with a sense of conviction.
“From the beginning, I worked with brighter, polyester colors. I started thinking of which material I can use that’s exactly the opposite of bright colors. I can’t say that it’s definitely comparable to ideas.”
“When I found felt, it was done, finito. If I believe, and really trust myself, I know. Okay, you can compare me to other things, but it’s only about you and your mentality. I didn’t start by saying, ‘Now, I have to work with nature.’ It was only about finding the opposite of the artificial. The idea should be really perfect to the touch. It became about nature, because felt comes from the animal, hair. The colors are natural. It looks natural. You can fix it easily. If you have a hole in it you can put some soap and water,” she said with a smile.
“My idea is about the space and feelings, especially for felt, where natural life is in it. When you look at my artistic life, there are many materials. I didn’t choose them because I said, ‘Okay, it’s time to work with stone.’ If I do that, it’s not really showing my whole artistic life. My solo shows connect with my other shows. When they come together, you can see the whole picture. There can be different materials, but it’s about the ideas of my choices.”
“Especially for solo shows, you really have to concentrate. You create ideas, and you create a world. If you decide to make another solo show and you do the same thing again, what the hell. When you look, you can see the same things, but in the main ideas, there is the difference,” she continued.
“Contemporary, archaic, minimal, I can accept all of them, but for me, I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in my work. Some people look at my pieces and say that they are figurative. Yes, if you find that they are figurative, you can find it. You can see many figures in abstract works. I trust my work. They’re strong enough. If you’re interested in minimalism, you can connect to my work that way. You can think, you can talk, you can write.”
For her show at Pg, titled, “Memories and Letters”, the critic Ali Simsek identified her use of light and dark as Baroque, but for Özsoy, she prefers to express herself more essentially. As she clarified: “I work abstract. I’m interested in my working self, not afterwards. Some have really strong stories, and ideas, especially in a cultural light, but it just happened like that. I didn’t choose it. That’s my style as an artist. And I don’t follow trends. When I did video art I was pregnant, and had no chance to work. I work abstract, and then it happens, and it comes of itself, like a waterfall.”
Özsoy’s mentality is akin to the Hindu philosophy, known from the Sanskrit, as neti-neti, which means, “Not that, not that.” In other words, her path to realization, whether it be of her artwork, or how she lives as an artist, is through a form of meditative negation, or to what is known in Romantic literary theory as negative capability. Its point isn’t to negate nihilistically. Instead, it is a form of alogical, spiritual criticism that seeks a more elevated sense of earthly development and human expression by cutting through surface consciousness to a deeper plane, one that embraces the perpetual motion of life. Gunnur repeatedly emphasizes that the importance of her work is the work itself, and then, it is only important when she is working on it. Such is the essence of enlightenment philosophy, of the search for beauty beyond reason.