Water for Venice
Ayse Erkmen on Her Current Biennale Project
Her work for the Turkish Pavilion is one of the highlights of the 54th Venice Biennale. Brigitte Werneburg asked Ayse Erkmen about her new installation
||The café in the Arsenale is bursting at the seams on the 54th Venice Biennale’s second press day. While Ayse Erkmen and I look for a place to talk about Plan B, her work for the Turkish Pavilion, a skinny girl in a silver mini skirt is teetering around on eight-inch high-heeled platform shoes. The most fascinating thing about this girl’s admittedly fascinating garb is the high stiff collar she has put on as an accessory. Journalists don’t look like this. And artists don’t, either. But the daughters of collectors and gallery dealers sometimes dress this way. Observing Biennale visitors can be a lot of fun, and it’s an indispensable part of the huge international art event. The girl and her companion find a table, and we are left with two lonely chairs.
The first thing I ask Ayse Erkmen is how she’s able to surprise us again and again with works of such tremendous imagination. It’s more a compliment than a question, but I also have to tell her how much her Plan B convinces me on an artistic level. The work consists of a water treatment facility of the kind the German Federal Agency For Technical Relief brings to assist areas in conflict. But the difference here is that the construction appears in Venice as a contemporary sculpture. Ayse Erkmen connected the water tank, ultrafiltration, and pump system with meter-long purple, red, green, and turquoise-colored pipes and expanded it in size. The facility draws water from the canal in front of the pavilion and deposits it each hour back into the brackish water of the canal, meticulously cleansed of salt, purified, and remineralized.
How did she come up with the idea for this useless, but large-hearted action? "It was the space itself that gave me the idea. The Turkish Pavilion is the only room in the Arsenale that has large windows facing the canal. And because I come from Istanbul, a city that is just as defined by water as Venice, it seemed logical to make the water in front of the pavilion the point of departure for a site-specific installation. Whenever I discover water at an exhibition location, I always have the feeling that I should work with it. That’s how it was in Frankfurt too, when I conceived my ‘Shipped Ships’ in the context of the ‘Moment’ series - art projects in the public arena initiated by Deutsche Bank. The river divides the city there into two halves. I wanted to bring it as a living artery back into the city’s consciousness. That was why I shipped three passenger ferries complete with crew from Venice, Istanbul, and Japan on container ships to Frankfurt for them to resume their normal ferry service on the River Main."
Did she immediately come up with the idea to redirect the water into the pavilion? "Yes, I thought of that right away. I wanted something to happen with the water, to transform it into something else. That was because the room very much resembled a factory hall with its leftover machine parts and electric devices. And so I wanted the space to become a production site again. That’s how I came up with the idea of making drinking water."
But why is this project called Plan B—and what was Plan A? "At first I thought of a fountain, in the middle of the room, which visitors could drink from and refresh themselves in. But that seemed far too didactic to me. Visitors probably would have enjoyed Plan A. But that’s not what art is for. The installation isn’t supposed to fulfill a purpose; it should exist entirely without reason. That seemed closer to the idea of art. By the way, last week, in a bookstore, I found a study on sustainability titled Plan B.
The sculpture in the Arsenale is based on modern art’s grid, an aesthetic figure that derives from the building block principle of modern technical systems and takes its authority from that. Was this reference clear to Ayse Erkmen from the beginning? "Yes and no. The sculpture is a functioning system. The grid is indeed a byproduct of the necessity of the system. I didn’t add anything."
But the colors, at least? "That’s where I followed my instinct. Violet seemed like a good color to me for the dirty salty water. After the initial purification stage, the water flows through red pipes. In the green segments, the water is already clean and can be used for showering or to do laundry. For the drinking water, I didn’t just want to have a blue pipe, because I wanted to disrupt the harmony of the colors. That’s how I came up with turquoise for the drinking water."
We’re now free to take over a table. From the corner of my eye, I observe how the silver-colored girl and her friend leave theirs. But the energy it requires to change our seats now, in the middle of a conversation, seems too high. I notice many people strolling through the café with the bag from the Turkish Pavilion. Apparently, it’s a hotly coveted trophy. The extra-large bag, made from natural-colored cotton fabric, was designed by Konstantin Grcic, one of the most influential contemporary industrial designers. He added a bright yellow bottom part to the bag made from heavy rubbery material, which not only makes it stand out, but makes it look good even if it’s only holding very few things. At the same time, the bottom extends the life of the bag if it has to carry pounds and pounds of information material—as is usually the case at the Biennale.
How did the collaboration with Konstantin Grcic come about? "That had to do with the task itself. Each country and each artist here gets a bag to carry the catalogues. I wanted something special. If there has to be a bag, then it should be a part of the exhibition. I thought of Konstantin Grcic because I know him and because I knew that he always comes up with brilliant ideas for functional objects—besides which, although he has designed all kinds of things, he has never designed a bag."
A water purification facility is another challenge altogether, of course. How long did it take to transport it there and set it up? "At first I did some research with an architect and some engineers to find out which facility I need and where I can obtain it. All of the components come from Germany, from a company in Celle, where the firm rented a space the size of the Pavilion to set up the facility exactly as it would be in Venice in order to test whether or not it would work. Later, it was packed aboard a small truck and transported to Venice, where it took us ten days to install it. And when it didn’t work properly, the boss got in his car with an engineer and drove to Venice in sixteen hours and worked on the system for ten hours before they went to their hotel to finally get some sleep."
The canal water that is treated now in the Turkish Pavilion must surely be very dirty? "No. As strange as that might seem. I also thought it would be awfully filthy. But the engineers told me that this wasn’t the case, that the water is free of heavy metals, for instance. In one hour, the facility can purify 2,000 liters of water. That is a huge facility; I’m only renting it. After the end of the Biennale, it has to serve its original purpose again, of course, which is to generate hygienic water for areas in conflict. Before it was set up in the Biennale, it was installed in a sausage factory in Germany whose production was endangered by a flood. The facility wasn’t made for six months, but for hundreds of years, as the engineers told me."
Ayse Erkmen: Plan B
54th Biennale di Venezia
June 4 - November 27, 2011