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"I find it fascinating when my works surprise me."
Ayse Erkmen's Temporary Interventions

Ayse Erkmen realized her most ambitious project to date for Deutsche Bank's "Moment" art series. For "Shipped Ships," the Turkish artist had three passenger ferries with their crews shipped by freighter from Venice, Istanbul, and Japan to Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, she teaches at the Städel School where she has had an influence on such different artists as Michaela Meise and Villa Romana Fellow Dani Gal. Tim Ackermann met Ayse Erkmen in Berlin prior to her large-scale retrospective "Weggefährten" at the Hamburger Bahnhof.

Ayse Erkmen, Shipped Ships, 2001,
for"Moment", Deutsche Bank's series of temporary art projects,
Transport of one of the ferries to Frankfurt am Main

Maybe it happened this way, maybe not: the Turkish language has a verb tense that does not exist in any other language. It is the tense of hearsay, of fables and dreams. It expresses the speaker's uncertainty in a wide variety of syllable combinations that tag along behind the verb like guilty schoolboys. "It could be." "Perhaps." In his book Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk wrote that the "mis" past tense is "the appropriate tense for expressing everything we've experienced in the cradle, in the baby stroller, or during the first wobbly steps we took." It is the tense for vague memories.

Ayse Erkmen, Am Haus,
permanent installation in Berlin, 1994,
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

A residential building stands on the lively Heinrichplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg; adhered to its façade are the end syllables of the "mis" tense, cut out of black Plexiglas. A large number of ethnic Turks cross this plaza every day and read Erkmen's gigantic grammar of the approximate installed over the very concrete stones of the tenant building. Perhaps they become aware of a cultural loss, because for some time now, many of the migrant children born in Berlin no longer have a command of the "mis" tense, a standard part of the everyday language of the educated class.

On the House is the title of this work, which Ayse Erkmen made in 1994; using relatively simple means, it illustrates highly complex relationships of belonging and alienation, migration and change. As a permanent installation, the work is now an unofficial part of the major Ayse Erkmen retrospective opening soon in Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. The exhibition traces the most important artistic developments in the Turkish artist's work. The title of the show, Weggefährten (Travel Companions), does not, in fact, refer to collaborating with colleagues at all. "I usually work alone," explains Erkmen in an interview in the Barbara Weiss gallery. She liked the title Weggefährten because of its associations: "I think it's a good word, because it contains the idea of travel and the road."

Ayse Erkmen, Sculptures on Air, 1997
Skulpturprojekte Münster 1997
Photo: Ayse Erkmen
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

The image of a path is a leitmotif running throughout Erkmen's work. Travel and motion are important components in many of her works. She had live tigers set out in the Zeche Zollverein in Essen; 19th-century sandstone figures flown with a helicopter onto the roof of the Westfälische Landesmuseum. Her most ambitious project to date was incontestably the action Shipped Ships of 2001, in which she had three passenger ferries from Venice, Istanbul, and Japan shipped complete with their original crews to the Main River in Frankfurt. Erkmen's work marked the beginning of Deutsche Bank's project series Moment, for which temporary art actions are carried out in public space. After being transported on the backs of huge container ships first to Rotterdam and then up the Rhine, they resumed their regular service on the Main River for a predetermined length of time. "The part of the project that excited me most was when the ferries were allowed to travel on the other ships," says Erkmen. "It was the only time when they could take a break, step out of their daily routine."

Ayse Erkmen, Shipped Ships, 2001,
for"Moment", Deutsche Bank's series of temporary art projects
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

In this vein, traveling has something subversive about it. It is a form of refusal to feel part of a particular place or group — a possibility to escape all those things that are usually expected of one. The artist often sets her abstract works of art in motion, as well: her empty, sheet-metal-plated freight elevator that moved constantly up and down between two floors at the 4th Biennale in Istanbul in 1995, for instance, or the monochrome banners of fabric that rose and fell at regular intervals at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City, New York in 2005. Minimalism, augmented by the element of time—in effect, a break with Minimal Art and its claim to a timeless, universal validity.

Ayse Erkmen, Busy Colors, 2005
Sculpture Center, Long Island City
Photo: Oren Slor
Courtesy Sculpture Center und
Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

Minimalism's reduced formal language fascinated her already as a young artist, Erkmen says. Born 1949 in Istanbul, where she began studying art in 1969, she was initially trained as a classical sculptress, although she was far more interested in contemporary artists like Robert Morris and Richard Serra. As soon as her professors graded them, she got rid of the sculptures she made. "I had no room to store them anywhere," Erkmen recalls. "Because the studio was situated directly by the sea, I threw the works into the water. Perhaps the fact of having to discard the sculptures resulted in permanence becoming less and less important to me. I don't really know anymore." In any case, she learned to distance herself from the materiality of her art.

Ayse Erkmen, Ohne Titel, 2003
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Ayse Erkmen/Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

Today, following numerous participations in biennials, exhibitions in Europe, the US, and New Zealand, Ayse Erkmen is one of the most important contemporary artists around — and certainly one of the most underestimated. Young artists like Ceal Floyer and Jeppe Hein appear to draw on her work. Yet the public often reacts in a rather distanced way to her "difficult" room interventions. And despite her biography, Erkmen is anything but a media star. "I think it has something to do with coming from Turkey," she says. "From the very beginning, no one had any expectations of me, and so I grew accustomed to not having any expectations myself. It's a form of freedom I've attained and that I'd like to hold onto. I find it fascinating when my works surprise me."

Ayse Erkmen, Jalousie / blind, 2007
installation view Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin, 2007
Photo: Jens Ziehe,
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

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