Mousse Magazine, No 23, March 2010
A woman is bending over, kneeling on all fours on a table. A horse leaps over a hurdle, depicted in frozen motion. A bird stretches its wings. In her installations, Özlem Altin (*1977) juxtaposes images from various sources and origins, arranges them anew, and thus creates / allows a completely new way of "reading" them. We discover the arc in the body of the kneeling woman, the jumping horse, or the flock of geese soaring into the sky. Altin, who lives and works in Berlin and the Netherlands, has created an enormous collection of images concentrating on the body, reduced to its most abstract form. From this collection she selects and combines images for her installations, which are both precise and dense. Through the installations she succeeds in lifting the central theme from the two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional space.
Christiane Rekade spoke with Özlem Altin on the occasion of the artist's most recent exhibition Each movement appears like hesitation in the Berlin based gallery Circus, about collecting, arranging, and interacting with images.
Christiane Rekade: You create your work by selecting images from your enormous archive – pictures from books and magazines, copies, prints, found photographs, your own paintings, sometimes also appropriated works by other artists– composing, installing, collaging, and combining them. Which criteria do you follow when you select your material?
Özlem Altin: I prefer to use the term "collection" rather than "archive”." I like to think that I "collect" material rather than "archiving" it. "Archiving" seems to be an activity that is conclusive, that serves a specific function with a certain destination. My method of collecting, however, is spontaneous and intuitive, and I have a great interest in particular motifs that constantly recur. The fact that my work manifests itself in the form of an assemblage is basically a consequence that results from the very content of the work. My research of the past few years deals with the representation of a person and has resulted in work where a person appears without expression or a character, nearly stripped of any subjectivity. The depiction of the human body fascinates me from the very moment where representation transforms and abstracts it: we therefore no longer see a person, but more a type, an object – a person without personal characteristics, almost flat in appearance, with a "minimum of presence." I am interested in the staging of the human body in a zero condition, in a state of exhaustion and passivity.
I generally work very actively with the images; it is not about conserving them. I like to uncover the hidden potential of found imagery. It may at first convey an unambiguous meaning, but through my intervention, by modifying or combining it, it reveals new layers of meaning and an associative power that might have been inherent but invisible.
CR: I find fascinating your ability to bring ideas of physicality and volume into the exhibition space. In Each movement appears like hesitation, for example, you chose to hang the pictures relatively low. Some were pasted on to cardboard, others stood on the floor, leaning against the wall, or were laid flat on tables or displays. The photograph of a young man, squatting on the ground and playing the flute, was placed leaning against the leg of a table – just as if someone was literally sitting there on the floor.
ÖA: The exhibition makes gravity perceivable and conveys the feeling of a reposing or bending body. Even the two oversized plinths in the exhibition – one lying horizontally, the other standing upright – suddenly take on a human dimension. Without an explicitly practical function, the plinths translate into physical form the stumbling implied in the exhibition's title – a stumbling that results in a final fall. Objects and sculptures in the space suggest movement, whereas the human body depicted in the numerous images is often object-like, motionless, or limp. This paradox leads to a strange convergence – perhaps even close affinity between – of the two.
The observer navigates his own way through the room, but his path is orchestrated by the arrangement of the work, which defines a certain rhythm. The observer's experience is almost filmic: he zooms in and out as though using a camera lens – he perceives a corner or an entire wall, a detail or several
images next to each other, and follows his own associations. The installation, on the other hand, formulates suggestions (or directions) in a performative sense, creating possibilities or the potential for the observer to mimic what he sees.
CR: In the reader that you published, entitled The Fall Occurs Inside, I came across a passage from Kenneth Goldsmith, which I liked very much. Goldsmith writes: "The simple act of moving information from one place to another today constitutes a significant cultural act in and of itself. I think it's fair to say that most of us spend hours each day shifting content into different containers. Some of us call this writing." I believe this applies not only to writers but also to the methods of many contemporary artists. How do you collect or store your images? Does your collection have a particular system or structure?
ÖA: I am often asked whether I systemise images before storing them. But I don't. In the process of preparing an installation, there is a certain arrangement of images taking place. But there is no systematic method; to me, those combinations of images that are contrary and unexpected are usually the most interesting. My way to arrange is intuitive rather than rationally explicable. Images are juxtaposed against or superimposed on each other in combinations that take even me by surprise. The aspects of openness and flexibility are very important for me and represent the essence of my work, which is all about "opening" images for interpretation and meaning through new contexts.
CR: Does that mean that your installations actually come into being in the exhibition space? Or do you create smaller groups in your studio and then transfer them later on to the exhibition space?
ÖA: The installations emerge in the respective exhibition space. I often spend a lot of time in the empty space before I actually begin with the installation. Through simple "architectonic" means, I approach and adopt the space, create displays for me to work with and dramatize its structure, suggesting a route and choreography for the viewer to follow. I try to translate thoughts and ideas into spatial terms, giving the installation a theatrical or performative dimension.
CR: A very distinctive feature of your artistic approach is the process-oriented. Some images and motifs reappear in various formats and contexts. Your work implies therefore something very temporary... Are there individual groups that can be considered complete and autonomous? In general, would you say there is an absolute moment in your work?
ÖA: Yes, in a way I do want to reach a conclusive form, one that conveys an absoluteness in this particular moment and context. The installations are conclusive in that they are conceived for a defined space and describe a moment in which the individual images take their assigned places. At the same time, in the very next moment they can occur in another context and thus appear completely different. This is their very nature.
The collages form groups and constellations. Together, they produce a certain rhythm, continue each other's story, develop narratives and analogies, and create a particular atmosphere. At the same time, each individual group has its own distinct dynamic and can be powerful in a self-sustaining way.
CR: What significance does the origin or the different quality of the images have for you, how do you deal or act with found material in relation to the originals that you include in your collages and installations?
ÖA: I work with very different materials: my own photographs, paintings, drawings, and texts, as well as photographs, copies from books, and images found in the most diverse sources. Within the collages and installations I make no distinction between my work and, for instance, cuttings from magazines, all of which exist outside the idea of "authorship." I would say I am positively indifferent towards any hierarchy regarding source or origin.
My intention is to work in a radical manner, showing no respect for the images in themselves, but constantly providing new ways of encountering them.
CR: Your many books, published by your self-publishing company 'Orient Press’, function in a
similar way to your exhibitions. What is the difference between working two-dimensionally on a book and presenting your work in an exhibition space?
ÖA: The books are an important and fundamental part of my work. A book has a different structure; it requires developing a theme in a chronological or linear way. There is always a very direct dialogue taking place between two opposing pages. This is fundamentally different from an exhibition, which is determined by the physical presence of one’s own body within the space and by the individual perception. The publication by its very nature has a stricter dictation, which allows me a different way of interacting with images and developing contingent narratives.