Banu Cennetoglu is a Turkish artist working with photography, installations and printed matter. She left Turkey in 1994 for Paris, then moved to New York and Amsterdam, before returning to her home country. In 2006 she set up BAS, a project space in Istanbul with a focus on artists’ books and printed matter. The same year, Cennetoglu and Dutch artist Philippine Hoegen founded Bent, a publishing project. Banu Cennetoglu has exhibited at biennials in Berlin, Tirana, Istanbul, Athens, Venice and at Manifesta. Her work will be a part of the Gwangju Biennale that runs from September 5 to November 9.
Ajay Hothi You often show at the large-scale international art events. How do you approach each one?
Banu Cennetoglu It’s really hard to work remotely and at such distances. Take Gwangju for example. The work I’m showing there is a new commission and the language barrier between them and me is huge. There’s a lot of potential to be lost in translation. I’m very curious to see how the work will be perceived, ultimately. South Korea is a very sensitive culture; perhaps, they can be a little over-sensitive. There are series of rules and etiquette, as well as things you’re not supposed to say, and if you do say it then you need to say it this way and not that way. Interestingly, I stopped doing these kinds of conversational interviews a few years ago, precisely because I felt there was a danger in this kind of communication. I preferred to communicate via e-mail because then I can see wht I've written.
AH Language is vital in your work. What does it mean to you?
BC The question of language is obviously a very large one. What’s interesting for me is the idea of language as a value system. Since 2010 I have been working on daily newspapers archive: i try to form a data base with all the national and regional daily hard copy papers and collect them on the same day, assort them alphabetically and bind them into books. It started with Turkey in 2010. It was conceived very specifically for my first gallery exhibition “Sample Sale” at Rodeo Istanbul. The entire show then travelled to Kunsthalle Basel, so it was relevant to work the Swiss editions with papers in four official languages. Turkey was very complicated because there was no full database of all the newspapers – national, regional, local, etc. – that are printed daily. I once called a very small local newspaper located by the Black Sea. I spoke to the owner, the printer and its designer – they were the same person – and this was a daily newspaper! Even if sometimes it’s only six pages or four pages, he prints every day. I explained the project to him and here I am trying to explain the logistics of how I can get a copy and he tells me, “Oh, wait a minute! There’s a guy around the corner who has a newspaper as well!” I thought to myself that this guy is kidding me. No, actually. It turns out his neighbor also had a daily newspaper. The third version addressed the Arab Spring. With an invitation from Makan, in Amman, Jordan, we started with an experiment: to see how many newspapers we could collect from across Arab-speaking countries. We ended up collecting 130 newspapers across 19 countries. I don’t categorize them geographically, but alphabetically. Of course, very often you have newspapers with the same names across the entire region. What stands out during this process is the idea of power structures, when you consider the layout of the newspaper, its editing, how pieces of information are structured and how, in displaying these processes, you can manipulate people’s minds. If you only follow one newspaper you’ll never see the other layout, which is a representation of the other state of mind. That’s why I am interested in the juxtaposition of that constructed information from the same day. For my next show at Rodeo’s new space in London, we are working on a collection of newspapers from the entirety of United Kingdom, national, regional, local, whatever we can get dated 4 September 2014. I feel lucky to be able to put this archive together just before the referendum on Scottish Independence. Also, I’ve done this work in a geography in which I don’t speak the language. It’s extremely challenging, but I think that you have to make art for the local community first. After a while it becomes an historical artifact and where it goes it will be displayed and preserved as an archive. It’s interesting to think about what kind of possibilities and meanings an archive can offer. Further, the research and production place a huge dependency on the local community. I find that I don’t have full power in that process and I have to work with, well, whoever. All I’m doing is orchestrating a situation. I’m not avoiding taking responsibility; I’m interested in sharing that responsibility. I’m interested in that dynamic because I make books. Creating a book- work is always collaboration: you’re working with a press, a pre-press, a printer, and so on. Their work is a major aspect of the final piece. When you’re working at an international art event, you’re working in a context that you don’t belong to. You visit for a few days, you go back for the production, you probably don’t speak the native language, so you’re always facilitated by translations, and in translation there can be lots of things lost but also a lot of things gained. The priority for me is always the local language and local audience. But then of course you have the monster question: what is the local language and who is local?
AH You work with books but you are not an author. There is always an emotional investment with the object of the book. I feel that notions of identity and psychological catharsis are important here.
BC Identity is very important when you’re dealing with printed matter, because it has many different identities all at once. Even from the level of conception, through its production, to it ending up on a table in your room, or in an exhibition context, or on a shelf in a library or bookstore. These are all very different sorts of engagement and interaction, and each changes the identity of the work and its meaning. It’s a different situation to a more static work, like a painting or a sculpture. If the artwork has a mobile, or changeable, identity in combination with a non-stable audience then there is vast potential. But that’s within a particular situation. It might not be interesting to me, but it might work for another person, in another geography, in another time. This is the magic of book works. It’s probably not going to be single unit piece that sits for its entire life in a museum; it’s more likely to be an edition of 750 and you have no idea where each copy will travel over the years and what contexts it will encounter. Also, I agree with the idea of the book as an object of psychological catharsis. Years ago, I had six months of experience with a psychiatrist – it was just after participating in the Venice Biennale… Anyway, we talked and it was a very classical kind of analytic experience. He asked me about my work and was interested when I said I made book works. He was not so knowledgeable about visual art so he was curious, asking me if I was a writer and so forth. Then he said something very interesting to me. He said, “You want to show, but you don’t want to show.” He said that that it’s a huge task to complete and create a book. That I chose this medium to represent me; that I’m represented in a context that starts off with exhibition but which is ideally for the bookstore or for somebody’s house. Unless a person opens this book (which is not a given) your work remains a mystery forever. All that labour that goes into the creation of an object may potentially remain entirely invisible. Usually the art world is about visibility, circulation and distribution, but this book could sit on a shelf somewhere and nobody might turn its pages – ever. There is this amazing library in Washington State (it used to be in Vermont) called the Brautigan Library. It’s based on a book by the author Richard Brautigan called The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971). This book narrates the story of a librarian who lives in a library for unpublished manuscripts. It’s a love story, about books. Brautigan committed suicide in the 1980s. He lived a bit of a troubled life. Years after, a man named Todd Lockwood opened the Brautigan Library. It aimed to collect unpublished manuscripts – stories that weren’t published and that would never be published. They have 304 manuscripts, mainly from the USA, but it’s open to anyone. They have a unique cataloguing system, called the Mayonnaise System, which is the first book classification system in the USA since the introduction of the Dewey Decimal System. The categories are great: they have “The Meaning of Life,” “Spirituality,” and one of my favorites, which is just “All the Rest.” They are very basic concepts. I visited the library and photographed several pages from each manuscript. If we’re talking about the book as psychological catharsis, this is the physical manifestation. When you’re holding the work, it hits you right in the face. You can see, feel, even smell the labour, the hope, the urgency, the effort, the trust, and hope, and anger invested in that body, on every page. The books are a projection of everything that the author has been waiting for years. The manuscripts are bound according to their length. The thickest books have brown covers, the thinnest ones have navy blue. Each book also has an info page submitted by the author that contains a summary of the story in just a few lines. There is the category of the book and the year of submission, but there is no information at all about the author. §
Banu Cennetoğlu will be showing at Rodeo Gallery in London from October. rodeo-gallery.com