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Ayşe Erkmen’s Shifting Scenery at the Barbican Curve

Ayşe Erkmen’s Shifting Scenery at the Barbican Curve

Picture of Ellen Von Weigand
Updated: 12 December 2015
The sculptural installations of Turkish artist Ayşe Erkmen demonstrate her interest in the aesthetics of functional objects. For her autumn 2013 installation in the Barbican’s Curve space the artist hung a series of theatre backdrops throughout the long narrow gallery. Each can be slowly raised or lowered, dividing the space and disrupting its viewers movement. Wrapping around the Barbican Hall, the work engages with the institution as a meeting place for visual and performing arts.

When entering the exhibition Ayşe Erkmen: Intervals in The Curve at the Barbican Centre, one encounters a large scale, white on black map of Turkey and the Mediterranean. Spanning from wall to wall and blocking the view of what lays behind, this imposing fabric resembles the set backdrops found in the world of theatre, ballet and opera. Hanging low to the ground it immediately obstructs the viewer’s passage through the exhibition. Soon the map begins to slowly rise, mimicking the steady mechanisation of actual theatre backdrops and providing space for viewers to walk beneath it. Behind the map is another set backdrop, this time of a Japanese style building set in wooded area, which hangs from the same theatrical fly system.

In speaking about her Curve space exhibition Erkmen explains:

‘I wanted to make something which is usually hidden backstage visible, bringing scenic backdrops into The Curve and setting them into action. By moving them up and down with a fly system the exhibition space will be continually changing, creating ideas of interval both in space and narration.’

As each backdrop lifts a new one is revealed until the viewer finally arrives at the end of the 90 metre long space. During the walk from one end to the other, visitors are repeatedly halted in their tracks by Erkmen’s animated installation, as the assorted scenes of various colours, materials and subjects are activated in random sequence. Passing beneath each piece of painted scenery, viewers can imagine gaining access to privileged backstage activity. Yet one never meets the actors and stagehands that might gather behind the curtain, and are instead led down a surreal passage of repeated screens. In Erkmen’s exhibition these once anonymous artworks take the place of the actors at the forefront of her production.

A violent seascape inspired by the opera Ariadne, a setting from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, a fairytale landscape and a deep red and gold trimmed theatre curtain are among the subjects featured on the painted cloths. Each scene has been designed and illustrated by professional scenic artists and talented theatre design students from the Guildhall School of Museum and Drama, and many have been used in actual performances.

With a formal background in sculpture, Erkmen demonstrates a consistent interest in objects that serve both an aesthetic and functional purpose. Furthermore her installations often involve activated machines and engage in dialogue with the spaces in which she exhibits. Intervals reflects these recurring concerns, responding to the nature of the Barbican Centre as an institution that celebrates all forms of art, blurring the boundaries between them. The Curve exhibition also expands upon the artist’s work for the Turkish Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Titled, Plan B, the Biennale project featured a functioning water purification system that filtered water from the Venice Canals into drinking water before returning the cleansed liquid to the canal. Just as in the Barbican exhibition, viewers could walked between and below the system of coloured pipes that ran throughout the space in the Venice Arsenale.

Ayşe Erkmen was born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1949 where she later completed her formal education in sculpture at the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in the 1970s. She has been a professor in Hessen province, Germany since 2010. Among the artist’s more recent exhibitions are Between You and I – intervention 4 at Witte de With, Centre for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam (2010), Ayşe Erkmen: Doppelhaushälfte at Galerie Barbara Wiess, Berlin (2010), and a comprehensive solo exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof (2008).

By Ellen Von Wiegand

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