Esra Ersen’s practice lies in a peculiar area somewhere between David Attenborough and Nikki S. Lee. It’s not quite straight documentary, but nor is it stealth shooting. Ersen, who was born and raised in Turkey, performs an ambiguous dance between the two, embedding herself in specific contexts, breaking down the barriers between observer and observed, in order to make candid documentary films that explore, together with photo and text pieces, the associations and expectations of identity, stereotype and prejudice.
The show is the first under the Frankfurter Kunstverein’s new leadership of curator Chus Martinez and is a promising beginning. She came up with an original way of unifying the space while also tackling a video show’s most problematic aspect: sound crossover. Thick dividing walls constructed from layers of brown cardboard efficiently absorbed any noise bleed while also commenting on the work: for an artistic practice based on research into social stereotyping the material communicated the idea of what we are sold and what we buy, not in the sense of shopping but of acceptance and belief.
Ersen has lived peripatetically, working in a variety of countries, such as Sweden, Austria, the UK and Germany. In each location she has attempted to identify and address a specific social problem. While the individual works accentuate the particularities of a given country, seeing them alongside one another also raises questions as to whether the countries are indeed so different. The works Hamam (2001) and Which One You Choose (2003), for example, confront gender stereotyping in very specific contexts – Turkey and Japan – yet reveal the global problem facing women of being shoehorned into certain roles expected of them from the societies in which they live. If You Could Speak Swedish (2001) follows the travails of immigrants to Sweden, mainly from the Middle East, while Brothers & Sisters (2003) focuses on the plight of Africans in Turkey. Watching them side by side, a hideously ironic parallel is drawn in terms of colour prejudice: while fair-skinned Germans may look down on the relatively swarthy Turkish immigrants, back home in Turkey the locals dish it out in spades to the darker-skinned Africans. While interesting issues are raised, each of these earlier works is a bit of a one-trick pony, not digging quite deep enough to offer the viewer more than a slice of life.
More recent work, however, is more complex, such as the text series 'Testimony' (2003), which was produced for an art space located near a prison in Graz. While news and information about life on the outside filters inward, Ersen challenged the world’s disregard for the inmates’ life by interviewing them and printing their testimonies on large yellow tarpaulins hung around the perimeter walls. Passers-by could muse on such comments as ‘Are you sure that this wall between us is really necessary?’ or ‘Alien, unknown, exotic. UTOPIAN. Your world makes me anxious. How do you feel about mine?’
Also successful were the two works from 2005. The first, Parachutist on the Third Floor, Birds in the Laundry, is a three-channel video installation studying life in council accommodation in Malmö. Ersen first accesses the tower block through young children, who give her a guided tour of murals painted in the 1990s, based on the resident immigrants’ memories of their homelands yet painted using romantic Swedish imagery; on the next screen we follow another artist (hired by Ersen) as she paints new murals based on the stories being told on the third screen by the current residents about their disappointments, realities and hopes. Set alongside one another, the three screens offer a simultaneous view of past, present and future, blending the different stories into a touching portrait of immigrant life, the efforts to adapt and the pressure to do so.
The title of the other work from 2005, Ich bin Türke, ich bin ehrlich, ich bin fleißig (I am Turkish, I am Honest, I am Diligent), comes from the words of a Turkish school song. Here Ersen asked a group of Austrian children to wear, for a week, the traditional Turkish school uniform and to record their feelings about it. The video – which follows the children to class and on a field trip, where they are stared at in their strange attire – is placed in a niche above a rail that holds all 21 uniforms. On these the wearers’ silk-screened handwriting records their daily impressions, such as: ‘Monday: I don’t feel so good in the uniform.’ Taken as a whole, the work attempts to examine how ideological concepts may be transferred, such as nationality, power and identification.
In these later pieces Ersen has clearly expanded and deepened her practice, adding more layers to it and thus taking the essential step that elevates it from straight documentary to successful art work and which makes her work both challenging and promising.
Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.
First published in Issue 100