For her latest solo show at ArtOn, ‘Seal,’ sculptor Burcu Erden dives into her reputation as a contemporary primitivist detailing the struggle of human embodiment through brutalist, anthropomorphic forms
To encapsulate an artist’s works within a particular aesthetic or ideological movement is itself anachronistic. The prevailing, postmodern cultural milieu is home to a complex diversity of fresh, curatorial insights into the placement of artworks within specific theoretical and institutional contexts. That said, the bold dedication that sculptor Burcu Erden demonstrates to the distinctiveness of her oeuvre is especially stimulating where conceptualism meets craft, as the resonances of prehistoric creativity merged into references to ancient classicism.
Erden’s most recent pieces break from the mold of her past exhibition at ArtOn in 2019, “Calling for the Mass.” At that time, her studio was somewhere within the snaking alleys of Istanbul’s old district of Fatih, by the Golden Horn inlet. She fit right in with street mechanics and working-class sorts as she erected muscular, wooden sculptures out of wood, lining their contours with black lines that looked like burn marks. Her current show, “Seal,” might be said to have a more feminine expression.
The works that comprise “Seal” are, at times, softer than Erden’s pieces shown during “Calling for the Mass.” They bear a sense of courage, as they’re less direct, more complicated, yet simpler, illusory and practical. In that way, their unfinished, exploratory character approaches a conceptual frame closer to that of contemporary curation in the global art world. Erden is a local artist who seems to be situating her works more deeply within the soil of Turkey, literally diversifying her medium from wood to ceramics.
She has also leapt from arboreal to mineral shapes. Her series of polyester sculptures, as shown at “Seal,” assume the form of mountain crags, and they are less anthropomorphic than her similarly conceived pieces, which she produced by splitting and carving wood. She is returning, it appears, on her creative path, to the womb of form, as it emerges out of earthly material, and in the hand of the artist, comes to express an idea. While theoreticians might aptly categorize her art as primitivist, her work bears certain, if subtler, intricacies.
Along thinner lines
There are three basic designs that the artworks of “Seal” might fall under. A series of ceramic reliefs are accompanied by comparative engravings into cylindrical stones that are loosely reminiscent of statues found in Mongolia bearing the indigenous Turkic script called the Orkhon inscriptions. But the cultures who used cylindrical stone seals span the breadth of Egyptian and Hindu civilization, as well as Mesopotamia, which is situated within the present national boundaries of Turkey. The polyester sculptures that resemble stratified, sedimentary rock.
Erden’s polyester pieces look like they were mined from a Paleolithic cave. One piece, untitled and dated to 2021, has the semblances of a bear, an uncanny reflection of the subconscious bonds that may have compelled her creativity to enter that critical domain known as the primitive. “Seal” has proven that Erden is unafraid to embark on a more explicit path toward the earliest of formal styles.
It is relevant to note that Erden’s exploration of form is essentially about the contrast between the concave and the convex, a matter of space and its negative, which brings to mind painting in caves, working with its curves, or building ziggurats and other step pyramids on the vast, flat plains of the first cities. “Seal” is an exercise in the historical practice of effecting the mutual balance between concavity and convexity, as she stamped the crannies and grooves of her cylindrical seals onto wet clay, and fired the rising impressions.
In her rudimentary dualism, Erden edged anthropomorphic traces into the black, gray and red stone of her cylindrical seals, and rolled them over the malleable clay repeatedly. Despite the gains of early 20th century artists who innovated aesthetic perspective, changing the formality of art toward greater individual freedom, modernism could be defined as an act of industrial repetition, a truth most famously upheld by Andy Warhol, but which Walter Benjamin prophesied in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production” (1935).
To attempt visuality
As erudite as Benjamin, essayist Ibrahim Cansızoğlu wrote a brilliant catalog piece itemizing the scholarly context surrounding the works of Erden over the course of her career, which, despite having only just begun is proving to be a promising one. Cansızoğlu discusses Erden’s research at the Museum of the Ancient Orient, a part of the group of Istanbul Archaeology Museums in Istanbul, as its archaeological artifacts served to inspire her creative turn from focusing on sculptures to generating a series of reliefs that further develop her conceptual arc.
Cansızoğlu carried his argument by speaking to important moments in art history with respect to a theoretical understanding of Erden’s work. He began by reaching back to a show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that opened in 1984, titled “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” and its subsequent bashing by America’s top critics who saw in its curation a weakness for the wrongs of colonialist oppression, namely overshadowing the individuality and authorship of non-Western artists and their societies.
Erden, however, is not appropriating the cultural work of societies whose cultures and civilizations preceded that of modern Turkey – unlike Pablo Picasso’s neo-African Cubism, or Paul Gaugin’s objectification of Pacific Island women – but instead, her pieces intervene into the sources of technological ingenuity, toward an excavation of practical ideas that might stimulate her practice. Cansızoğlu wrote it sharply, that she is “abstracting the morphology of the living,” and that with “Seal” she ventured to encompass the sculptural potentials of geomorphology.
The allure of “Seal,” in the context of ArtOn as a curatorial space, and considering the progression of Erden’s works, is that she has taken a braver direction in terms of speaking to the relationship between salability and criticality in Istanbul’s art world, a rift that divides its institutions and workers like none other. Whereas before she could be said to have crafted aesthetically riveting, almost readymade sculptures, she is now tackling the notion of art as repetitive imperfection.
Erden has leaned into the problems of objectivity and originality by focusing on process over product. And as an artist, she is making her mark in that process. “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” wrote Benjamin, who went on to propound on the nature of forgery, which was more artistic when it was more technical, exemplified by photography, whereas it was less so when handmade. Erden, then, in her art, reaching back to premodern techniques, touches on themes in her own way, as special and unique as the etchings that she sculpts and engraves like the unrelenting force of gravity.