The simplicity of Selim Süme’s solo exhibition, ‘Transit,’ at Versus Art Project, is deceiving, as his approach to photography reflected his experience of introspection, refocusing his eye on quotidian intimacies
The artist Selim Süme stood in the whitewashed apartment gallery of Versus Art Project to greet a few travelers who had wandered in on a bright Saturday afternoon. He spoke clearly, and in many words, about his series of photographs, which, according to his praxis, are about as significant as his chosen medium, namely the retro camera that he employed to create the overexposed images. His aesthetic, altogether purposeful, is one of the lurid spectra, in which faces, walls and objects are cast in the artificial flash of mechanical instantaneity.
The people who were listening to him had not planned that they would see the artist. They had only come to see the art. But, without his explanation, it is not clear how much of the art they would have seen. His work bears a kind of painfully close familiarity, something that prods at childhood reminiscences of domestic space, especially for those who formed their earliest memories in the 1980s and 1990s when the snapshot was a newfangled curiosity, overused and subject to crops and lightings that are imperfectly beautiful and all but lost.
In an age defined by crystal clear images, produced ad infinitum, as people pose and linger with frozen smiles and a slight bend of the knee, evoking classical Greek’s sculpture’s break from their ancient Egyptian progenitors, Süme’s unsettling, seemingly haphazard photography comes as a welcome catharsis. Their curation as fine art, however, might demand a peculiar stretch of the historical imagination from such passersby as would grace the floor of an inner-city art gallery in the heart of Istanbul.
But, to his credit, Süme was thinking of his son, who he framed in one piece, with the rambunctious child ostensibly involved in a game of hide-and-seek. He wanted his photos to have an informal air, for their prints to be palpable as they hang loosely against the wall of Versus Art Project, gently waving in the breeze of a weekend respite from a cold, late winter. His guests were from Eastern Europe and asked about his opinion when it came to comparing Istanbul’s art galleries from Vienna’s, where Süme resides.
Süme responded by saying that, in Austria, there is a different color scheme to certain contemporary art spaces, almost as if they are more interested in decoration; whereas in Turkey there is a haunting political consciousness that affects a deeper, more psychological pull into the inheritance of popular metaphor, multigenerational stories preserved by symbols so as to safeguard their messages and tellers. And so inspired, his exhibition refers to a poem by the living, Izmir-based author Ahmet Güntan.
To reveal obscurities
In one of his best-known works, which might be loosely translated into English as “Fragmentary Raw Manifesto” (Parçalı Ham Manifestosu), the poet advises his readers to use the image to inform. He also says not to send secret messages, that readers should not need added hardware. These principles can be said to apply to Süme’s photographs, which are as they appear, blatantly flat in their dimensions. In conversation, Süme referred to miniature, or premodern painting, to explain his full-frontal portraits and use of shadow.
While suffering a lockdown, he found an outmoded digital camera and started clicking. He shot family members candidly, and the inside of the house with blatant, directness. All of the pieces are untitled. In one work, an older woman is about to bite on a piece of fruit. Her pale skin and gray hair are accentuated by the garish light. There is no perspective. It is almost difficult to look at, but for its unwavering gaze, absolutely forward. He is not hiding anything, not even the mess of wires that lay in a coiled mess on his plush carpet.
In one photo, he trained his sights on the uncovered arm of a person, their face out of the frame. Although they had rolled up their sleeve, the fact that they’re wearing heavy, winter clothes suggests a cool climate. It could have been either Istanbul or Vienna. On their finger, gleaming in the light, is a ring, perhaps a wedding band. The lack of any semblance of immediately identifying qualities gives some of his images a semi-abstracted quality, a kind of postmodern neo-impressionism in photography.
One of his works is almost entirely abstract, its large-format print exposed to the point of sheer whiteness while emanating a warm orange light and a band of purple fading into the vanishing borders of an image that may have once captured the surface of a counter, or the end of a desk. When juxtaposed, as curated, beside a smaller photograph of someone’s shoulder, with a more even exposure, the sense of scale becomes important. Süme noted that the whole process of developing the pictures was nostalgic, and fired his creativity.
Among the largest of prints is a flash-photography shot of a stuffed animal, a monkey, its beady black eyes looking back into the camera with the inanimate cuteness of the object, as if drawn from a memory. By spending more time with his family, particularly his son, and returning to aspects of his childhood, Süme has done what artists should arguably do, exhibiting not only their works but that which humanizes them as they’ve become an artist, and while making art, which is a bold, courageous act of vulnerability in dialogue with others.
Back to the darkroom
Versus Art Project is an independent space that has shown an interesting number of series by photographers from Turkey, namely Yusuf Murat Şen and Metehan Özcan, both of whom have a resonance with Süme in their works. Whereas the photographs of Şen explore vintage themes going back to the roots of photographic technology, Özcan has also focused his practice on architectural interiority, albeit with a more Düsseldorf style a la Candida Höfer.
Süme has conveyed a naivety in his show, “Transit,” which, as a professional artist and in reference to the art world, might be endearing, but the question remains of whether the involuntarily prolific mass of universally public photographers will respond to it with the same idiosyncratic charm that he imbued in his very personal works. Theory aside, “Transit” is an image-weary artist’s pandemic notes on how the past was once seen when it was present.