Interview with ‘Vox Lacunae’ Artist Sera Boeno

This is the first installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sera Boeno, Sobia Ahmad, Jason Kuo, Yuli Wang, Kim Llerena, Marta Gutierrez, and Nilou Kazemzadeh.

Sera Boeno | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Erin Allen

Before we begin discussing the works you have in the exhibition, let’s get to know you. Where are you from, and what is your artistic background?

Born and bred in Istanbul, Turkey. I moved to the States to attend Dartmouth College where I double majored in Neuroscience and Studio Art with a focus in sculpture.

Does your experience with neuroscience ever come up when making your pieces?

Yes. Definitely. I would say at various degrees, from pieces that are directly inspired by neuroscience texts to those that borrow a scientific research methodology in their conceptualization. Even in terms of formal decision, I find myself thinking about perception of different colors, biases towards text vs. image, abstract vs. formal content etc.

Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz (Words Naked / Are Not Enough) ​is directly influenced by gender-related power struggles throughout history in Turkey. Could you speak a bit more about the historical context of your work?

I think of Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz as text research: an ongoing collection of quotes extracted from current Turkish mainstream media, which refer to women or use the word in them. This collection of quotes has now become a mini archive of representation of women in current day Turkey, representing the conservative push in my motherland over the last decade and a half. The text is embossed in concrete on to archaeological forms that denote that while the immediate subject matter is contemporary, the omission of women from representation is neither a new story nor one that is exclusive to Turkey.

monument detail.jpg

Monument II (detail), concrete, hardware cloth, charcoal, oil, 2017

Formally speaking, the different editions of Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz monuments are inspired by archeology; by monumental artifacts that have historically glorified men, namely Orkhon Inscriptions –bilingually inscribed Turkic artifacts erected to glorify 8th Century Göktürk Princes–, Assyrian Reliefs – bas-relief panels eulogizing kings who once sat in the now ancient palaces of Nineveh by depicting them as lion hunters–, and lastly the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III – a phallic monument displaced and re-erected in Constantinople as a marker of power and conquest.  Ornaments are inspired by corporeal punishment devices, namely scold’s bridles (google it!), muzzles and gags that have been used to silence women and other oppressed groups. Such monuments and objects are ubiquitous in different context, cultures and histories.

While gender is a primary lens within the work, the other context that I situate the pieces in is colonial history and concurrent Western ethnographic museology. Most of these Eastern artifacts I mention are shown in Western institutions in a way that create a power dynamic between the global East and the global West, and essentialize the cultures they have been taken from.

Ornaments IV-VI are sexually charged pieces that all deal with prohibiting speech in some way, either through caging the mouth or gagging the wearer. Where does sexuality fit into the narrative you’re illustrating?

Sexuality is a big part of identity, especially that of gender identity so I believe that a discussion of one without the other is an incomplete story. With that in mind, the popularization of BDSM and erotic gagging is a fairly recent thing. The history I am pulling from here is not one that is purely sexual or erotic; It is one that made use of such objects for corporeal punishment, for the oppression of women who “nagged too much” according to their husbands, etc. I do like the appropriation of such oppressive things by oppressed cultures as a form of empowerment, like gags in sexual liberation. Oppressive words have been adopted and turned around by the groups they oppress in similar ways.

ornaments

Ornament V: Ball Gag with Penç Motifs, Ornament IV: Scold’s Bridle in the Form of Hataî, and Ornament VI: Bit with Tepelik Motifs on Ends, bronze, 2018

Your work​ juxtaposes beautifully intricate and feminine-looking bronze sculptures with roughly textured, more stereotypically masculine-looking concrete wall pieces. What is the meaning behind the juxtaposition of these mediums?

The Monuments came first, before the Ornaments. The end-game is a post-gender outlook, however these were loud and rough and in your face so I couldn’t help but start seeing them as traditionally Male – with a capital M. After all, even though the first people who used writing were women, writing has been a platform that women have been historically excluded from.  At the same time, as I was handling the collection of quotes, I kept coming back to two quotes that situate Turkish women as not an equal but a complementary counterpart to men, and as the ornament of their home. So I became really interested in creating a not equal but complementary counterpart to the works. Similar to the Monuments, I was looking for historical forms that reflect such sentiment. Tezhip is a form of Ottoman illumination style that is used to ornament the pages of handwritten manuscripts. The parallel was clear: like Turkish women ornamenting the household, Tezhip ornamented the house of the word, the page. Applying this stand-in for the Woman on to forms that do the opposite of record and monumentalize, that silence and punish, like gags and scold’s bridles made all the more sense. It was also important for me to propose these gags as Ornaments, and within that, draw attention to the hard and soft ways in which such silencing occurs.

In ​Monument II, ​ you’ve utilised both Turkish and English on the panels, while also leaving some devoid of words. What’s the thought process behind this decision, and what’s the significance of the phrases and excerpts you’ve included?

Silencing and omission are things that I think about, especially in terms of recorded history. The voids on the monuments are gestures towards this omission. Most of the time information is denied to us. I use this denial as a part of my work. Formally, the incompleteness winks to archaic artifacts and their museum displays. The aesthetic both poses the question of what is worthy of being unearthed and displayed, and creates a modern day historical object, much like the antiquated conceptualizations of women in the contemporary world.

Given the political climate surrounding media and censorship in both Turkey and the United States, what do you think is the role of art in discussing these issues?

I think the Artist has a way of making connections in non linear ways; stir up and reveal things that might not be apparent at a first sight, including our own biases. Great art might even establish a platform around itself that is a timeless safer zone for discussion. I think such things are rare in climates of censorship, which is one of the reasons why art is so valuable.

Are there any artists that directly inspire your work?

I am not sure if directly or not, but artists I have been thinking about include – and are not limited to – Jenny Holzer, Shirin Neshat, Louise Bourgeois, Marwan Rechmaoui, Issa Genzken, Walid Raad, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Upcoming projects or plans?

I have a show coming up at the Menial Collection in Baltimore titled Counterweight with two phenomenal women artists from the Middle East who work with concrete. The opening reception is August 10. Would love to see anyone and everyone there.

Sera Boeno’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.

For more information on Sera Boeno, visit http://www.seraboeno.com.

For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.



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