Out of Frame: Mehmet Ali Uysal
If there is one series that encapsulates the ideas that flow into Mehmet Al Uysal’s work, it is Peel.[i] First presented in 2012, the series comprised of a set of spatial interventions in a white cube space, in which the artist cut away at the gallery’s walls in three separate locations. In one, an entire lower section of wall was cut out and stripped back into a coil standing on a vertical axis, thus revealing the brickwork beneath the plaster. This heavy strip curled into the space as a sculpture in its own right, produced from the material of the room. Resembling Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)—here rendered in the timeless landscape of the pristine white cube—hard walls became tangible, malleable, soft.
But this reading of Peel—of turning hard into soft—only just scratches the surface of what this series reveals about Uysal’s approach: an artist who was trained as an architect, and whose work seeks to subvert space so as to liberate our preconceptions of it. That thick, curled wall, for instance, recalls the “non-site”—or indoor earthwork—in the site/non-site dialectic as theorized by Smithson: A three dimensional logical abstraction that also represents an actual site. In Peel’s case, you have the sculpture—the indoor non-site: a reflection of the “uncontrolled, uncontained outdoor site from which materials are gathered.”[ii] Yet here, that “outdoor” site is not some specific place, for example in New Jersey, as was the case with Smithson. Rather, the “outdoor” becomes the expansive terrain—the art world—within which the white cube is located: a space where, as Brian O’Doherty once observed, “… the history of modernism is intimately framed.”[iii]
And this is where Uysal’s ideas really begin to take shape, driven by the subversion of the white cube so as to highlight the ideology—a certain modernist history he at once embraces and rejects—embedded in its physical structure and form. In the case of the Peel series, the treatment of the gallery’s walls brings in to focus the uniformity they engender through the spaces they frame: the gallery, the museum, the art fair, all united by the art market and the systems within which art is produced, displayed, valued and exchanged. In literally peeling back the layers, Uysal exposes what lies behind the gallery’s projected façade: an attack from the inside with a view to problematize the field within which the gallery resides. For example, when speaking about one 2013 neon work, Untitled, Neon, which reads: “EVERY CONTEMPORARY ARTIST SHOULD HAVE AT LEAST ONE NEON ARTWORK,” Uysal explains:
I like doing things inside of things, and the neon work is an example of this. I am playing with the knowledge that this fact represents: that feeling you get when you see neons at an art fair, and it seems idea that every contemporary artist actually has at least one neon work.[iv]
In other words, in dealing with that sense of material repetition the neon art work represents, Uysal reflects on the same ideas he is dealing with when thinking about space. The uniformity embedded in the white cube’s frame—those four white walls—is extended onto the artworks presented within it.
This is expanded on in the Painting series, which presents canvases seamlessly sculpted into gallery walls so that they appear to have grown out of the space. These frames emerge like spectres about to enter the real world: material forms born out of the metaphysical realm represented by the blank, white surface of the wall. In the Painting series, the white monochrome is conflated with the framing of the white room and we are introduced to the fertile volume of emptiness—the void in which projections become representations. As Uysal states: “the work calls attention to itself through form rather than concept.” And that form is at once edged and edgeless, swollen and empty.
This perspective on the white cube and the white canvas recalls O’Doherty’s observations on the white cube once more, when he wrote in 1976:
We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first. … An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of twentieth century art; it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains.[v]
It is interesting to think about this idea of the white space coming to the foreground in the late twentieth century, especially when thinking about the proliferation of art fairs and biennials as exhibitionary spaces in the early twenty-first. In 2012, for instance, art critic Ben Davis called the art fair the new “event-based” way art is experienced in response to Frieze New York’s inaugural edition. Davis read the fair as an event in which background and foreground switch places, since objects become secondary to the social nature of the event itself.
In the case of Uysal in 2014, though the background does indeed become the foreground insofar as the intention of his spatial interventions is to ignite an experience of space, and though these interventions are socially minded in that they explore the experience of space itself (which thus relies on the participation of an audience), Uysal goes one step further. In the Painting series, for instance, the two planes—background and foreground—are united; the boundaries between them are broken down; the frame is absorbed into its frame.
At this juncture, it would be fitting to consider Frank Zappa’s view in 1989 that,
The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively—because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?[vi]
And compare it to O’Doherty’s view again in 1976 that the easel picture
is like a portable window that, once set on the wall, penetrates it with deep space. This theme is endlessly repeated in northern art where a window within the picture in turn frames not only a further distance but confirms the window-like limits of the frame.[vii]
Uysal’s work fits into neither of these descriptions. Rather, what he proposes is the total immersion of body in space—a breakdown in the Cartesian mind-body split—and the destabilization of the boundaries dividing frame and content.
In fact, when explaining the ideas behind his practice further, he notes: “What we see in the world is two dimensional—our eyes cannot see in a three-dimensional way. So space is not really something we see. We feel it.” This insistence on feeling space encapsulates Uysal’s entire investigation, which began with one of the first works he ever made: a photograph of an un-stretched canvas printed onto stretched canvas. “Imagine an empty canvas, but the surface of the canvas looks like a tissue: it is un-stretched, crumpled and crinkled,” he says. “Imagine a photo of this printed on a canvas, and voila. This is the idea that started everything for me. It begins with perception—how to feel something two-dimensional as three-dimensional.” Indeed, for Uysal, everything is in the service of perception: “When you talk about space people think about it as architectural space, which is important. But for me, the idea of perception is a spatial problem.”
Thus, it is not just the white cube that is the focus of Uysal’s spatial intervention. It is our sensual experience of being placed within space, and in particular, representational space. It is an approach that directly counters the Cartesian paradox O’Doherty claims the white cube represents. Quoting O’Doherty again: “art exists in a kind of eternity of display,” which in turn “gives the gallery a limbo-like status.” As such, “one has to have died already to be there. Indeed, the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion.” As O’Doherty explains, “this Cartesian paradox is reinforced by one of the icons of our visual culture: the installation shot sans figures. Here at last, the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there…” By contrast, Uysal insists that his viewers experience space actively—through mind and body—by focusing on its materiality, thus inviting viewers to feel the volume of what appears to be an empty room.
In this light, Uysal’s treatment of space recalls an argument posed by Henri Lefebvre, when he explained how “representations of space are shot through with a knowledge (savoir)—ie. a mixture of understanding (connaissance) and ideology—which is always relative and in the process of change.”[viii] Lefebvre continues: “Such representations are thus objective, though subjective to revision.”[ix] For Uysal, he is underlining this point by intervening in the gallery space in some way. In the case of the Peel and Painting series, for example, he monumentalizes space by turning a room into a representation of, as he describes it, “a loss that is known”—and indeed understood—“by everybody.” It is a loss related to the misconceptions formed from misplaced beliefs: that space is fixed, and frames are necessary.
There is of course a political dimension to this. As Uysal explains: “I like playing with the idea of the market and the role of being an artist. I am questioning what the market is, what roles we take, and also what role the museum has.” In mentioning this, he is quick to critique the museum as a national project: a space in which histories are erased, (re)constructed and asserted. And within this critique is the sense of being an outsider—a view that is somehow rooted in Uysal’s biography. Having trained in Turkey from between 1993 to 2009, it was only when he embarked on an exchange programme in France between 2007 and 2008 (at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’art de Bourges) that he travelled outside of Turkey. “The first time I was faced with being Turkish was there in Paris,” Uysal explains. “I was not Turkish in Turkey.”
It was during this period in France that Uysal conceived of his Suspended series: ornate, baroque frames, like those he saw at the Louvre, constructed out of plaster to look like melted forms, some hanging on nails from the wall, others hung on coat hangers or meat hooks. On the works, Uysal touches on how these were an attempt at including himself in the history of art when experiencing it through such museums as the Louvre. For him, the works are as much about engaging with—or even problematizing—the sense of place as they are about considering one’s position in historical and, by association, global terms. To this end, when talking about the nation-building projects of museums, Uysal says that, though he doesn’t like the politics embedded in such projects, still: “I want to be represented.”
As such, in Uysal’s work, the frame—be it the gallery’s walls, the frame of a painting, or the framework within which art is circulated—is perceived as a border that must be softened so as to liberate the space contained therein. In doing so, the artist is freeing the space of representation from the boundaries that confine it, so that he might in turn redefine its parameters. In reflecting on the rigidity of the frame, Uysal illuminates its malleability for good reason: It is a challenge to the viewer to consider what lies both within and beyond it.
But, as Uysal notes, this is an endless subject because the questions around space never end, and he can’t answer them all: “So if someone asks what space is for me, I can’t say anything, because after creating works like this the question becomes larger. The more you learn, the more you understand that you know less.” And besides, in explaining himself, he is producing that very thing that he is trying to subvert, even though such articulations are often unavoidable, and sometimes even necessary.
This is where melting frames and peeled back walls come in: those interventions that soften hard structures and fixed ideas (or ideals). As Uysal explains: “I could say that what I do is about space, but this articulation may constitute a prison.” Yet, as long as he remains the architect of this very articulation, he concludes: “it is a prison in which I will always feel free.”