Studio Tour: Nasan Tur on Kunst, Controversy and Questioning Society

It's been a busy year for Nasan Tur, Berlin-based, international-bound artist represented by Blain Southern. In between trips to Istanbul and Milan, Tur took the time to show us around his studio.

“It’s a bit messy,” Nasan Tur apologises as he unlocks the door to his studio. “I’ve been travelling, so I haven’t been here for a while.” Given that he’s a Blain|Southern favourite who has over 40 solo exhibitions under his belt, who cares if his studio’s messy? (Besides, our photographer had already taken the photos.) “Can I get you a Turkish coffee?” Tur asks me as he looks in the half empty fridge and realises it’s frosted up. “Make yourself comfortable!” he gestures, and I do, as he proceeds to chisel the excess ice from the inside of the fridge with a knife. Before long we’re sitting with our coffee and eating sticky Turkish delight. “I always buy this brand,” he tells me, “but normally they have powder on the outside. They forgot the powder!”

This air of unpreparedness is refreshing and Tur’s ease is contagious, as he takes everything in his stride. He’s dressed almost identically to the front cover of his monograph, a portrait still taken from “In My Pants”, except this time it’s a white t-shirt that’s tucked into his jeans — and he hasn’t wet himself. There’s not an ounce of pretension about him, an observation that’s only solidified over the duration of my visit.

Despite his travelling, Tur tells me he’s often in his studio. “Daily, if I’m not away. It’s very structured, actually. I have two little kids now, and since then I can’t just hang out the whole day drinking cappuccinos,” he laughs. “I come here in the daytime and sometimes in the evenings.” The second-floor studio sits in the old Künstlerhaus Bethanien, overlooking Mariannenplatz in Kreuzberg. Tur’s been here for 6 or 7 years. “I like it because it’s full of life,” he explains. The studios are surrounded by a kindergarten, a music school, cafes and restaurants, but are each closed off from one another. “When you’re here you’re totally for yourself.” Tur works with assistants on a project-by-project basis, but he’s a firm believer in alone time too. “My studio is a place for that.” Much of his production happens outside of the studio, with a focus on process and performance. His studio, then, is mainly a place for research and first attempts. “I try things here before I really produce them.”

Tur is cautious of the “political” label ascribed to much of his work. “It’s not as if I know things better than other people,” he tells me when I ask about his agenda. “I’m not working didactically.” In fact, Tur’s practice is much more process-based than this. “It’s not about making something the best or the most beautiful,” he stresses, “somehow art became a tool for me to rethink the things I’m doing.” Rather than political, Tur prefers to view his work as reflective.  “It’s about questioning our role inside of society — what sense it makes and why we’re doing what we’re doing.” This kind of responsive approach helps to explain what makes Tur’s oeuvre so diverse. “There’s no one constant way I’m working,” he explains, and it’s clearly visible in his late work, which ranges from video, to language-based works, to light installations, to ready-made assemblages and sculpture.

What unites Tur’s art is its conceptual process: his work becomes a tool for questioning and reflecting upon society. Tur describes his work as being “subtle” and it’s easy to see why. “Sea View” (2016) comprises a series of seascape imagery, but upon closer reflection, the pleasant familiarity of the sea view is overshadowed by tragedy, as the images are revealed to be cropped mass-media photographs of refugees dying at sea. “It’s about how we deal with this situation we’re confronted with via the media,” Tur explains, “how to deal with that psychologically. Somehow you have to protect yourself from this. But to come to this beauty you have to come through these tragedies.” “Funktionieren” is similarly engaged, replicating the the populist slogans we’re bombarded with via the media through the rigorous process of woodcutting. The lack of immediacy, entailed by the labour-intensive technique, inhibits the overt, “in-your-face” politicism of other so-called “political” works.

But despite these seemingly strong political commentaries, Tur doesn’t see his work as contentious. In fact, when I first ask him about controversy surrounding his work, he almost dismisses the question. “It’s not about being controversial,” he explains, “I don’t know what is controversial”. But later, he talks to me about public projects which caused uproar in their communities. In Göppingen, Tur’s boxed-up anti-sculpture, which mirrors (and in doing so exposes) a Nazi sculpture still standing in Oberhofenpark, sparked public outcry. “It was unbelievably controversial in that city,” he explains. “What’s happened in Germany in the last years with the AfD and Pegida is that now racism is so present, people can talk about it very openly”. Tur tells me the Nationalism of the community was palpable while producing the work: “they thought we were going to destroy this beautiful Nazi sculpture.”

In Graz, “The Unknown Knight”, a bronze casting of Tur’s body as a knight, indirectly ridicules the so-called “histories” behind the existing sculptures in the city. “Normally the sculptures have a specific heroic beautiful body, a bit like the Nazi sculptures, but I have this,” he says, holding his belly and laughing, “and you can see my socks, and I’m circumcised and you can see it. It has to be a Muslim then, or a Jew, and the city has a huge history of anti-semitism.” Granted, the sculpture is not overtly controversial — it’s a slightly less heroic and more clumsy bronze statue — but there was backlash from a right-wing internet platform who tried to destroy it and resulted in its removal from its original location. “So actually it’s a failed, or half failed, project,” Tur admits.

His latest show, “Splinter In My Eye” at Istanbul’s Dirimart Dolapdere, looks to be one of his most ambitious and impressive yet. “The phrase ‘a splinter in my eye’ is about rethinking your position in society,” Tur explains. His neons of misspelt words like “freedom” and “bravery” are both playful and pertinent, echoing the reality of Turkey’s situation through the rhetoric of Erdogan’s politics. The show is also perhaps Tur’s most lavish display to date, making use of highly extravagant symbols. A magnified diamond, destroyed, creates an image that’s almost cosmic; broken chandeliers, the epitome of opulence, appear beautiful at first, but damaged and dangerous on closer inspection. These bold and visual pieces question the notion that wealth means power, and continue to explore the ideas of dissent that are so prolific in Tur’s work.

Aside from Turkey, Tur also has an exhibition at the Fondazione Adolfo Pini, Milan (opening next week), and is preparing for solo shows in Finland, Belgium and at Blain|Southern, London. Though failure is a consistent theme throughout his practice (forming the title of his first monograph), it’s safe to say that with a new book on the way and a plethora of shows in the works, Nasan Tur is hardly failing.

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