Esra Ersen

Born in Ankara, the artist now lives in Berlin. She studied in Istanbul and Nantes. Some of her important solo exhibitions were Salt Ulus, Ankara (2015), Frankfurter Kunstverein (2006). Group exhibitions: Istanbul Biennial, Liverpool Biennal, Gwangju Biennal and Manifesta 4, for example. Residencies: Kulturakade mie Tarabya, Istanbul, and Delfina Foundation, London, amongst others. Full of cheerful subversion, her work is based on examining social situations whilst addressing culture, myths and the economy.

Le Due Rome (2020/2021)

travertine tablets, steel mount

Translations

My grandmother was so afraid that she would pass away
before seeing her granddaughters get married, that
she wanted to have a dowry quilt sewn for each of us.
She searched through all the fabric merchants for the
colour that best matched our complexions, unrolling
pieces of fabric one by one in order to bring them close
to our faces, and left the rest to the skilled hands of the
master quilter. Of course, she would never have imagined
that those quilts, sewn in Istanbul, would become part of
a story that stretches as far as Rome. Memories of that
elegant woman resurface as I lie beneath her precious gift:
the honey-bubble coloured satin quilt.

My aunt would get lost amidst the pages of the magazine she used
to buy week in week out, come rain or shine. Every single page
was read, from the most fashionable clothes to world cuisines, with the
utmost attention. She didn’t not just look at the pictures of  those
clothes that took her eye, but would lay out the patterns on the table,
and within a heartbeat she found what she was searching amidst
hundreds of lines: She could immediately grasp where the dart was,
how to attach the sleeves, or where the buttonholes were. In the
evenings she would experiment with those French and Italian recipes
published in the magazine; we were left with the task of tasting those
dishes with unpronounceable names. In truth, my aunt was an enthusiastic
reader of that magazine not for world cuisines or patterns, the reason
named Franco Gasparri! He was the first Italian man I became acquainted
with, the secret love of my childhood –– something I never confessed to
anyone. In the 1970s, when Italian photo novels began to be translated
and published in Turkish, Gasparri built up a considerable following of
female admirers in Istanbul. A local exchange network was created for his
novels. Slipping them into schoolbooks, they were read in secret. They
were either rented from the  kiosk or passed around if someone in the
neighbourhood had already purchased them.

Although it looks rather small from the outside, the
stationery shop packed with children turns out to be very
spacious inside, thanks to its crammed shelves arranged
in neat rows. It faces a school situated right across the
street. The stationer seems rather nervous due to the
strain of serving the children and their mothers, who
ask for eleven sheets of paper, two pens, a scented rubber
and other similar knick-knacks. The same goes for his
shop assistant. We are in Rome, but we might very well be in
Istanbul, in the Eminönü neighbourhood. The assistant’s
gestures and facial expressions bespeak of a lifetime spent
in the same shop without ever changing his role. Though
he tries to respond politely to another customer on his
way to the stock room to get the paintbrush I was looking
for, his expression seems to say: “Can't you see I'm working?
Tell me what you need, but I’ve something else to do first.”

The fishing season in Istanbul would begin in autumn, when
the bigger fish start to traverse the Bosphorus en route
to warmer waters. Smaller fish such as mackerel, aware of
being easy prey for the bigger ones, would delay their entry
into the strait, and it was not until late autumn that we
would see them gracing our tables. My mother's speciality
was stuffed mackerel. She would remove its entrails without
cutting through the abdomen, massage the fish from head to
tail, breaking the central spine as she went along, removing
it along with all the bones, without damaging the fish. Then
she would pan-fry an onion, add pine nuts, blackcurrants,
cinnamon and cumin, stuff the fish with this mixture and dip
it in egg yolk and breadcrumbs before frying it. On hearing
the waiter of a restaurant in Rome pronounce the word
sgombro, for a moment I thought he had just said uskumru,
only with a slightly different accent. It is probably part of
the linguistic heritage bequeathed by the Byzantines.

 

The maritime pines were the first to
whisper to me that I was in a familiar
place. In summer, we used to build swings
by fixing them onto the sturdy branches of
the pines overlooking the Bosphorus.
The Gregale would sweep us off the
ground and we clutched onto the ropes
as tightly as possible, swinging faster
and faster under the reassuring shade
of the caring branches of those majestic
trees. Not a whiff of those maritime
pines survives to this day. It is equally as
hard to be a tree in Istanbul as it is to
live there; you never know what might
happen.

Inspired perhaps by that verse from the Qur’an that
states: “All creation praises God, even if this praise is
not in a human language,” the Ottomans attributed
mystical qualities to cypresses. They believed that
their leaves, as they rustled in the wind, recited the
sacred syllable “Hu”, or “He”, referring to God, whose
existence cannot be perceived by the senses nor fully
acknowledged by pure reason. They thought that the
evergreen cypresses nature symbolized immortality and
that their shape, similar in form to both the first letter
of the Arabic alphabet ảleph " ا " and the number one in
Arabic " ١ ", indicated the oneness of God. I believed it to
be an Ottoman tradition until the day I came across
cypress trees in the cemeteries of Rome. Is it possible to
feel so at home even amidst the gravestones?

Whenever my grandmother had trouble falling asleep, she
would start counting the mosques or banks along the road
leading from Fatih to Sultanahmet. On the way from the house
in Sultanahmet to the one in Fatih, we used to walk past all sorts
of mausoleums, mosques, madrasas, monasteries of the Ottoman
sultans and other prominent figures of the Empire. Even without
stepping inside, we knew their names by heart, with iron grates
protecting their gardens protected, their tombstones one
lovelier than the next, their majestic trees and that feeling of
peace enhanced by the sense of relief  provided by the shade: We
felt as if they had been forged into our souls. The family’s elder
members used them as a reference when giving us directions,
as though talking about their ancestors who lived in distant
times, so that we would know where to go if we ever got lost.

Istanbul’s hills and the Bosphorus steer the city’s winds, which, in turn, influence
its inhabitants. Just like barometers, we’re all as sensitive to weather and
rain: we even first check the wind before scheduling an appointment. When
referring to wind, we mainly think of the lodos, the Sirocco, and the poyraz,
the Gregale. The Sirocco not only determines the weather, but also affects our
moods. It is not uncommon for someone to have a headache, feel despondent,
nervous and listless just before the hot, humid Sirocco starts to blow; even fish
become disoriented and inedible. Back in Byzantine times, trials were postponed
whenever the Sirocco raged, and Ottoman judges, fearing the wind could
have impaired their discernment, would wait for the arrival of the Gregale
before passing sentence. Whenever  the Sirocco blows, the sea swells and shakes
the ferries almost to the point of capsizing them, and if combined with fog,
all sailings are cancelled. Fishermen refer to the Sirocco as the “stern” of the
Gregale, and vice versa. Istanbulites love the Grecale that blows in the summer,
for it cools the air and disperses the humidity. During winter, however, it brings
frost, and if it rages, it can turn into a storm that knocks trees down and blows
roofs away.

 

Even though the ancient city walls facing the sea were crumbling, we still
believed they protected us, and we knew the names of all their gates so well
that we could locate them even blindfolded. One morning, all the city’s inhabitants
living within the walls passed through those gates to reach the sea;  they had
spent the previous evening engaged in feverish activity in their homes. As though
under a spell, each family member would turn into a painter and sculptor: They
would first draw what they wanted to have, then shape it with stone or clay
and leave it under a rose bush all while making a wish. According to tradition,
the prophets Al-Khidr, ruler of the lands, and Elijah, ruler of the waters, became
immortal after drinking the elixir; and every year, on the night between the
5th and 6th of May, they meet under a rose bush to invigorate nature and fulfil
the wishes of the needy and afflicted. The next morning, all the objects left
under the bush the night before would be collected and flung into the sea,
accompanied by prayers so that their wishes come true.

 

I could spend hours gazing at their windows: Hardware shops full of boxes buried
under layers of dust, with tools and gadgets I found fascinating although
I didn’t really understand their function; homeware shops, where sunlight
filtered through crystal glasses, caressing the dishes on display with colourful
reflections; small haberdasheries crammed with buttons, cords, rolls of fabric of
every colour, knitting needles... Over time, all these shops, along with their
one-of-a-kind owners, have vanished from the streets of Istanbul. Yesterday, I
went into a shop here, which sold skeins of gold organzine for the cords of
old-fashioned heavy curtains. I felt as though I was leafing through an old
family album with faded black cardboard pages, careful not to damage the thin
transparent sheet protecting such fragile memories. Behind the counter stood
a woman in her nineties, whom I wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't moved. I feel as
though I’ve uncovered an old chest in some strangers’ house, full of things that
all seem somehow familiar to me.

The artist Esra Ersen was born in Istanbul and has lived in Berlin since 2006. Her work consists of ten literary miniatures inscribed on tablets made of travertine, a material that is typical for Rome, that were exhibited on the external walls of the Villa Massimo grounds along the Viale XXI Aprile. For Neuhardenberg, she has installed the tablets, which are reminiscent of memorials, in the park, where they become carriers of messages from the past in a public space. The title of the work references the book Le due Rome: confronto tra Roma e Costantinopoli by the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, who was a diplomat in Florence and Venice in the late 14th century and considerably advanced early Renaissance humanism, ensuring that the connections between Rome and Constantinople were not forgotten. The modern day cities of Rome and Istanbul both belong to a connected cultural sphere that has survived until the 20th century thanks to a lively exchange and close trading relationships. When today's states formed in the 19th and 20th century, their identity policies focused particularly on distinctive national characteristics and failed to acknowledge any shared roots.

Diario (2020/2021)

photographs, fine art prints, matt paper on Alu-Dibond

Two issues in particular are contentious topics for Italian policy-makers: The country's waste management, and the huge number of refugees coming across the Mediterranean.

Waste disposal has been a lucrative business for the Mafia for decades. It leans on the policy-makers to ensure that the contracts are awarded in a way that makes them profitable for the organisation. The problems are particularly serious in Rome, where the Mafia has prevented the construction of waste incinerators. Refugees are putting even more serious pressure on the already greatly polarised country and create a fertile ground for right-wing populist positions. Above all, the newly arriving migrants are expected to be as invisible as possible. Illegal Africans have found a niche here: On the streets of Rome, you can often see little piles of swept up rubbish that remain there all day. A small box is put close to them into which passers-by can throw money. The little piles of rubbish are therefore much more than they appear to be: The sweeper is working on a portrait of Roman society, and leaves yet another trace, their own, with each new pile.