Meltem Rukiye Calisir is moving between boundaries and freedom, taking action and giving space.
Latex is Meltem Rukiye Calisir’s material. She’s interested in the aging process and the tactile quality, as well using it for clothes. However, she not only makes the boundary between applied art such as fashion and fine art obsolete, but also studies law. In the exchange of her different interests, she negotiates rules and norms, and also questions them. Her work challenges the viewer to experience them for themselves through direct contact, creating situations in which the artist must let go of control. Luca Büchler spoke with her about this and other moments of stepping back.
Not long ago you showed at the group exhibition »Sand im Getriebe« curated by Micheal Bauer three boots made of latex in different sizes. I remember people touching the works and took photos with them.
It was the first time I explicitly invited the visitors of an exhibition to physically interact with my work. Latex is a very engaging material that possesses skin-like qualities, people that have been exposed to my work have expressed their desire to touch it. The idea stemmed from current circumstances that left many of us touch starved, therefore this series of soft sculptures was in many ways thought of as a new strategy to facilitate physical interactions. I caught myself reconsidering my choice during the event. I was worried my work might get lost or broken, but I have never seen them abandoned, they were taken care of well and for sure worn in boots by the end of the night.
Has this changed anything in how you address aspects of the physical interaction between you and the material?
My approach to art has always been very intuitive and I cherish playful creation. I enjoy working with my hands, it is very meditative to me. For the past year, I’ve been especially fascinated with latex because the work process is very tactile.
Despite its shiny looks, it’s a natural product that can be decomposed, and even when kept under the right conditions there’s a visible aging process. Most people are aware of its notorious fetishistic connotations. So what a pity it would be if the smooth surface wasn’t being touched, right? That’s the reason why I started making clothing. It provides the possibility of having an intimate exposure to the material. Most of the pieces created were worn during performances which also allowed me to build a bridge into immaterial realms. I see the performative side of my work as an energetic exchange with the viewer, here material objects become a mere extension of myself, even when they are worn by someone else or not worn at all.
You curated the exhibition »Sinners in the hands of an angry god« at WAF Gallery. Here, too, the intention is that the visitors can touch the works.
The navigation of gallery spaces is dictated by norms that enforce power structure and leave the visitor to consume art in a choreographed, distant, and almost voyeuristic manner. By installing objects at a distance, we ensure their safety and conservation but moreover make them our false gods, untouchable and out of sublime. This reminded me of the Christian theological construct of transubstantiation, a process that symbolically transforms wine into blood, in a way similar to art that changes when it is exhibited in a gallery context while its substance remains the same.
The sacralized and ritualized ways of interacting with art in exhibition spaces are establishing hierarchies that are shaped by ideas of conservatism which should be critically examined. Each presented artwork in the show at WAF is reflecting on traditions, power, ceremonies, and worship. My way of challenging these structures is through silent acts of rebellion. Instead of forcing a certain outcome, I’m allowing for any outcome and casual interaction. While the idea of interactive exhibitions is nothing new to the art world, I believe that touch holds the power to demystify the entire experience and ground the visitor and the art on one level.
In addition to art and your curatorial activities, you also study law. How do these worlds overlap for you?
At first glance, these areas might seem completely separated but art and law do influence, intertwine and interfere with one another on practical as well as theoretical spheres.
One can find possible connections in every legal area, from criminal law to patent law or even tax law. I’m especially interested in art as a fundamental human right, the main questions arising in this field are what is art and how far does the freedom of art extend. There’s an inherent dilemma in not wanting to define art from a legal perspective because every definition subsequently leads to a restriction of art, but for laws to be useful, they have to be precise and determine boundaries. Art cannot be free when it is defined. A very prominent case in Austrian art history is »Kunst und Revolution« (also knows as »Uni-Ferkelein«) for which Otto Mühl had to serve a brief jail sentence after violating decency laws.
In a theoretical context, the relationship is often discussed by linking ethics and aesthetics. Furthermore, every image can be understood as a source of information, therefore all forms of visual art are offering modes of thinking beyond logical-discursive categories. Thus art can be used as a tool to interpret the political and juridical developments.
So for you it’s also about a political mindset?
I don’t see politics as an interest that I just observe and like to read up on, it’s a very real phenomenon that is affecting all areas of our lives.
I make a conscious effort to subject myself to ideas and views that differ from mine, there’s currently very little understanding not only for the political other but also for people we mostly share a similar mindset with. It seems like we are very quick to shut someone off the second we disagree, the constant threat of being »canceled« can prevent us sometimes from having constructive conversations.
Or in the words of James Baldwin »We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist«. It seems to be a time of taking action, but I wish we would sometimes also take a step back and listen. I prefer adding to a debate when I have a certain background knowledge that is not widely known, for instance, I often provide legal perspectives on matters. If this is not the case I rather stick to amplifying voices I think need to be heard.
What do you touch?
My keyboard, which is one of my least favorite things because I hate spending time in front of a screen. The last thing I touched that got me excited were daisies. The last thing I touched that I probably wasn’t allowed to touch was some artwork by Lena Kuzmich. What I will touch more often in the foreseeable future are grass, stone, and soil.