This interview has been publieshed in the Artkrush, issue 91 (http://artkrush.com/171309)
Interview by Paul Laster for ArtKrush
Ahmet: Death Kit Train plays on the expectations of the viewer and questions the relationship between act and function. First, a red car enters the frame slowly. After a few seconds, one perceives that the car does not propel itself, but that a group of people is pushing it from behind. In the last frames, the spectator can see that as the parade continues, the people are pushing one another, rather than the car. For me, the key moment is when the viewer realizes that this simple act transcends just moving the car. I always give this example: where I am from, in a funerary procession, the number of people carrying the coffin is more than what is actually needed - the act is not about carrying, but about expressing respect. Two other examples: Fitzcarraldo's rubber-trade obsession and Fatih Sultan Mehmet's drive to conquer Constantinople - passions for, passions for which they both carried ships over mountains. So an act can surpass its functional outcome and signify something greater, which in turn can make the act itself seem absurd, or grotesque.
AK: Automobiles also crucially figure into your 2005 slideshow, Somebody Else's Car, which was shown in that year's Istanbul Biennial. Can you tell us more about that project?
Ahmet: Somebody Else's Car is basically about transforming ordinary cars left in parking lots into police cruisers and taxis with cardboard and tape, but without the authorization of their owners. I documented the project in a series of photographs that create a story in which I am a kind of activist character. The activist completes his action in a quick, tense manner, which could almost make us forget about the abstract nature of his intervention - which is revealing how mechanisms of control displace reality with fiction by using symbols and codes. The yellow of a taxi, or a white car with a blue line that signals "police" - they are just abstract codes, like many others. In this momentary illusion, the symbols don't replace reality, but show how fictitious they themselves are.
AK: In the 5th Berlin Biennale, which took place earlier this year, you paved the ground floor of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art with asphalt. How did this installation, entitled Ground Control, alter the exhibition space?
Ahmet: In paving the floor of the KW with asphalt, I was able to fill the exhibition space with an ambience, rather than with physical objects. For me, asphalt is an ideological, authoritarian tool. It is a product of industrial modernity and civilization, and it operates as the best and most basic way to normalize and legalize territories. When we see asphalt in an interior space, we immediately come face-to-face with its invisible power and realize that it is a materialization of authority.
AK: In a solo show this past spring at the Kunsthalle Basel, you presented Mutual Issues, Inventive Acts, a new series of drawings and photographs showing people engaged in absurd activities - such as a man strapping on a pair of stools to cross a puddled street. What was the inspiration for this body of work, and how was it created?
Ahmet: In developing countries, public space has yet to be constructed, or hasn't been constructed well. This limits the potentials of urban life and forces people to think creatively to solve everyday problems. So behind the absurd inventions in Mutual Issues, Inventive Acts, we can see economic and social causes. I witnessed many of these acts in Turkey, and I also invented some that I think could happen. First, I made a series of drawings that compiled all the acts and ideas, and then I re-created them as photographs. I staged the photographs in various European cities, where most of these acts just appear absurd and useless.
AK: Your book Today in History is being presented as an online project in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney. Where did you find the amazing stories in it, such as the one about the man who handmade a Ferrari in eight years?
Ahmet: The stories in Today in History are sometimes surreal, sometimes political, and mostly ironic, but they are all true, which is why I like them. Even before I had the idea for the book, I had been collecting all these amazing stories, mostly from newspapers, though there are a few I've heard from actual witnesses.
AK: You also use "found history" for your installation at SITE Santa Fe, Clear Blue Sky versus Generous Earth, mixing slogans from a civilian-defense manual, which you've reprinted on red tote bags for visitors to take, with an urban legend, which you've painted lowrider-style on a car hood. How did you think to bring these elements together?
Ahmet: I used an urban legend about a cow falling from a plane and sinking a Japanese trawler as a starting point, and I wanted to illustrate this legend in a way that would engage with Southwestern lowrider culture. The reprinted warnings are from Los Alamos, and out of context, they become a parody of insecurity. Together, the urban legend and the civil-defense warnings are metaphorical elements, with the sky playing the role of the nomadic forces and Earth as the place of rightful nations.
AK: For your current solo show at the Centre d'Art Santa MoniCA (CASM) in Barcelona, you built and installed a car atop a manmade slope in the gallery, where it has no traction. What does this car represent?
Ahmet: The car is a modified Seat 131, a Spanish version of the Fiat 131, which was a very common and affordable middle-class car during the '70s and '80s in Europe and Turkey. Especially in Turkey, modifying a basic car is very common. But the interesting part for me is that even if you modify a car to make it look much fancier, its capacity remains the same. Also, wherever you place it, a slope is always a slope, and it is always possible for a car to get stuck on one.
AK: What's the story behind Perfect Lovers, a piece that consists of two framed coins, which you're also exhibiting at CASM?
Ahmet: I heard that some people in Europe were using the Turkish one-lira coin in vending machines and big supermarkets instead of the two-euro coin. The two coins are nearly identical, but the one-lira coin is actually worth less than half a euro. At the same time, when you put the coins next to each other, they immediately reveal a big difference between the two political and social realities they reflect. I borrowed the title from Felix Gonzalez-Torres' famous piece showing two wall clocks working in perfect unison, which made my work much more ironic.
AK: You're also participating in the group exhibition Be(com)ing Dutch at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, which travels to New York's New Museum in 2009. What did you make for the exhibition that expresses your experience of living in Amsterdam?
Ahmet: When Van Abbemuseum started developing Be(com)ing Dutch in 2006, I had just moved to Amsterdam for my residency at the Rijksakademie. Over these last two years, my experience of living in Amsterdam slowly started to take shape. I was really curious about how it might affect my art practice to live in totally different circumstances. After getting the basics in order (getting a social-fiscal number, etc.), I then had to adapt to very different public space and different social structures. Eventually I did a video work titled Three Spots, which plays with the presentation of urban marketing and the touristic identity of Amsterdam. By living there, I was able to observe the issue through various lenses.
AK: I read in an interview that you admire Mladen Stilinovic's 1992 manifesto, "The Praise of Laziness," which argues that artists must be lazy. What does Stilinovic's concept mean to you? With your current exhibition schedule, have you had much time for laziness?
Ahmet: I admire Stilinovic's practice, and yes, I like his thoughts about laziness. But what he says about laziness is not about doing nothing, but about time and speed. For instance, Stilinovic once wrote the word "PAIN" thousands of times - that is a kind of laziness that we are not used to. For me, time and speed are very useful tools, but we should use them carefully. In that same interview, I recalled the famous paradox of Zeno: Achilles was ten times faster than the turtle, yet he still could never overtake it.