5. Zeitgeist of our Time: Füsun Onur for the Turkish Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale
By Nergis Abıyeva
Published on September 5th, 2022
After a one-year delay due to the pandemic, the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale is now open to the public until November 27. The exhibition’s title is borrowed from Leonora Carrington’s children's book The Milk of Dreams.
Curator Cecilia Alemani’s choices can be seen both in Giardini and Arsenale. This is my third Venice Biennale visit and it’s the first time that the exhibition has left me speechless and put me in an “exhibition hangover” mood. The way The Milk of Dreams is curated, the selection, and the interconnections between the artists and the artworks are sorely elaborate. The texts accompanying the artworks are adequate and the biennale is very user-friendly, conveying to the visitors easily but not superficially.
Including over two hundred artists from 58 countries, The Milk of Dreams embraces both living and late artists. From the early 20th century to present queer-feminist artists like Claude Cahun, Leonor Fini, Meret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning, Nan Galdin, Paula Rego, and Miriam Cahn who sorely inspire today’s LGBTİ+ artists took their place in The Milk of Dreams. There is one statistically accurate fact: for the first time in the history of the biennale, of all the participants this year, more than 90 percent are women or gender non-conforming. Yet the participants are female or gender-fluid; The Milk of Dreams is not a “women artists” exhibition. Rather than making an old-fashioned, tedious, and “male-minded” show, Alemani manifests the value of the queer-feminist perspective through her curatorial work and challenges the male-oriented history of the Venice Biennale.
The Milk of Dreams is not a “women artists” exhibition.
Though the exhibition is named after Carrington’s book and Carrington is known as one of the women artists who feminized surrealism, the exhibition does not aim to heroize Carrington: Her works are spread all over the biennale whilst some of the other artists like Paula Rego have their own room. Rather than glorifying the late female artists, The Milk of Dreams emphasizes sisterhood, symbiosis, and solidarity. As Alemani stated in the curatorial text, Carrington creates a world in which everyone can change, be transformed, and become something or someone else. With references to Rosi Braidotti, Donna Harraway, and Silvia Federici, Alemani shows the post-human theories that shaped the exhibition. She draws a historical line from the Enlightenment to the present, pointing out that many contemporary artists have challenged the “The White European male."
More Than Just a Coincidence: “Once Upon a Time” by Füsun Onur
I’m now finished visiting the exhibition and starting to wander around the national pavilions spread across Arsenale, Giardini, and other locations in Venice. Frankly, it’s inevitable to notice the huge quality difference between the works in The Milk of Dreams and the works in the pavilions. In my view, out of the 80 pavilions, Uruguay, New Zealand, Belgium, Great Britain, France, Venezuela, and Turkey are some of the ones worth mentioning. This review will focus on the Turkish Pavilion.
As one of the pioneers of Turkish contemporary art, when Füsun Onur was selected to present a new work in the Turkish Pavilion, many of us were profoundly happy. Although trained in sculpting, Füsun Onur is an artist who mainly creates room installations. Onur graduated from the Istanbul Fine Arts University, sculpture department and went to the U.S.A with a Fulbright scholarship in 1962. From the early stages of her student life, she has been challenging the boundaries of sculpture as a discipline. And she has evolved into a visual storyteller rather than being a sculptor.
When Füsun Onur was selected to present a new work in the Turkish Pavilion, many of us were profoundly happy.
For the pavilion of Turkey, Füsun Onur makes a room installation and calls it Once Upon a Time. The visitors are supposed to experience a genuine post-human fable beginning with a paragraph she wrote: “Once upon a time, years ago, human beings thought they could govern everything in the world, and left no forest, no fauna, no clear water. They left all their waste in parks, seas, and forests, consuming everything. Yet nature still had her rules...” The 21 platforms consist of particular scenes and tiny little figurines that Onur created out of everyday materials such as wire, ping pong balls, paper, and fabric.
Taking the leading role in the tale, Cingöz is a smart mouse with environmental anxieties. Zorba, the other main character, is named after her real-life friend cat whom she considers as her equal. In one of her interviews, Onur points out him and saying, “This one was wandering around when I was making the mice. That’s when I thought why don’t I reconcile them. I made them settle their differences and make peace. They’re going to do great things together.” As in Once Upon a Time, Onur’s practice is always open to spontaneity and improvisation.
According to her tale, Cingöz departs from Bosphorus to Venice by boat to save the world, and turns out that he falls in love with a Venetian girl. They marry right away and celebrate their love at first sight. The boat that is awaiting for them doesn’t leave, yet the newlywed couple does not appear. “Bir varmış, bir yokmuş” says Onur at the end of the tale, and this Turkish phrase hints at the existence and non-existence that “once upon a time” does not fulfill the meaning wholly.
Instead of a linear continuum, it’s a dream-like story in which cause and effect relationships are obscured. This open-ended story is meant to be completed by the visitor rather than followed. This is the playfulness that is present in all of her works. Inviting the visitor to the game is the main core of Füsun Onur’s practice since the 1970s. As I wrote in another article, Onur's works contain conceptual games. The “invitation to the game” is sometimes obvious, sometimes vague. The audience, who wants to perceive what has been done, has to be a participant, to spend time with Onur's works and to be involved in layers.
Instead of a linear continuum, it’s a dream-like story in which cause and effect relationships are obscured.
While I was wandering around and following the fable, I remembered the book Zorba the Greek. Zorba, a free, impulsive soul who dances, cries, laughs, and drinks wine, said something in the book that I’ll never forget: “The only way to save ourselves is to endeavor to save others.”
Once Upon A Time is deliberately curated by Bige Örer who is the director of the Istanbul Biennial and contemporary art projects at the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art. As I learned more about Örer’s curatorial work for the exhibition, I found some resemblances between the curator’s and the artist’s work styles: Creating their own scales in the time-space continuum, making tiny distinctions between things, and developing subtle approaches to exhibition-making. Some of the suspended platforms are seen from a bird-eye, while others are swinglike. To me, the lighting which is reminiscent of the Baroque style is also advantageous here. It is worth noting that the exhibition design of the installation was created by Yelta Köm and the lighting design is carried out under the consultancy of Erinç Tepetaş.
It’s also surprising to notice how well Onur’s work overlaps with the theme of The Milk of Dreams. When I asked her whether she knew the theme of the Venice Biennale beforehand, she responded that it was “just a coincidence.” But I know this is not a coincidence but the zeitgeist that Onur always keeps up.
It’s also surprising to notice how well Onur’s work overlaps with the theme of The Milk of Dreams.
Though Onur’s tale doesn’t only aim at the children, the child-like nature of Once Upon a Time is undeniable to any viewer. The tale is neither dystopian nor utopian; it includes the climate crisis and disasters as well as love, dance, romance, and music even if we don’t hear. In her pursuit of togetherness, Onur reminds us of the dualities of life. Even in the tough times of a global pandemic, wars and climate crisis; isn’t it that some of us still prefer to be hopeful, loving (and being loved in return), resilient, and joyful?
Nergis Abıyeva (b. 1991) is an art historian, art critic, and curator based in Istanbul. Currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Istanbul Technical University, she received her undergraduate education at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University Art History Department and Milan, Brera Academy. She holds an MA from the MSGSÜ’s MA Program in Western and Contemporary Art. Her writing has appeared in many periodicals and books. Abıyeva is the author of the monograph "Çağdaş Resmin Dervişi: Murat Sinkil”. She curated exhibitions such as Marvelous correspondences, subtle resemblances (Mixer, 2021), and An Another Atlas of Female Artists (Tophane-i Amire, 2022). She won a Research Grant from SALT for her research on Tiraje Dikmen’s life and art in the context of Turkish artists who went to Paris in the 1950s.