Representation of Social: An Experiment with a New Reality
Interview: Melike Bayık
Kazım Şimşek is an artist who works with multidisciplinary tendencies, feeding on reality in his artistic practice and addressing the reflections of the problems that exist in various structures of the society. The artist bases the social and class dilemmas he conveys in his works and the roots of the extraordinary figures and spaces, with references to actualities of today, on political and contemporary events. Şimşek presents his dark, depressive and unnerving impressions in his paintings as improvised and planned narratives while imparting a strangely true segment of reality to the viewer with some irony.
First of all, please tell us a little bit about yourself as an artist who works and produces in multiple disciplines. What does Kazım Şimşek deal with in his artistic and aesthetic practice?
I was born in 1987 in Ankara as the youngest child of a family with rural origins. My birthday coincided with approximately the same time that my family migrated to the city. Therefore, All my life, I have witnessed (and I am still witnessing) the agonies that immigration creates. This influenced my thinking style and production. I also worked at very different jobs starting in my childhood, from selling simit (bagels) on the streets to being a barber’s apprentice, from construction work to being a waiter and later an academic. I am a person who believes that people's ways of thinking are determined by their lifestyle and most importantly by the position they take in relation to social production. These were the sources and interests that fed my artistic practice. So social and class dilemmas… Nowadays, I am studying toward my master's degree and investigating how the classes are depicted in works of art as the subject of my thesis.
What can you tell us about the forms and conceptual frame of your works, which you briefly described in terms of content?
In terms of form, I try not to create a framework. But it is quite challenging and it is also a matter of dealing with habits and impositions in a way. I primarily do figurative works on canvas and paper. I want the formal and technical structure of my works to correspond to the emotional weight of the situation I construct in content. So the form is always something that can change for me. When it comes to content, the social and class dilemmas that we have just talked about are my focus points. I try to conceptualize these as specific moments in history and capture the social realities of those moments in essence. What guides me here is the dialectic method. I try to think of the past, present and possible future of the moments I depict together with their mobile, changing and constantly interrelated structures. So while the drawing is stationary, its theoretical background creates a fluid and moving story for me.
Fabrikada Polis\Faşizm Günleri 1, Tuval Üzerine Yağlı Boya // Oil On Canvas, 70x100, 2017
It is possible to see the class distinctions and differences within the social structure in your works in various disciplines. As you mentioned, figures stand out as your conceptual focus point. What do figures represent in your works and why are they important in your life?
If you have an academic background, you will deal with the figure some way or another at one point. For some of us, it turns into a habit over time. I think it was different for me. I have been drawing since childhood and have often drawn people. Today my academic formation tells me these are figurative drawings. But deep down, I have always thought that I was drawing people. When we say figure, I feel that we create a distance to them and they become quite cold and technical. But when I say I draw people, I always feel something different. I imagine them as beings that carry their own stories and live their own reality. For me, this has always been a very strong feeling.
Actually, when we look at your drawings, we see extraordinary moments and human representations. Could you elaborate your depiction of “beings that carry their own reality” about your figures?
Nazım Hikmet's “Human Landscapes from My Country” begins with the story of Galip Usta. Nazım Hikmet provides us with a portrait. Galip Usta’s portrait...
“Weak. Fearful. His nose is sharp and the upper parts of his long cheeks are pockmarked. The man on the stairs -Galip Usta…”
The story that starts at the Haydarpaşa Train Station offers the portraits of many people as it travels across the country. Each is independent of one another and yet equally dependent on the others. They all carry their own stories, like the story told about Galip Usta. But when they all come together, they actually create a big picture and story. What I mean by people carrying their own realities is rather like this.
"Bugün Günlerden Cumartesi", Tuval Üzerine Yağlı Boya // Oil On Canvas, 150x180, 2014
Moving on from figures to form, you work with oil paint, acrylic and ink in two dimensions and you also do collages. What can you tell us about this multidisciplinary approach?
Collage is a rather experimental field for me. Particularly because it is more practical than painting, it presents a strong point. But there is one thing I want to underline; art for me is a holistic thing that embraces life as a whole. So all things aside, it is a long process that enables the person to recognize himself. Even though content usually guides form and technique in my works, I try not to let it confine me. If we need to generalize, sometimes my works are improvised and other times they are stories, completely planned from start to end. I think that improvisations will offer us alternative ways and that there is so much more to discover about ourselves, life and art through those ways. Even though I mostly present the completely planned stories to the viewer, I spend the most time in my studio working on these improvisations. My disciplinary diversity is rooted in these factors.
So we can describe what we see in your drawings as improvisations and planned narratives with specific subjects. In this case, can we also say that you benefit from the surrealism movement in your works?
At first glance, I find it natural that they evoke such an impression on people. Some say that they bear similarities in terms of form. But surrealism has not been a movement that fed me or that I used. On the contrary, what I feed on is always reality. Andrei Tarkovsky's words are very meaningful for me: “Realism is striving for truth, and truth is always beautiful.”
As an artist that feeds more on realism than surrealism, where would you position your works in today's reality? Do you think your works could be an ironic reflection of today's reality?
We can talk about irony for some of my works. This is especially true in my productions where I consider the discourses of the rulers and the powers because we can see that such discourses often contradict with the reality of society. For instance, the “Perfect City” is such a work. I don’t think that the stories of heroism and success, which the rulers write as their own history, resonate with the lives of the poor classes.
Where do you find the subjects of your works and how do you create the content in the face of the conflicts within the discourse of political and patriarchal powers?
I mostly start from the political, socio-economic events and circumstances of societies. If I am dealing with a politicized issue, the reflexes and consequences of subjects of the same issue developed in similar terms in their own history, the drivers that determine these reflexes, similar examples and consequences of the same situation in history are the parts that interest me the most. In general, I try to capture intersections of similarities and histories for certain situations. If I focus on the more ordinary and everyday depictions that do not seem to be politicized and have a political, socio-economic nature in my opinion, the internal contradictions of these situations, meaning their everyday manifestations, their social perception and inherent conflicts become the core of my story together with individual histories. In this part of the work, more emotional or moral expressions than others stand out. The emotional interactions of the figures at the center of the work, this emotional state that is active and on the move emerge as situations that I need to grasp and express.
"Kadının Yeri", Kağıt Üzerine Akrilik // Acrylic On Paper, 170x310, 2009
Looking at your production, please tell us about the preparation process before you start to paint on canvas, mix paints or cut and paste to create collages?
Determining the subject first can be a multifaceted process of observation, information, situation obtained from any source. After mulling over it for a while, there is a brewing process. I usually expect this idea to mature in the background of my mind. This continues when I work on something else. When I decide to start, the research of the theory forms an important part of the work. The thought process where I consider the best technique and form for the narrative comes later. The rest is my battle with the material. The process continues as the material or I give in or take a little.
Going from your production process to the figures in your works, some figures present an apocalyptic factor while others portray and artificial happiness. First of all, who are these people and what is the correlation between the two different segments? And also, can this community be considered as a reflection of the present social structure?
Yes, I can say this is what I'm trying to do. I am striving to create such a reflection. I think of the people mentioned as individuals with characteristics that are specific to their class. The differences and conflicts among them come from their class affiliations. In my world, first the roles of these people in their production relations and the relationships they form with each other are conceived and then the reactions they give in moral and emotional terms are designed.
In addition to figures, there are always interpretations of places in your works. What is the place of these interior and exterior spaces in your works that support the narrative when analyzed in detail?
I can say that the place is increasingly becoming more important tor me. The place on its own can say much. But as a place where something happens, it will have much more to say. My work titles “Police in the factory” was a drawing that I thought about very much before creating it. My starting point was 2015 when Arçelik LG workers began a resistance to change their labor union. Riot police were brought into the factory to break the workers' resistance and apply pressure. One of the cornerstones of democracy in a country is assuring the rights and freedoms of the working class. If it does not exist, it means slavery, which cannot be a part of democracy. Another name of the drawing was “Days of Fascism”. The figure lying on the ground in the middle of the drawing comes from a symbolic photograph taken during the September 12 coup period. In fact, we see that the photograph is composed of people, who are wanted by the military, lying face down. The meaning that this scene with all its details carries historically is the same as that of the police in the factory. Similar events took place at the Tariş Plant in 1979, a year before September 12. This was one of the processes that brought the country step by step toward the September 12 regime. So I believe that the place where it happened has a critical meaning.
"Akrep", Tuval Üzerine Yağlı Boya // Oil On Canvas, 100x210, 2010
Can we describe your works, which involve such layered and heterogeneous indicators as well as indirectly constructed narratives between the figure and the place, as interpretations of a synthesis of western and eastern cultures?
Inevitably yes. An important part of our traditions comes from eastern culture. In this respect, they have considerable share in our personal lives and in the way we are raised. On the other hand, both the metropolitan lives we lead and the education we receive have western influences. Creating a synthesis in this duality is inevitable both for our works and for our personalities.
As we come to the end, how are the first encounters of the viewers with your works work considering the dramatic states of the figures or animals or the depictions of death and destruction?
I often hear comments that the works create dark, depressive or frightening effects. But nuances in the viewers’ comments always draw my attention. This is usually the case with the comments of individuals from different classes. This may be the reason why the hell of capitalist social life is not equidistant to everyone. The reactions of the viewers always change accordingly.
Last question. You mentioned a quote by Andrei Tarkovsky as a reference for your production practice. In his films, we see uneasy souls and world situations in a bizarre dream and their reflections. I can say there is an ironic and parallel balance between Tarkovsky and your works. Do you have drawings that bear indicators or openly follow the basic discourse of Tarkovsky's films?
I do not have any work that is directly based on Tarkovsky’s works. But his scenes have always influenced me. In this sense, “Stalker” had the most impact on me. It is an absolutely inspirational film. I also regard Andrei Rublev as a book to read repeatedly, turning pages and underlining sentences. An intellectual masterpiece, the story telling, as well as the philosophical way of thinking within the narrative always influence me.
Thank you very much for this insightful interview!
Thank you for your time.