Seymen’s painstakingly detailed pen and ink drawings of cryptic imaginary scenes and hybrid creatures cleverly combine living forms into nightmarish images -- images that speak volumes of emotional content. “Instead of the bust of an august founding father or revolutionary general, there would be ‘Daddy’ (2011), the steely ogre in military costume whose face is a pocket of amoebic eyeballs,” he continues.
The framed portrait of “Daddy” on the wall at the İstanbul-based gallery Rampa resembles an almost Monty Python-esque ink stamp of a monster-man, one of nature’s hideous anomalies, who slimed his way into a position of power. Perhaps he’s someone’s forgotten uncle from a foreign war, or a four-star general forever enshrined on a prison guard’s office wall. The dizzying juxtaposition of an MC Escher-style background of honeycomb cubes fights for equal time with a snake-brimmed visor hat and bubble-print shirt that surround the grotesque countenance. Our eyeballs are steaming with a stew of visual indicators that this guy is “trouble” with a capital T.
Seymen’s stunningly designed and quietly provocative exhibit, “Tohum ve Mermi” (The Seed and the Bullet), which opened on Nov. 13 and runs through Dec. 22, is in two parts. The first section has eight independent drawings and one altered old photograph that were influenced by utopian literature, psychology and philosophy. The second section is devoted to the multimedia components of “Sangoi,” fifty-two fantasy drawings (with a little tip of the hat to René Magritte) that are also transformed into a deck of cards, which are then used in a video.
Seymen’s world at first glance feels like an amusement park, or the part of the circus devoted to the bearded lady, mermaids and animals that sing. But staring at each drawing for at least five minutes unearths uncomfortable truths and searing satire that could be considered 21st century references to the 16th century “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” I refer to the medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch whose revolutionary triptych of that name revealed as many poisonous mushrooms among the fruits as Seymen ominously etched in “Surprise Witness I” and “Surprise Witness II.” This diptych, mounted on opposing walls instead of next to each other, are elaborate tapestries that also bring to mind the “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale where two lost children are in the dark woods alone. But in Seymen’s version, they don’t stumble upon a gingerbread house studded with gumdrops; instead they are thoroughly befuddled by a steely piece of factory equipment planted amongst the flora and fauna. In both pieces, the children’s eyes are blackened, as if they have been crying for weeks, or severely malnourished. “Children are political prisoners,” said Seymen, when I interviewed him at Rampa. “They always have allergic reactions to what is proposed. The more they are tamed by adults’ special tricks, the more they lose their wild side. Children ask ‘why’ and skip the middle layers of meaning. What I’ve put in the micro-details here is the stuff I would skip as a child,” he explained.
The 52 images in “Sangoi” are divided into four groups: “Fruits,” “Shoes,” “Weapons” and “Birds,” and miniatures of them are reproduced as a deck of playing cards. (Reproductions of the card decks are for sale at Rampa.) One of the drawings shows a mounted and stuffed stag whose eyes have morphed into the very rifle that shot him. Other examples are a leather boot whose toe end is a wolf’s open mouth revealing terrifying incisors, a duck whose beak has grown into a hammer and a fruit plant whose potentially edible product is a ball with spikes. Seymen put the card deck to use in a two-channel, 16-minute looped video with a continuously foreboding soundtrack. Four players are involved in a card game -- “actually two games,” says Seymen. “The viewer must pay attention to who is playing which game. And there’s no end, no way of winning or losing. We are the outsider, seeing what’s going on but we don’t actually know what’s going on. It’s a secret window on how social law works.”
So what kinds of things inspire this artist? Horror films or science fiction? No, it’s “the morning newspaper,” Seymen reveals. “It triggers my senses. I see failed utopias.” Also the paintings of Breughel, Eastern miniatures and Asian frescoes serve as design sources. “I wanted to work with forms without the need for color,” he says. But perhaps a deeper influence is the curious career of Bob Flanagan, the American performance artist about whom Seymen wrote his master’s thesis for Yıldız Teknik University. Flanagan used self-torture in his serio-comic acts on film and video. “For Flanagan, there was no borderline between life and art,” explains Seymen. “He tried to mount a project to experiment with an apple in a box, to let it disintegrate, as a rehearsal for his own death.” (Flanagan suffered from cystic fibrosis which killed him at the age of 43.)
So Seymen gives us a seed to plant a crazy idea which then grows into a bullet to the forehead. “But it’s not a death wish,” cautions Seymen, referring to Flanagan’s methods, but inadvertently making me think about how that paradox informs his own work. The bullet to the forehead is the realization that there’s a loaded flipside to seemingly innocuous objects and/or the oddball combinations of them. By using shoes to symbolize class identity, fruits for desire, birds for cultural identity and weapons for power, Seymen gives us an updated version of the Renaissance era’s cabinet of curiosities that challenges moral precepts.
In a way, he has already designed a new currency -- one that takes the bits and pieces of that failed utopia to construct a metaphysical money system that proffers a neutral point of view but with a prescient threat of its own capacity for self-destruction.
Rampa is located at Şair Nedim Caddesi, No. 21/A in Akaretler, Beşiktaş. www.rampaistanbul.com