A laugh erupted from a visitor at the opening of Istanbul- based conceptual artist Serkan Özkaya’s first solo exhibition in New York at Slag Gallery. Continuing to chuckle at the sheer absurdity of Özkaya’s neatly typed correspondence with employees at cultural and governmental institutions—usually requesting some far-fetched artistic intervention—and each respondent’s practiced, deliberate bureaucratic language, the visitor stepped on another work, Proletarier Aller Laender (Proletariat of all Countries, 1998–2009), hundreds of two-inch-tall humanoid figures cut from red sponge and taped to the ground.
These exchanges, printed and mounted on the gallery wall, and a room littered with tiny, resilient proletarians, springing back with every trampling, formed the backbone of “Dear Sir or Madam,” as Özkaya attempted to answer the questions he posed after viewing El Greco’s work in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “If this is art, what am I doing? And if what I’m doing is art, then what’s this?”
In the exhibition’s catalog, curator Lilly Wei calls Özkaya a “merry prankster.” Yet the pieces also contain a dialogue with Özkaya’s many artistic influences and literary inspirations. In a discussion with the Bulgarian artist Daniel Bozhkov held a few days after the show’s opening, the artist described himself as “dedicated art-lover and reader.” Either way, Özkaya clearly has a lot to say. While the figures of Proletarier Aller Laender were what first drew the eye due to their color and unavoidable location, another work demanding attention was the five-foot-tall Goldenboy (2006), a fiberglass figure painted in gold acrylic and dangling a couple of feet off the ground by a noose. The figure is an enlargement of four young boys, evoking the dynamic motion of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912) with its multiple limbs, torsos and heads, all compressed together into one piece. Screening in the next room is David (Inspired by Michelangelo) (2005), a video showing Özkaya’s gold-painted double-size foam replica of the famous statue, which accidentally broke into three pieces when it was being mounted at the 9th Istanbul Biennial. David was never restored; its fully realized state is on film and in photographs. The artist has no qualms about divulging his inspiration, yet he leaves his work open to readings of the fallen hero and the untimely end of youth and innocence—a rare serious note in “Dear Sir or Madam.”
Özkaya’s humor returns in two other golden sculptures, Levitation by Defecation (2008) and Shit on a Stick (2008). In the former, a baby with an indiscernible expression sits on an enormous coiled mound of golden feces, and the latter shows two gold, blob-like anthropomorphic figures facing away from each other and linked together with a short green stick where their backsides would be. These two works, regally displayed on white pedestals, challenge the notion of art as universally and aesthetically pleasing—or even deeply cerebral. If this is art, then El Greco is either turning over in his grave or laughing there.
Nearly all letters on the walls, although untitled, form an integral part of Özkaya’s work and have an equally jovial air. Most respondents—ranging from a chief in the United Nations’ Public Inquiries Unit, who misspells the artist’s name as “Serban,” to a minion in the office of then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—politely reject Özkaya’s requests for financial sponsorship. In the case of the UN, Serkan proposed creating a Universal Happy Hour; to Chancellor Kohl’s office, he suggested wrapping the Reichstag in fabric and rope exactly as Christo and Jeanne-Claude had done in 1995. One recipient of Serkan’s obviously facetious proposals took him more seriously. In a letter from 1997, Kirk Varnedoe, the late chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, derided Özkaya’s request to hang an acetate sheet with a large, painted dollar sign in front of Piet Mondrian’s red-yellow-blue-and-blue abstraction, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43): “I am obliged to tell you that I cannot muster any sympathy for your request.” The joke is on Varnedoe, since his scathing response is now part of Özkaya’s ever-expanding oeuvre.