NEVIN ALADAĞBeeline, 2014, installed for “Borderline” at Art Space Pythagorion, Samos. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific



Art Space Pythagorion
Greece Turkey

At its narrowest point, the Mykale Strait separating the Greek island of Samos from mainland Turkey—and the rest of the Asian continent—is just 1,430 meters wide. In the main gallery of Art Space Pythagorion, which has a direct view across the strait to the Anatolian coastline, Nevin Aladağ has placed 15 wooden spools wound with thick black rope—each 100 meters in length, except one that is 30 meters—to represent the distance of this watery crossing, in an installation called Beeline (2014). That the rope was cut into lengths suggested the dotted black lines often found on maps to mark maritime boundaries. Yet it also hinted at bleak current affairs, such as the thousands of migrants annually trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the European Union, the severed lives their journeys represent, and perhaps even the tactics used by EU border guards (Frontex) that include slashing inflatable rafts to prevent desperate people from reaching safe harbor. Meanwhile, in the background of Beeline plays a sound piece, High Season (2014), a recording of beach-goers splashing in the water, children playing, and what is perhaps the sound of an arriving boat. But where is the craft traveling from, and who are its passengers?

NEVIN ALADAĞBorderline, 2014, still from HD video: 7 min. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific. 

NEVIN ALADAĞBorderline, 2014, still from HD video: 7 min. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Samos is just one of many Greek islands, like nearly all peripheral areas in southern Europe, confronting waves of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and countries in Africa (primarily Somalia and Ethiopia, in Samos’s case). Locally, in Samos, the issue has become urgent in recent years: in May 2013, two boats capsized and 22 migrants drowned; in early July, another six died in the water off the island; and the detention center in Vathy, the island’s primary port town, currently has several hundred more people than it was designed to hold. As curator Marina Fokidis writes in her exhibition introduction, “The Frontex patrol is as much a part of Samos as tourist operators. For each hundred people swimming in the clear blue waters in the morning there is a (much smaller) number of people struggling or even drowning at night.” All this is to point out that Europe’s efforts to sequester itself and its accumulated wealth—accrued historically, to a great extent, at the expense of the peoples and cultures of Africa and Asia—remain dubious, fragile and often run counter to the humanitarian values enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Nevin Aladağ’s exhibition “Borderline” does not explicitly address these tragedies, but, as in her practice over the last 15 years, she addresses the cultural fluidity of Europe’s population even as the EU has attempted to consolidate and fortify its boundaries. It’s relevant to note here that the artist herself was born in Van, in eastern Turkey, to a family of Kurdish and Turkish origins, but was raised, and lived her entire life, in Germany after her family immigrated. As such, she is sensitive to the dynamics and paradoxes of immigrant cultures. As Aladağ says in an interview in the exhibition booklet, “Coming to Samos for the first time . . . you realize again that being born on ‘this’ or the ‘other’ side is just coincidence—yet often determines everything.”

NEVIN ALADAĞBorder Sampling, 2011, still from HD video: 10 min 30 sec. Courtesy the artist, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, and Rampa Gallery, Istanbul. 

NEVIN ALADAĞBorder Sampling, 2011, still from HD video: 10 min 30 sec. Courtesy the artist, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, and Rampa Gallery, Istanbul. 

The line that delineates the two “sides” is plainly both very real, and very artificial, a strange ontological condition that Aladağ explores in another of the newly produced works for Art Space Pythagorion. While visiting the island in April, she chartered a boat to trace the contested maritime demarcation between Turkey and Greece. The seven-minute video piece, Borderline (2014), depicts the ship following, via GPS, as closely as it is possible on sea, a 1.5-hour-long voyage on this line. Whether the boat is in Turkey or Greece, it’s impossible to say precisely, but the artist shows viewers the craft’s wake “drawing” a line in the water—a line that is soon shifted and erased by the natural currents and waves. She remarked on an exhibition tour that the piece was about “making the situation visible” and what an “absurd thing it was to be ‘on’ this border,” and also how she felt the seasickness-inducing movement of the boat to be metaphorically related to this “nowhere-ness or in-between-ness.”

“Borderline” also introduced viewers to Aladağ’s past video works in which she has explored similar themes. Border Samplings (2011), for example, recounts an expedition on a research ship to Lake Bodensee’s deepest point—the coordinates of which are the meeting place for the borders of Germany, Switzerland and Austria—where at depths of 250, 200, 150, 100 and 50 meters, environmental scientists took water samples in a quixotic attempt to visualize the vertical axis of this line. Here, again, the tube-like capsules filled with water recall a broken, or dotted, line, while below the surface the water itself passes fluidly, indifferent to the imagined territories of three nations. Raise the Roof (2007) is a video of a performance by four stiletto-wearing female dancers, each listening to a song of her choosing, as they make marks with their heels on a sheet of square paper beneath them; Aladağ staged the event on the roof of a Berlin building that was in the border zone between East and West Berlin. An early, experimental work that captured many of the themes that Aladağ pursued in the last decade, Voice Over (2006) depicts a drum set left out in the rain, with water droplets making different sounds across its various percussive surfaces. These scenes are inter-spliced with footage of young German-Turks, many third-generation, singing nostalgic songs about being uprooted from Anatolia—songs that have been passed on from their parents or grandparents, but which they sing with a personal urgency. The three-channel video Session (2013), made for the 11th Sharjah Biennial, features percussion instruments Aladağ gathered from diverse ethnic communities within the emirate. They are shown rolling, bouncing, being dragged over sand and water, and subjected to natural elements that “play” the instruments in lieu of the human hand, so that they appear to attain their own agency.

NEVIN ALADAĞSession, 2013, three-channel video installation, still from HD video: 6 min. Courtesy the artist, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, and Rampa Gallery, Istanbul. 

While there are many other aspects to Aladağ’s wide-ranging practice, which were suggested in certain works in the exhibition—including her sculptural practice and her interests in public performances— “Borderline” took full advantage of Samos’s geographical position on the extremity of the legal entity that is the European Union to foreground how her deeply humanistic works undermine the fixity of geography and nationality. Aladağ’s works reveal that being European should mean much more—but in reality often means much less—than having this coveted yet highly guarded status of citizenship. It is an ongoing paradox of modern history and an enduring legacy of colonialism: the exclusivity that is so fiercely guarded by the same groups who espouse, and live under the protection of, “universal” values, and yet who do not see fit to apply it to others. Yet far from being polemical on that subject, Aladağ is interested in re-imaging how this reality affects people and how people overcome the borders that confine them.  

NEVIN ALADAĞSession, 2013, three-channel video installation, still from HD video: 6 min. Courtesy the artist, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, and Rampa Gallery, Istanbul.