ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Ege Okal as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Ege Okal is a Turkish artist based in New York. Her work assesses, reimagines, and reconfigures the material and experiential qualities of violence, space, gender, language, diplomacy, and memory through film, animation, installation, and sculpture. She received her BA in Visual Arts from Sabanci University, Istanbul and MFA in 2020 from Cornell University. Her work has been shown in Jack Hanley Gallery (NY), Pera Museum (Istanbul), Safe Gallery (NY), DOK Leipzig (DE), MIAF (AUS). She is currently teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and is the Co-Founder and Director of Elma artist-run space in Brooklyn, NY.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Ege Okal: In my moving image work, I examine stratified and splintered psychological behaviors of carefully observed real-life scenarios and amplify these appearances by emphasizing the emotions without a cathartic break. I use a diverse range of materials in my installations, from colonial trade products like coffee, corn or silk, to migrant food packaging (that are imported and mistranslated) and found objects, to more traditional sculptural materials. I am exploring potential ways of revealing and conjuring multiple meanings in a single work and investigating different degrees of precarity and the tension between fear and humor. The methodology is in the act of hand-working the artistic process. Both my artistic and curatorial practices involve collaborative thinking, participation, storytelling, and care. Co-founding an artist-run space has been an addition to this practice.
AE: Tell us about your solo show After this Town, After this Hill, After this Tree, which recently closed at Mélange Gallery in Cologne, Germany.
EO: The name of the show After this Town, After this Hill, After this Tree is a series of answers attached after another to the hypothetical question of “Are we there yet?”. Each of these answers scale down from one another, yet they point to no coordinates in time or space, but only to a promise. They are also geographical descriptions you could give to a person who is asking for directions – when the GPS is futile – and/or by a person who wants to slightly misdirect you for you to find the correct direction yourself.
I exhibited some of my work that I developed over the last 3-4 years when I moved to the States, reflecting on my experience as an immigrant. The exhibition consists of lightbox frames I made by closely studying and imprinting the aesthetics of immigrant food packages, and a screening on loop showing my Super-8 trilogy named Tourist (2019-2020). The works overall think about states of changing location, belonging to a place, being a tourist, and recording a story in beyond-GPS mental states.
AE: Where did your interest in food packaging come from? What themes are you able to explore through this medium? What are some of the works that you have created out of this research?
EO: When I came to the U.S., a big part of feeling at ease came from recreating the tastes of my home, Turkey. I started going to specialty stores to look for specific food products of my country, like pepper paste and so on. When you cannot find products you are looking for, you try finding them at your neighbor’s stores: the Greek store, the Armenian shop, the Bulgarian market. Soon I started noticing that these products were defined by a different order. They resembled the packages I knew from the regions but were not exactly the same. They were produced for consumption outside the countries of origin and categorized by different but similar signifiers. Some products were just named “Oriental Noodles,” assuming this is a large enough category for many ethnic groups. I did not know if these products were made in the countries of origin or in New Jersey, which opens up the question of dissemination and labor behind these goods. Going to these stores became a hobby, as if I was going to a museum.
I started collecting the packages and cutting them up and putting them in slides for slide projections. I did not photograph the packages but I directly used them as if they were film transparencies and I projected light through them. I wrote a small tongue-in-cheek story about an immigrant shopping experience in between the slides for my carousel. The work, Goldensmell, turned into a 80-slide photo-roman, or maybe a recipe.
Digital documentation of Goldensmell, 2019-2022, 80-slide photo-roman
AE: Where did your interest in photography first come from? In what ways have you experimented with this medium?
EO: It’s been some time since I have thought about this, since I have continually been photographing. However, I think it all began when my Kosovan immigrant grandfather started his apprenticeship in his teens at a photography studio in Beyoglu, Istanbul. When he had a family, they moved to Manisa and he started his own photography studio. My father and uncles grew up in the darkroom, retouching family portraits for better or worse. I spent a big chunk of my childhood (candidly) posing for my father and impatiently waiting for him to be done with his photography. He would climb up to the edges of trees and lie down on rocks, contort himself like any good camera person would do. My experimentation, on the other hand, is more existential, but also considers the history and material qualities of the medium.
AE: Can you tell us about your trilogy Tourist (2019-2020)? How did this project impact your practice as a whole?
EO: Tourist (2019 – 2020) is a trilogy of short films captured with Super-8 camera, widely used for home movies in the 60s, also by many experimental filmmakers. I examined culturally and socially significant public spaces and spectacles that are occupied or governed by a patriarchal economy of bodies. I selected these sites according to my physical and mental proximity and belonging. The sites are: Istanbul, a city I used to live but no longer do; rural America, a place I live now temporarily; and Brasilia, a project city where I don’t belong and only visited as a tourist. While I was filming I had some questions in mind in regards to what it means to film in this observational method? How can it find a non-exploitative yet revealing place under the weight of the camera’s violent history? Each film informed the one after, and eventually the work itself started to speak back to me, to a degree that I think they are informing my upcoming research.
Tourist (2019-2020), film excerpt
AE: Tell us about Elma, the non-profit artist-run space you founded with Chet Moye in 2021. What was the impetus to start this space and what were some of your most impactful projects to date?
EO: I graduated from my MFA degree during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and moved to NYC. I was being pushed into my future while the world was in a state of global crisis, isolation and anxiety. NYC felt as if it was stunned by trauma; small businesses disappearing and big money eating up even the crumbles. During this time, commuting to our art studio saved Chet Moye and me. Eventually, we decided to turn the front area of our street-level studio space into a project space, in the hope of breaking our isolation in this new city. We are located in an old-school art studio building in Dumbo. We used our Covid grant we got from the city and decided to invest in this space and indirectly invest in many artists we have shown.
I met Jiří Makovec outside on the street of our building filming with his Bolex, which drew me to talk to him right away. After looking at his work, he has become a jealous-inspiration to me as an artist. He has a generous eye for humankind in his delicately perfected street-style filming. His work is a reflection of who he has decided to become and it is tangibly there. Everybody who came to the opening of his show exited it with such openness and willingness to exchange feelings. It was beautiful. We were also rewarded with a deep pink sunset outside the gallery. When the double winged doors were open, it was as if we were screening to the street. Now when they ask me how I choose artists, I like to joke that my curatorial approach is finding people on the street. Other impactful shows were by artists Anton Varga, Anika Schwarzlose and Kyvèli Zoi.
EGE OKAL ONLINE: