Erkan Özgen was born in Derik in Mardin province,Turkey, and graduated from the Department of Art education, Cukurova University in 2000. His artistic path began in 1998 with a contemporary art exhibition «Young Activities» in Istanbul, and internationally with «In Den Schluchten des Balkan» (2003) exhibition curated by Rene Block at Kunsthalle fridericianum, Kassel. He has also organised workshops in Beirut, Damascus, Diyarbakir, Enshede and Helsinki. In 2005 he received the «Prix Meuly», Switzerland. He is also a teacher and a founding member of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement. Erkan Özgen was an ARTIST-at-RISK Resident at Safe haven helsinki by Perpetuum Mobile (PM) and was an artist in PM’s 1st AR Pavilion, Athens 2017.
“We were living in the fifth season of hell in Diyarbakir. We needed to take a breath after the destructive atmosphere of the war over the last two years”
Marita Muukkonen and Ivor stodolsky: From 2003 to 2009, you worked with well-known gures such as René Block and Harald Szeemann, and were acclaimed for your humorous work «The Road to Tate Modern». In the following years, did you re-focus your energies? We know you became part of an ecological movement in eastern Turkey. Was this a conscious turn?
I have been continuing my artistic journey without the support of an institution or gallery over the last twenty years. For an artist, lack of opportunities is equal to being unrecognised, but I believe that risk of being unrecognised or forgotten triggers creativity and strong artistic productions. I get inspiration to produce art from the life that I live in.
The city and region that I live in has been an economic and politic target of the government. I have been negatively affected by the government practices, also for showing my resistance by participating in the Mesopotamian ecology Movement (MeM). MeM has been active ecology movement since 2011. Unfortunately it has not developed as we planned due to political oppression and war conditions in the region. However, many things have been done and ecology councils established in many towns and cities. One of the main aims is «stopping» the ecological and societal destruction of the war in the region by creating a change to rebuild a society in peace with itself and the environment. As an artist I am part of nature. I need clean water, healthy food, and a peaceful world to survive, like all other living forms.
In the summer of 2016, you stayed at the «Artists at Risk» AR-safe Haven Helsinki Residency with your family. Why did you apply for the residency? What was the meaning of the residency for your artistic and other projects? Can you tell us about the new video work you started to lm on the island of suomenlinna?
We were living in the « fifth season of hell» in Diyarbakir. We needed to take a breath after the destructive atmosphere of the war over the last two years. So I decided to apply to the program. In contrast to the situation in Diyarbakir, Suomenlinna was a relaxed tourist destination. I noticed some common things between these two places, however, and was inspired to make a video. The army in Diyarbakir used heavy weapons and armoured tanks. On Suomenlinna, historical cannons are located around the island, which is in fact a UNESCO heritage site. The cannons attract tourists and they often take photos around them. To me, this was very interesting, so I recorded how they behaved around the cannons. I had the chance to talk with some of those tourists. I asked them, «why are you attracted by these cannons? Did you know that these cannons were made to kill people,and they actually killed many? These weapons are murderers. What do you feel when you touch a murderer?» I received some responses like «These were made a century ago. They are not in use any more. They’re just remains.» Military tanks were used in the central neighbourhood of Diyarbakir called Sur. I wondered if UNESCO would include those in its records of world heritage too. I continued to wonder if people would take photographs around those tanks, which were used to kill hundreds of people and destroy their houses, like the cannons on the island of Suomenlinna.
You have periodically been subject to a travel-ban by the Turkish government. Why do you think they issued a personalised travel ban? You are one of 11,000 of teachers that were suspended from their jobs by the post-coup Erdogan government, but then reinstated. What are the current charges? What can be done to lift this ban?
Like many of my colleagues, I was the victim of an unjust decision and practices of the government under the state of emergency. The travel ban is/ was due to my participation in a strike organised by my union. The theme of the strike was «Stop war! Children want to go school, not to die!» Despite our anti-war stance, we were charged with supporting terrorism. The level of oppression rose dramatically.
ARTISTS at RISK (AR) will be in Transeuropa in Matadero (Paseo de la Chopera, 14) with AR-PAVILION, an exhibition with AR-Resident artists Pınar Öğrenci and erkan Özgen. It is curated by Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky, the Co-founding Directors of Perpetuum Mobile (PM).