Text by Anna Gien
For Sonja Yakovleva and Murat Önen, it is the moments of absence amid those of total visibility that raise questions of power, representation and visuality. Their work incorporates the impossible places, silent instants, untold stories and artistic practices that are rejected by the patriarchal system of high culture. How can one produce from a place of inaudibility? How can one view from a position that is completely paradoxical? And how can one hide and reveal oneself in front of eyes that already know what they have seen before they see it?
“Where the fuck is she?” rings through the dimly lit cinema hall during an episode of The Girls of the Playboy Mansion, as Hugh Hefner sets off to find Kendra Wilkinson, who seems to have disappeared in one of the 29 rooms of his Gothic-Tudor mansion. If one really wants to find out about the woman, one has to ask where she isn’t, for the precise reason that she is everywhere.
The Frankfurt-based artist Sonja Yakovleva confronts this moment of absence as a point of transition between a view from nowhere and an imagined feminine retrospective. Glorious histories, uncelebrated celebrations, kitsch epic poems, gigolos and female struggles become motives of a study of the unstated, the unseen and the placeless.
The Playboy Mansion, depicted in its own narrative as a place of effervescent public life beyond the realms of bourgeois prudishness, can also be viewed as the symbol of a Disneyland-esque fortress of male exclusivity. Despite its hyper-present presentation of “femininity”, it is a place that is ultimately inaccessible when seen from the perspective of a woman: the only chance of gaining access is by serving drinks half-naked with a pom-pom on your behind or dressing up in a bunny costume and sitting around on the laps of prominent men.
Yakovleva inverts the economies of visibility. In Playgirl Mansion, the female is placed at the point of voyeuristic subjectivity, the zero point of the camera obscura, from which the Playboy Mansion becomes an imaginary amusement park for toy boys. A scenario that emphasises the impossibility of the female gaze of the male body: it is not coded as a showplace of lust in the way that the female body is. Where is one looking from and what is one looking at? How can the position of this zero point, the blind spot, be described at all? And by what means can it be transported to the position of the observer, narrator and creator?
For Yakovleva, the medium of the papercut functions as a complex technique of visibility and invisibility. On a simple level, one sees things that aren’t there. The intervening space of the shadow forms the line that circumscribes the depicted body. This is one of the basic operational modes of erotic photography as well as the artistic and literary principle of pouring flattery on the female subject (“curvy stars”), something the artist breaks with not only her choice of motifs but moreover the technique itself.
While a line drawn on paper almost inevitably bears the signature of the creator within itself, “cutting out” can also be seen as a productive practice of erasure that stands in contrast to the apparent “harmlessness” of handicrafts. As although the technique of paper cutting is a millennia-long tradition in China, in Europe it mainly calls to mind kindergarten crafts.
For Yakovleva, the cuttings, created using a great deal of material and effort, function as delicate battlefields of comprehensive decryptions. As well as playing with the idea of scissors as representing a conceptual threat of castration to the male-coded jargon of high culture, Yakovleva also humorously employs motifs of kitsch, trash and social media worlds. Between bodies inflated like castles in the air and overflowing poolscapes, she creates images that acquire the unspeakable appeal of pleasure and in which a liberal self-conception can be felt.
These are images of a pompously reshaped transience, reminding us of the connectedness of declining tsarist empires and the living-room temples of the Kardashians; they serve as the setting for Yakovleva’s backward-looking imaginations of a glorious female history. Yakovleva resurrects figures such as the cicisbeo and the gigolo as historical representatives of Italian gallantry in the 17th and 18th centuries, using them as instances of a forgotten narrative of male courtesanship. The figure of the female pirate Anne Bonny functions in a similar way: her story wasn’t retold by the protagonist herself but carried forth by the rich imagery of erotic male fantasies, which depicted her as an impetuous battle-axe. Yakovleva makes her over-formed images speak for themselves, exposing the explosive power of femininity as a category of omission.
In Yakovleva’s images, femininity manifests itself beyond its figurative and representational depictions and appears as a functional principle of creative negativity. Thus, the inversion of the impossible, the forgotten and the unsaid has an effect on the level of reception: the extraordinary amount of effort and material that goes into her pieces play with the attributes of “laboriousness” and “being diligent”. These ascriptions are more likely to be applied to tasks that are female or domestic in nature, or to eager schoolgirls, in contrast to the narratives of artistic genius reserved for men. In Yakovleva’s work, this diligence becomes a destructive force and the medium a showplace for excess.
Düsseldorf-based Murat Önen’s paintings create peculiar snapshots of calm in the midst of great commotion. They capture moments of solitude and security in places where they are rarely sought: in the ecstatic intermediate spaces of basement clubs and beach bars, among muted sounds and stroboscopic lights.
Born in 1993 in Istanbul, Önen’s encounters with Berlin’s club culture has had a lasting impact on his painterly practice. Far more than attempting to relate the ecstatic frenzy, his work becomes a quest for traces: for the fabric of the spaces, for the physiology of their sounds and their silence.
His figures seem untouched by the light that falls upon them. It seems to come from an undefined place; soft, but devoid of temperature. Önen’s paintings capture fleeting impressions as an uncanny afterglow, recording them with a remarkable serenity. Tangible instances and brief moments of reflection emerge from the gentle, electrically lit environments and artificially temperate rooms that call to mind the ramshackle melancholy of tanning salons and American amusement parks.
Being alone, waiting for something, but not knowing what. The magical pull of nightlife and entertainment industry rests like a veil over the surface of Önen’s work. Renouncing the sharpness of details in favour of an overall softness gives rise to figures that initially appear more as typologies than fully fledged characters. But it is this unspecific approachability that makes them so appealing: they all appear as silhouettes of an immediate yet undefined yearning.
Önen’s paintings are haunted by familiar faces and forms that seem to briefly emerge from among the light and objects, finding a moment of rest and attention within his scenes. His work blurs the individual body and the entertainment industry’s production of photographic corporeality into analogue, aura-laden images: a closed-eyed cowboy with a lit cigarette or the grinning face of a fetish mask appear to the viewer as lucid, ghostly apparitions. Among these ambiguous but familiar figures from pop culture, Önen approaches the question of masculinity in the form of a melancholic yet humorous confrontation with desire, that is gradually revealed as a yearning for closeness and belonging. The figures seem to be familiar in a way that childhood heroes and Disney characters are. This familiarity creates a particular sense of closeness, which enables them to turn from illusionists and marginal night-time figures into symbols of an unobtrusive feeling of security.
Although masculinity and sexuality are addressed in Önen’s works, the figures within them seem strangely incorporeal. The physiognomy he creates is one that finds expression in its isolation. Individual bodies lit by artificial light or entwined, holding onto something – either someone else or themselves. Where are the boundaries of these bodies, the representations of which are symbols of a yearning for freedom and excess? Whose body are we considering here? What is the physicality of loneliness?
For Önen, the studio is the antithesis of the animated, people-filled spaces of the outside world, the clubs and the bustle of the city. It is a place of solitude. While photography used to play an important role in Önen’s earlier practice, functioning as a juncture between memory and the present, his work today is primarily based on momentary mental impressions, loose associations and free-floating images. Thus, the space defined by these bygone experiences, encounters, memories of movement and stasis is an open one. It is where juxtapositions, impressions and degradations emerge, stay a while and disappear again.
A ray of light caught in a glass, a refuge from emotion of that seems to linger for a second. Önen creates scenarios that are detached from both their material and their settings. Instead, they appear as outward manifestations of an inner tenderness, one that often remains as a gesture, a humorous hiatus in the realm of allusion.