Baris Gokturk: Danse Macabre in Public Spaces: Painting Euphoria and Madness in Times of Crisis

Baris Gokturk, working on All Saints at The Boiler@ ELM Foundation

Baris Gokturk’s installations are intricate, layered, and admirably ambitious in both meaning and form. The Turkish born New York based artist asks the big questions – what is his role as an artist, individual, immigrant within the larger context of a world in crisis? In All Saints he exhibited at the Boiler space at the ELM foundation he combined imagery of dance and fire into a monumental installation.

I first saw your installation work, All Saints, at the Boiler @ELM Foundation in summer 2021. Tell me how it started and what is the idea behind this colossal installation.

When the ELM Foundation approached me to do the project at the Boiler, I had just had my exhibition, Public Secret, at Helena Anrather Gallery with the body of work I call the Fires_Riot Paintings. I have been working on these paintings for a number of years. They first started out as a response to Gezi Protests in Turkey, in 2013. The Gezi protests, now simply called Gezi, takes its name from the park where people were protesting the government for trying to raze the park in order to build a number of ideologically significant buildings for the regime. Similar to the precedent popular uprisings in history, Gezi marked a particular moment for a generation in Turkey. Although faced with this resistance, the government ultimately “postponed” its plans and the park was saved for the time-being, the protests were brutally suppressed and used as a justification for an increasingly more authoritarian regime. A sense of depression and defeat descended on many young people who had participated. Nevertheless, Gezi also paved the way for other popular initiatives in Turkey in the form of people’s assemblies, farming communities and new NGOs joining the struggle to reclaim the public space. These protests prompted me to question through my work my position as an individual and an artist in relation to the larger scale of history. I became aware of my limitations as an individual, as just one body in one place and time. The questions for me were manifold: What should I do? What is my role: citizen, immigrant, expat, artist, person?

My response as someone from there but living abroad created another double-edged challenge in how to approach popular dissent there and elsewhere from a universal point of view that brings together conflicts in various places I am connected to, including the USA and Puerto Rico, without losing the local sensibilities of each struggle. I started that body of work about Gezi right around the time of the Baltimore Riots in the US. I was interested in making a universal connection between dissent here and dissent there without losing the particularities of each. As a result, those paintings focus on various fires started during these protests and think pictorially through the surface of painting about the dual potential of fire, in its destructive but perhaps also regenerative possibilities. That body of work, and the summer of 2020 with all the racial injustice and political unrest in the midst of COVID pandemic paved the way to All Saints, my large-scale work at The Boiler. After focusing on fires started during the protests for a number of years, in All Saints I worked with the idea of dancing in the public space of protest as a form of defiance that speaks of joy, revolt, and acknowledgement of life and death.

The relation between dance and death has its own roots in art history, particularly during the bubonic plague in Europe. Death Dance (Danse Macabre) paintings created around this time featuring people from different social classes dancing hand-in-hand with skeletons, acknowledging the proximity of life and death are a genre of their own in this context. A little later, Brueghel’s depiction of town dances establishes a similar connection between euphoria and madness at times of crisis. The block party, a particularly dear phenomenon in New York, can then be understood as the modern version with its history of bringing a whole neighborhood together on the street. Thus, affected by the ongoing pandemic and inspired by the collective longing for bodily expressions, I wanted to create a connection between the ongoing Fires_Riot series and this exploration of dance in the large-scale work for The Boiler at ELM.

Additionally, Melinda McCoy’s vision at ELM Foundation was to bring an artist into The Boiler area to make work specific to that space, which pushed the monumentality and gave me a chance to undertake a project at that scale. The show closed with an actual block party organized by St.James Joy, and that felt great.

All Saints, 2021, image transfer, polymer, ink, acrylic, netting, 16x24FT

In most of your sculptures in the series titled You can Hold Yourself Back, you incorporate found materials in more or less their original form and coalesce them in a sort of assemblage. Some include faces and some are completely abstracted. What are your thoughts on this body of work?

In my sculptures, I work with found imagery or events from history where the singular body of the individual is confronted by the larger body-politic, the state. How each person decides to act in certain situations of this sort has fundamental implications for all of us.

To this end, I pursue found-stories across cultures. I am interested in slippages in language, mistranslations and misunderstandings since my own life experience is grounded in a series of cross-cultural dynamics. The gap in understanding between different cultures, even different oppressed groups, races and gender can be depressing and tragic but also fertile ground for a larger understanding to push for.

I sometimes pitch two found-events against each other, compare and contrast through the process of rebuilding historical documents, photographs and archival imagery about those events or individuals overlooked by the mainstream history in three-dimensional layers, hybrid fragments and installations that oscillate between drawing, painting and sculpture. I rebuild the photographic image as a physical surface first, and then peel it off as a displaced piece of skin that I reapply to other found or sculpted objects in relation to a specific historic moment echoed in current events.

I’m interested in exposing, dismantling and restructuring existing relations between the larger scale of history and the intimate sphere of the individual. The scale relation between the individual body and the larger body-politic, in the way each influences, internalizes, provokes and corrupts the other is also where personal and political mythologies cross over, resulting in charged ambiguities.

To give an example, The Kozmonaut (2018) starts off with another found picture of both the personal tragedy and state fiasco of a failed space mission, and builds upon a network of individual and political references while attempting to reconstruct the photograph in real space as sculpture: a paradoxical impossibility since the event itself is only accessible with an archival photograph trapped forever in a two-dimensional picture-plane.

The Kozmonaut, 2018, polyurethane, papier mache, xerox paper, metal , 40x30x15IN

Tell me about Junte.

Junte is an arts and culture project founded in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico in December 2016 by a group of eight local and international artists, including myself. It operates under the cordial support and mentorship of Casa Pueblo of Adjuntas, a legendary self-sustaining environmentalist community organization.

Junte came out of extraordinary circumstances and provided extraordinary consequences. I was at a residency at a moment when I also had just gotten access to land in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico where I spent part of my childhood. Hoping to challenge traditional models of land ownership while creating a meaningful space for arts and culture in the town, I opened up the project in a letter to other artists I respected.

In the winter of 2017, with other members of Junte, we built a platform in the forest open to the public. Since then, Junte created and participated in various art projects. Among them were a video-performance piece in collaboration with San Juan all-women barber collective La Barbera. As part of the project, we visited the University of Puerto Rico students on strike inside their barricades. La Barbera hairdressers gave the striking students shaves and haircuts while conversing about “the future”.

Platform_Junte, 2017, clay and cement, 13FT diameter

Barber Talk, University of Puerto Rico Student Strike, 2018, video-performance

All the Coolest Most Memorable Historical Moments is a series of abstract paintings with fragments of hinted representation (from when?). How do you see this series of painting in context of your sculpture and installation work?

All the Coolest Most Memorable Historical Moments is an old body of work in which I was building relief surfaces based on collages I made out of google image searches of US political and military catch phrases such as “Extraordinary Rendition” or “Constructive Ambiguity”. I would then paint the same collage on the relief-surface but off-registered in relation to the relief. I was trying to carry over the conceptual slippages between word, image and meaning to slippages between sculptural form and painted image.

Clear, Hold and Build, 2015, ink, acrylic, oil, alkyd, latex, polyurethane on canvas, 74x82IN

Untitled (Fires_Riot_07), 2020, ink, acrylic, image transfer on linen, 72x80IN

What are you working on these days?

I am currently an artist-in-residence at ISCP in Brooklyn, New York. Going to graduate school at Columbia University really extended my vision and belief in work across media. I continue to work on a new series of paintings as well as a project in Turkey called The Mine, a multi-disciplinary, site-specific project operating in-between spaces of mythology, politics and economy. Using a meerschaum mine that I recently gained access to near the city of Eskisehir in North-West Turkey as a starting point, the project considers the underground as the space beneath where both creative and destructive energies nurse their potential in form of raw materials and economic activity as well as mythological stories and human imagination.

Meerschaum, raw and crafted

Baris Gokturk holds an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. He also holds an MFA in painting from Hunter College where he taught for seven years. He currently teaches at Pace University and Parsons School of Design and runs an art program for Johns Hopkins University’s neurology department. He was recently an ApexArt fellow in Seoul, artist-in-residence at YADDO, and a participant in SOMA Mexico as well as Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Recent museum exhibitions include Pera Museum in Istanbul and SECCA in Winston-Salem, NC. He recently completed a mural for Columbia University’s Butler Library and a commission by the Public Art Fund as part of Art on the Grid. He is currently an artist in residence at ISCP, working on upcoming projects in New York, Venice, and Eskisehir, Turkey. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: