by Rahul KumarNov 16, 2022
The location: An 18th century cartridge factory used to produce war weaponry during the Ottoman Empire regime in Istanbul, Turkey.
The work: 64 swings with grass growing on the swing-seat, hovering above multiple iron trays filled with water, forming a base on the ground below.
Limbo, an immersive art installation created by Canan Tolon presents layered metaphors. Suspension and balance, chain and swings, lush grass and decaying rust, reflection in the water of this repetitive form, and all of this juxtaposed with the context of the history of the space itself. Tolon often likes to work with live, natural materials that change over time. At Limbo, the rusted trays make the water turn into a bright orange colour over time. The grass is watered periodically to keep it alive. Tolon also references aspects of life and death through her work. “Decay is not the end of life but the continuation of a process we often overlook. While the grass dies before our eyes, it continues to live in other forms invisible to our eyes”, she says. The symbol of the swing refers to both, memories of childhood and the precarity of contemporary life, while the reminiscence of a group of soldiers lined up links back to the history of the location. Trying to untangle the repetitive patterns and rhythms that dominate our lives, the artist created a complex environment suspended in time, balancing between cycles of existence and extinction.
The large-scale site-specific installation commissioned by Contemporary Istanbul Foundation for its permanent location, Cocoon Fisekhane, was on view until May 31, 2022.
I had the distinct honour of interviewing the artist, Canan Tolon, and curator Ayca Okay at the location of Limbo in Istanbul, Turkey.
Rahul Kumar: You have said that the venue of your work often informs the premise of it. How did the context and the history of the Fisekhane facility in Istanbul influence this work?
Canan Tolon: My work is very quiet in nature. I want it to reveal things difficult to put in words. And in order to achieve that, I have to do a lot of research before I come up with a project. I study the site where my work will be installed by taking some mental recording of the the light, the shadow, the sounds, the smell, the temperature, and various other details that may affect it directly or indirectly. The historical context of the premises is often part of the work. Its location, whether rural or urban, as well as its past and present, its uses, inform and complement my work and give it its form and voice. Fişekhane was built in the 18th century during the Ottoman era in Istanbul. It is a massive structure built with thick-cut stone walls for manufacturing guns and a variety of war weaponry. Now that it is revived as a multi-use cultural centre after many years of dormancy, it provides a large exhibition space for artists. With its giant chains and chimneys where the iron was poured, this massive structure still reveals the marks of its past activities of the war industry. Because I usually use live materials along with material that reacts and changes during the course of the exhibition, I thought it appropriate to juxtapose life and death – two extremes to complete each other in a very close proximity.
Rahul: How was the title of the installation arrived at – Limbo?
Canan: Limbo was the title of a book I worked on which was published in 1997 during the time when the world was entering extremely difficult and uncertain times…wars were popping everywhere. Limbo, to me, was the perfect definition of an uncertain, the in-between times of hesitation we lived expecting a blow that would put an end to the exhausting suspense. I decided to revisit the subject this year, after long months of uncertainty spent confined due to the COVID pandemic.
Rahul: In the context of the work, grass refers to life, and 'decaying' water in rusting iron trays speaks of extinction. However, it is serendipitous that over time you found worms growing in water, living, thriving, and leaving a trail of their movement. Do you believe then that nature will prevail and extinction is merely a theoretical idea?
Canan: Of course nature will prevail. It may subsist in other forms. Decay is not the end of life but the continuation of a process we often overlook. While the grass dies before our eyes, it continues to live in other forms invisible to our eyes. I often work outdoors and with natural materials, so I am familiar with the appearance of unexpected creatures contributing to the production of my work. This ‘incidental’ process is more apparent in my paintings, especially when working with reactive material. What was surprising was to see how they thrived in such a severely oxidised environment, although undetectable things are in constant flux.
So, to answer your question: I do believe nature will prevail. But we, humans, will certainly not survive. We are barely holding a fragile position, living in these uncertain times—hence the title of the installation— and we may fail this precarious balancing act.
Rahul: Repetition seems to be an important aspect in Limbo. What does it mean to you, metaphorically?
Canan: Repetition is what defines life. Life is composed of recurring cycles like days, seasons, years, and so on. As part of nature, we go to sleep every night hoping to get up next morning. Yet, it is also part of our nature to resist and fight against these predictable routines. We begin each day hoping to break away from the routine and repetitive daily tasks, striving for something extraordinary to relieve us from oppressive repetitions. Yet, when things get out of hand, we gladly return to what we thought was our cage. There is a certain amount of chaos within the orderly repetitions in Limbo and that reflects our constant tendencies to erode these hard-edged routines of our daily lives.
Rahul: What were the challenges you faced in putting this installation together?
Ayca Okay: The art space that Limbo is featured in is called Cocoon, located in a historical venue that has been used as a cartridge factory in the late 18th century during the Ottoman times. Therefore, during the preparation period, we faced several limitations regarding the historical status of this impressive space. However, working with an incredibly talented and easy-going artist like Canan Tolon made this process so much easier to handle. The preparation took 7 months, starting from the sketches of Canan, to building the architectural models of the installation, and then actually realizing it. The installation process consisted of producing the swings, the metal floor trays, and the overall load-bearing structure that puts all the pieces together. Canan, with the help of her architectural background, accurately calculated all the details for the installation to be able to hang without hurting the historical wooden beams and made the installation harmonious with the overall historical structure. Her architectural perspective and her incredible artistic sensitivity in putting together all the materials in a poetic order made it possible for Limbo to be realised in a way that was even more impressive than we all imagined.
Rahul: How has the audience reacted to the layered metaphors presented in this work? Suspension and balance, chain and swings, lush grass and decaying rust, reflection in the water, and the context of the history of the space?
Ayca: I believe the audience formed a deep and emotionally articulated connection with the context. The strength of visual elements and referencing the memory of the space have been the root causes that created this synergy with the audience.
“In the recurring uncertain times of epidemics, wars, and economic crises; man is almost in a limbo between life and death…” This statement is from my curatorial text. I wanted to express that we are all getting more and more disoriented day by day, just like in Limbo: we are in a suspended state of mind. Everything that we choose to forget in our lives comes back in a loop with repetition. Canan Tolon presented all these uncomfortable ideas in an inviting manner like it was a game. People who visited Limbo may find their own way of escaping the repetition and regretting being in a suspended state. Probably, this was not exactly what Canan intended while creating this installation. However, as she always does, she gave the floor to the audience again to find their own way of interacting with Limbo.