İ Ata Doğruel: ‘I want to destroy the limits between life and art’
Pushing his physical and mental boundaries to the limit, Doğruel seeks to make performances from his life and to use the medium of performance art as a tool to enhance his spirituality and find a broader sense of life
by ANNA McNAY
With the launch, at the beginning of 2016, of Performistanbul, the first international platform in Turkey to bring together and support performance artists, the medium has been rapidly garnering popularity. The founding director, Simge Burhanoğlu, has established successful collaborations with many leading art institutions in Istanbul, and now works with 10 artists, mostly on a contractual basis. One of these artists is İ Ata Doğruel (b1991, Kütahya), who graduated at the start of the year from the media and visual arts department at Koç University in Istanbul, where, until recently, he had been studying law. Inspired by the likes of Marina Abramović and Tehching Hsieh, Doğruel’s long-durational work aims to push his physical and mental boundaries, focusing on concepts such as abstracting and endurance.
From 10am on 19 February to 10am on 21 February, Doğruel undertook a 48-hour performance, Endless Field, as part of the Performistanbul programme, in the Zilberman Gallery project space. During this time, the artist was blindfolded and wore heavy-duty headphones to block out all external distraction. The audience were allowed in to the space during the day, and, from 7.30pm to 10am, could observe Doğruel through the gallery’s glass doors, as he slept on a yoga mat. Basic food was provided in the corner of one of the two rooms and a bath full of cold water was there in case he should become too sleepy. The changing audience members were invited to attempt to interact, should they so wish. Photography and filming were permitted, and an official film was being shot for 15 minutes out of every hour, from which a short time-lapse film is to be made, which might function as a sellable edition.
Studio International met with Doğruel in the run up to his performance.
Anna McNay: You describe this 48-hour performance as a piece that aims to “stop communication with the outer world and delve into the depths of the mind” – the place you call the “endless field”. Can you explain a little more about what you hope to achieve with this performance?
İ Ata Doğruel: The main aim of the project is research into the human thinking process. In my opinion, with all the distractions of the outer world, we are restricting our minds. We can’t think in a way whereby we can experience our mind as a whole. I wanted to create a piece without the distractions of the outer world so that I could think in the core of my mind.
AMc: So you will be thinking. You are not trying to reach a meditative state where your mind is empty?
IAD: No. For example, I will be saying out loud some sentences or words so the audience can see my progress in the endless field. There will be some periods of meditative thinking, of course, but, at other times, some of my thoughts will transform into words, which will transform back to thoughts in the minds of the audience. Just as steps show my progress in the physical world, so words will be my steps in the endless field. These words will be how the audience is able to meet with my mind.
AMc: So, it’s a form of communication?
IAD: Yes, I want the audience to know where I am in the process. For example, am I feeling bored? Am I feeling crazy? What am I feeling? Words are important in this piece.
AMc: Do you have any idea in advance as to what you might say?
IAD: No, it all depends on how I am feeling during the performance.
AMc: Is there any specific preparation you carry out ahead of a performance like this?
IAD: I have been preparing by eating very little and getting myself into a low-energy state. During the performance, there will be sandwiches and other things for me to eat. I will eat my meals with the blindfold on. I will know where the food will be. I will know the set up of the space, so I will search and find my way. I will quickly be done with my eating and go back to thinking.
Generally, I have introduced some elements into my daily life so as to be ready for each of my performances. For example, for this piece, I will be sleeping on a yoga mat in the gallery, and it will be uncomfortable, but I have been preparing myself for uncomfortable sleeping for two years now. I lived in the library of my college for two years. I was sleeping on the couch. The light was always on, because it was a 24-hour study room. I also don’t use a smartphone. This is intentional so as to create a space for myself and my thinking process. I don’t like to follow Instagram or Facebook posts. This is also a form of preparation for this piece.
The foundations for my performances are in my life, actually. My creative process is about coming up with an idea for a performance according to how I live my life, not building my life according to an idea for a performance. For example, I don’t wear shoes outdoors in the summer. For the past two years, I have been to Çanakkale, which is a six or seven-hour bus ride from Istanbul, for my holidays, completely without shoes. There might be glass on the road, which might penetrate my skin, but if it bleeds, I would just see this as preparation for one of my performances. The foundations must be found in my life. Generally, I see performance art as a tool for elevating my spirituality. That is why I am doing this: to get a broader sense of life itself. My entire question is about what is life, what is this universe, what is human? And performance art helps me on my path to find a broader sense of life.
AMc: Have you found any answers about what life is? Is it actually answers you’re looking for?
IAD: I am looking for answers to understand life, yes, and I am using performance art as a tool. Sometimes I find a question is better than the answer, but I am generally looking for answers. For example, I did a piece where I didn’t talk for 13 days and, when I started, I thought that I was doing a piece about not talking, but actually it turned out that I found a whole other way of thinking. On the ninth day, I realised I was no longer listening in the same way as on the previous eight days. On the ninth day, I was desperate, unhappy, and one of my close friends was talking to me. I turned to him and looked into his eyes and was listening to his words and thinking about the words and synonyms for them and the structure of the sentences. It was all about his words, not mine. I realised that in dialogue we are not actually listening, we are preparing our answers. In that performance, I realised how pure listening could be and that was an enlightening moment. After that ninth day, I was listening purely. I accepted that I couldn’t talk, because of the rules of the piece, so I stopped thinking about my answers and just listened. This is the kind of thing I am trying to learn from my work.
Another example was in my first piece, where I didn’t eat for nine days, and, on the ninth day, I had a realisation about performance art.
AMc: In both of those instances, had you defined in advance how long the performance would last?
AMc: So how did you know when to stop?
IAD: If I get something meaningful from the piece, then I will stop. For example, in this 48-hour piece, if I find something really meaningful for me, I can quit.
AMc: And what was the realisation you had during the not-eating piece?
IAD: It was more of a bodily realisation, actually. On the evening of the ninth day, I was eating my first meal, ending the fast, and I made the mistake of choosing rice to eat first. It should have been soup or something. I got a spoonful of rice and tried to eat it but could not swallow because my throat and stomach had contracted. In that moment, I realised that I was taking the spoon in the same way as the Ata of 10 days previously, and there was a contradiction between my thinking and behaviour and my body. It was a spiritual revelation for me.
AMc: Are you able to carry these things that you learn in your performances on in your every day life? For example, the pure listening. Do you try to implement that?
IAD: No, because it’s impossible. But it’s enough for me to have the awareness and then keep on moving with other pieces.
AMc: You initially began studying law at Koç University. What made you cross over to the media and visual arts department, and what did you study then?
IAD: In my last semester of studying law, I began doing my first performance pieces – the hunger piece and the pure listening one. It was at that time that I first encountered performance art and decided I would try some pieces for myself and, if I liked it, I would continue, and, if I didn’t, I would continue with law. I really liked performance art, so I quit law school and moved departments. I just graduated last month.
AMc: Congratulations! Did you have to study other art forms as well? Did you learn to draw and paint?
IAD: No. In my third year at law school, I was completely outside of the world of law. I was not going to classes and my grades were dropping. I knew I needed something more and I knew that art had to be in my life. I started to search art on the internet. I don’t really have friends who are interested in art, so I was completely alone in my process. I have no background in art in my family. Then, one day, I came across the term “performance art”. I searched a bit more and was completely shocked – what I had been doing for a long time was actually performance art. It was an “aha” moment. I was searching for the tool in the art world that suited me and this was it.
AMc: Who were some of your first encounters in terms of performance art?
IAD: One of my first encounters was the viral video by Marina Abramović and Ulay when they first saw each other again after many years during her MoMA performance. It was weird, I just saw her and what she was doing was really like me. That performance was so me. In that moment, when I first saw the video, I didn’t know the term “performance art”, but I began to search for more information on Abramović and came across the term, and then freed myself from her, and learned more about performance art. Then I came across Tehching Hsieh, the Taiwanese-American artist, who made some one-year performances and even one 13-year performance. For one piece, he put himself inside a cage in his studio for one year. For another, he lived completely outside in Manhattan for one year. He works with extreme durations. I had been thinking about doing a piece where I would put myself in a gallery for six months in complete isolation, not able to write or speak or anything. I was searching for any performances similar to this and I found that he had done exactly what I wanted to do. It was a disappointment for me, but when I found out about his other pieces, it was inspiring. He goes far beyond the scope of an artwork. He is making his life an artwork, actually. And this is really inspiring for my work. I want to destroy the limits between art and life.
AMc: You are one of Performistanbul’s contracted artists. What does it mean for you to have a platform like this to support you?
IAD: If it weren’t for Performistanbul, I would still be continuing my work, but with far fewer opportunities. For example, I would not have access to a gallery or to materials.
AMc: So your performances might still be private performances?
IAD: Yes. Actually, my idea, before Performistanbul was established, was to move to Europe, maybe Amsterdam. I was thinking that I could make a living by working for two months and then using that money to create a piece for one month and then returning to work, and so on. It had been a year since I made my first pieces and I came across an interview with Simge in an online arts magazine. The title of the interview was something about there being no ketchup, just blood, and I knew that finally there was someone in Istanbul who understood what performance art was. So I didn’t have to move to Europe. It’s a unique opportunity in Istanbul. I took a proposal to Simge and she did everything else. This is really important for performance art and it’s created a space for me to concentrate on the piece.
AMc: Even so, how do you survive as a performance artist? You’re not selling any works …
IAD: Well, I’ve only just graduated. I didn’t want to take any job that would prevent my performance art work. I will have to have a job eventually, but maybe not for six or seven months, because we have scheduled performances for this period. And I am taking a little break after graduating, too. I graduated from a good university with a good major, but I could, for example, just take work as a waiter because, after 5pm, or whenever I would go home, I could just concentrate on my performance pieces. If you are a waiter, this is your luxury. In many other jobs, you have to think about work after work. I will be choosing my job carefully so that I have headspace. My performance art comes before all other things in my life.
After the completion of his 48-hour performance, Endless Field, Doğruel answered a few further questions about his experience.
AMc: How did you expect to relate to the audience, and how were your experiences with the audience transformed during the piece?
IAD: Before the piece, I didn’t have any plan to relate to the audience. I just stated in my message (given to the audience in the gallery) that I would be open to the audience. So I waited for them to interact with me while I was doing the piece. I knew that the main communication between us would be touching. There were a lot of people who touched me in different ways. I just welcomed them nicely and tried to make them feel the piece with me. The stone in my hand was another tool for communication. When I fell asleep, people put the stone back in my hand. Sometimes, I threw the stone and waited for someone to give it back to me. When the stone came back, it was like something coming out of the unknown. At first, I was more willing to communicate with the audience and I actually waited for them to find me. When they communicated with me, I tried to continue that communication. But, as time passed, I was more in a trance (fully in my endless field) and I was not thinking about the audience. When they communicated with me, I just waited for them to go away and leave me alone. But I didn’t let them feel this.
AMc: Were your other senses – smell, etc – heightened during the piece? Did you rely on them in a way you hadn't before?
IAD: I can’t say I noticed a significant difference, but my ability to visualise the rooms in my mind increased noticeably. My relationship with the space was based on my steps. After a while, I could easily guess that how many steps I would need to make to reach a specific point. I could see the setting in my mind. I hadn’t experienced such visualisation before.
AMc: Were there any moments where you felt as if you couldn’t continue with the piece?
IAD: Before the piece, I had some fears, of course, because it was completely unknown for me. I thought that there would be those moments where I might feel I had to end it. But, later in the process, I saw that my fears were unfounded. Mentally, I didn’t see the piece as a burden like Sisyphus’s struggle to roll an immense boulder up the hill. Rather, I ideated it in my mind as a good feeling or a journey, which combines the very basic unit of present time with a very primitive human act. That is why I enjoyed the process. I often let my thoughts come and go freely. I think, after a while, I was in an ocean of thoughts and all I could see was water. As it turned out, I didn’t speak after the first four or five hours because I wanted my thoughts to flow more easily. It was one single unit of time as a whole. This is why I didn’t feel that I couldn’t continue with the piece. Mostly, I didn’t feel the sense of time. I was lost in time. This kind of isolation from the sense of time made the piece easy for me. I was scarcely aware of my physical being. Rather, I felt that my existence became something abstract.
• Istanbul’s Pera Museum is presenting a performance programme, entitled Look Again, in collaboration with Performistanbul, 31 March – 2 April. Curated by Simge Burhanoğlu, Look Again will take place throughout the museum’s collection exhibitions. Doğruel’s performance Ambassador, which takes place on 31 March, focuses on the exhibition Intersecting Worlds: Ambassadors and Painters, drawn from the Orientalist Painting Collection. The performance casts a new light on the ambassador portrait paintings from the 17th and 19th centuries, reinterpreting them by discussing the notion of duality, narrating the meandering paths of diplomatic history and introducing colourful characters.