TEXT.ME Young Curators
The ordinary fight or fighting the ordinary?
On Elif Satanaya Özbay’s ‘Boxer, Ring, Cycle’
By Sara Mari Blom
Close your eyes. Listen. Pounding beats, insistent, irregular grunting. Familiar and eerie at the same time. Following this loud distorted sound opens the way to a large, darkened room – magnetic, albeit repulsive.
The first thing you see as you enter is the steady, green and red flashing of numerous lights, thirty-two each. They reveal the exposed backs of four large LED screens. Evoking an octagon, they seclude themselves from you as you enter the room, greeted only by the sight of naked cables and lights. Entering is an intrusion into a foreign space, uncertainty, confusion. It sparks an almost incriminating curiosity, a spellbinding eeriness.
To the right, an open door, thick and heavy, invites you into a small vault. It awaits you brightly lit and almost empty. Stuffed tank tops lie scattered on the floor. The soft material contrasts with the sweat stains adorning them and their label: “wife beaters”. Once you have entered this room, it fills with an oppressive sense of confinement. The tank tops beckon you to interact. At the same time, the sound is almost unbearably loud. The two speakers are positioned like guards on the left and right of the door.
If you venture out again, you follow the sound to the front of the LED screens. Contrary to their usual function as a fully utilized imaging surface, they remain largely black. Instead, they even swallow your reflection. Staying there, you become the observer of a fight. At irregular intervals and for varying lengths of time, a boxer appears on a different screen, each time in accordance with the sound. Wearing a white tank top, you only see his back, bent arms and shaved head. He throws punches against something that escapes your view. The louder the sound, the longer he is visible. Still, his disappearance is more present than his appearance. All three – the boxer, the light and yourself – are swallowed up again and again. The rhythm changes, becomes faster, harder, but the result remains the same. You wait for something that doesn’t happen.
Then, sentences appear in the middle of the screen: small sans-serif words from left to right. Poetically abstract, they tell of what is missing – control – and of what occupies this gap – the abysses and nightmares from the furthest corners of our thoughts. Then the screens turn black. A short pause, and the fight begins again. The boxer is caught in an eternal loop, repeating every 4 minutes and 21 seconds. You want to leave, but you can’t break your gaze. Who will give up first? You or the boxer?
‘Boxer, Ring, Cycle’ is the apt title of this immersive experience, created by Elif Satanaya Özbay. It is exhibited in the framework of Media Art Friesland. The Leeuwarden-based foundation focuses on talent development and presenting the work of emerging artists from the Netherlands and abroad. After launching an open call, the MAF team chose fourteen different artists for the Young Masters exhibition titled Here and Now. Curated by Irene Urrutia, the artworks were presented from September 24 to October 10, 2021 in a partly abandoned office building near the central station.
Elif Satanaya Özbay graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2013 and completed her Master’s degree in Fine Arts and Design at the Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam in 2019. Born and raised in the Netherlands with Turkish roots, Elif (1989) operates at the intersection of ongoing tensions between belonging and othering, identity and representation. “I don’t want to talk about class, I don’t want to talk about cultural restraints, I don’t want to talk about racist communities that we live in. But I always end up talking about them anyway.”
Elif understands herself as a translator of diasporic experiences. In her work she searches for ways of abstraction. Starting from the core of her work, which is very personal and family-based, she adds layers and layers of things surrounding her perception: from personal emotions and shared experiences, to the oral history of Turkish culture, to pop culture and various components of entertainment. Through this accumulation, she processes personal as well as shared powerlessness and thereby detaches herself from it. “I cope with everything by working on it, by finding different symbolic vehicles that could translate these sorts of fears and anxieties that I have.” As a multidisciplinary artist with a focus on audio-visual art, she creates immersive experiences of image, sound and space, constantly interwoven with the element of the uncanny. She finds a strong transformative force in genres like horror and all kinds of monsters residing within it. Brought to the extreme, it offers her an almost fun perspective on diasporic experiences and involved trauma, and thereby opens up new ways for artistic translations.
Her work ‘Boxer, Ring, Cycle’ is shaped by all these components. It deals with privileged visibilities and the unheard voice of those who have to fight for display. “It’s almost like a devil’s deal. You have to be this aggressive to have this much screen time.”
Similar to the building where it is displayed, her artwork deals with things not serving their intended purpose: largely blank LED screens, suspense instead of entertainment; a fight without a visible opponent; an open vault; experiencing a lack of information. This unreleased tension captivates the viewer. It’s a push and pull of inner and outer horrors, of wanting to stay and wanting to go. It’s waiting, but waiting for nothing. Yet, the adrenaline stays.
The feeling of not being allowed to watch already existed from the very beginning of the artwork’s creation. Without prior agreement, the footage was filmed in an unplanned situation: Elif doing test shots with her smartphone while her brother was boxing. Working on it for almost three years, Elif converts this vulnerable, personal experience into an abstract, aggressive question: “What can he become if the editing is in my hands?” Supported by distorting the original sound to be louder and more mechanical, Elif altered her brother until his being got lost completely. All that remains is a game character, a ghost locked in, observed, exposed. In this context, aggression transforms into a simple means for it is the only way to exist. “Instead of talking about toxic masculinity, I would much rather like to talk about love and how that is missing in this narrative.” Despite being trapped, the boxer left traces of his existence. Hence, the cushion-like tank tops embody what he has been deprived of: tenderness, intimacy, simply being allowed to be. “This hopelessness is a very present element in a lot of diasporic communities.” Elif confronts the viewer with the fact of always having to fight, having to work harder and continuously in order to be visible – and in the end losing oneself in the process. “That’s where I am as an artist. Within this threshold. I want to be able to focus on things that do not have anything to do with my background or the situation that I am in. I guess that is my own battle.”
Within the production of ‘Boxer, Ring, Cycle’, Elif was very close to canceling her work due to its personal component. MAF provided her with a framework to experiment and to allow her work to grow during the process. This also allowed Elif to develop further as an artist. The MAF jury recognized this growth and awarded her work with the Young Masters Award.
As a visitor of the Young Masters exhibition, it was Elif’s artwork that resonated with me the most. I’m not talking about immediate delight — I was rather captivated by it and wondered why. Unlike the other works, Elif’s artwork claims the site for itself. It is present. This does not only apply to the room itself. Moreover, it guided me all the way through the exhibition space and mentally accompanied me while leaving. For me, ‘Boxer, Ring, Cycle’ is a work for which my interest grew the longer I studied it. Questions, feelings and thoughts developed slowly at first, then faster and more numerous. Eventually, I left with lingering excitement. Although not all of Elif’s intentions are comprehensible to the viewer, their inherent feeling is conveyed. According to Sigmund Freud, the uncanny does not arise in the strange. Rather, it appears in irritations of the familiar, in the ordinary. We often accept our reality, our normal, as given. ‘Boxer, Ring, Cycle’ illustrates where this can lead. “You know that you are fighting – but would you choose something else? Maybe not, because you also feel very safe within this fight. It’s the only thing that you know.”
So, I close my eyes again and listen to myself. What do I fight for and where do I feel safe? Am I haunted by my battles and react in old familiar patterns? Or do I manage to take a step back to find other ways to overcome it? I’m excited to follow Elif as she discovers more and more of these ways, and thus watch her art and voice grow in strength and confidence.
About the author
Sara Mari Blom (she/her) is a costume designer and young curator based in Bremen, Germany. Influenced by both the world of theater and film as well as participatory work with children and youth, she is always searching for connections between image, text and audience. Inspired by constant exchange and dialogue with her environment, Sara Mari understands her practice as a searching, questioning and thus dynamic process. Her work is driven by the desire for sensitive and honest discourse, safe and open spaces, and reflective, appreciative collaboration.
Sara Mari Blom is part of the second edition of TASAWAR Curatorial Studios and IFA fellow of the Cross Cultural Program 2021.
Portrait (c) Marion Coers