I am here. Where are you?

Carlos Kong

[after Füsun Onur, This story will continue at ChertLüdde, Berlin1]

This story begins in media res—"into the middle of things.”2 That is to say: it doesn’t begin but has been ongoing, moving through and back again, until it snatches us into its recurrence.

I am here. Where are you?

Ground floor. The room is empty. Except for the voices. A singular voice emanates from four small speakers, one in each corner of the room. The voice’s sparse sentences are dispersed consecutively—clockwise, if I remember correctly—across the four speakers. One voice multiplies into four voices that circle in time. Any sense of individual character is abstracted into a fable of collective experience.

Are you upstairs?

Upstairs, the rooms are also empty. Except for the umbrella. The navy blue umbrella with white flowers leans against a wall in a room too narrow for its height. The photographs I glance at now disavow what I remember: the umbrella is actually various shades of green, with green and gold flowers and an off-white triangular pattern. Did the umbrella turn blue because it was already dark out, the late autumn sky casting its shadow onto the emptiness?

It is very dark. Cloudy. Pouring. Rainy outside.

It is very cozy inside as usual.

Dıştan İçe İçten Dışa [“From Inside Out from Outside In”] at Taksim Art Gallery, İstanbul, 1978. The first time Füsun Onur presented her artwork alongside a self-authored text: “…Yet the meaning should increase with the viewer, should guide him to creativity, should influence the artist so that there arises a dialogue from the artist to the viewer and from the viewer to the artist…”3

This weather reminds me of a day years ago.

Perfume spews from mechanical diffusers inside the two empty rooms before and after the umbrella. The first perfumed room is the landing atop the ladder leading upstairs. The second room is up the stairs behind the umbrella. It’s as if this room has shrunk, its uncannily low ceiling could graze the top of your head. Like something of a dollhouse or a room for a child from a bygone era.

Do you remember?

There are two basic words, each composed of a word pair: “I-You” and “I-It.” I and You presuppose one another. I only exist in relation to You, the other that ratifies my existence. “Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation...One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.”4 (Martin Buber)

It was a day just like this.

And I was in Berlin for a group show again.

Regarding the speaker’s accented voice in English: after an internal back-and-forth, I refuse to unmask opacity. The dangers outweigh any necessity of speculating on, or finding out, the speaker’s gender or ethnicity or nation. It is enough that the accented English marks a voice as not like a native speaker.5 This body in this place, the metropolis: a romance of migration.

Just as I was ready to go out, my umbrella was lost.

To write about Füsun Onur in a way that attunes to the artist’s time, her shapeless forms6 of play, fantasy, and refusal throughout an artistic practice spanning (at least) the last five decades. To interrupt given (self-)mythologies; to resist orientalizing originality which, erasing geopolitical specificity, renders artists “from Turkey” as in-between here and there. Too early and too late, and beyond the frame. To write with Füsun Onur in a way that would tell the story otherwise—

I was at the door. Helpless. Hopeless. Gloomy. Then I heard:

“Here is your umbrella, madame. May I help you?”

“The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter."7 (Martin Buber)

“I was stunned. It was you. My hero. You, wanting to go out.”

“May I accompany you?”

[pause, exhale]

We walked. Talked. Laughed. And stopped. Suddenly, you broke the silence.

“May I invite you to my house? To rest? Drink a tea? We are just in front of my house.”

Füsun Onur conceives of her work in musical terms. Opus, Prelude, Fantasia, “What the Earth Sang."8 Music of silence, built from arrangements of objects extended in time: “Emptiness must change with extension, so that emptiness is changed with each visitor. These are things I wanted because it is a visual counterpoint. It’s without sound. Because it is visual, it is quiet. But isn’t music silent before it starts and after it has ended?"9

So, our story began. So forth.

I scour around for the remnants of what happened, but there’s nothing to be found. All that’s left is this house, this room, whose absence bears witness to absence. So I resort to inventing what I can’t see, what remains within.

Do you remember too?

“Fabula”: the basic unit of a story, its building blocks, its content. The components of a fabula are ordered into a series of events to produce a story. The story becomes a text when told, relayed by a narrator, turned into spoken and written signs. “Logically speaking, the reader first sees the text, not the fabula. The fabula is really the result of the mental activity of reading; it is the interpretation by the reader, influenced both by the initial encounter with the text and by the manipulations of the story. The fabula is a memory trace that remains after the reading is completed."10 (Mieke Bal)

What did you say?

“In the first years, people who came to my exhibitions looked down upon if it is done in Turkey because they want to see exactly the copies of the other works of art they have seen in Europe or United States. My work was too much for them, so sometimes I thought I was crazy. But it didn’t matter if people understood. I was following myself."11

It is very dark.

I will go upstairs.

In secret: from the balcony, the sound of the M10 tram whirring down Danziger Straße recreates the sound of waves. When darkness settles, it transports me to the coast of the Baltic at night.

Now, you are gone forever.

Nothing left here. Not even a note for me.

The perfume’s scent is an indistinct floral, a generalizable exterior. I struggle to conjure an association or memory. I am here, but I can’t place it.

“A golden rule: to leave an incomplete image of oneself…"12 (E. M. Cioran)

I hope you have gone away.

Didn’t want to talk face to face.

In naming you as “my hero,” you unwittingly enter into the third person; You become It. I’ve can no longer find my copy of Émile Benveniste’s “The Nature of Pronouns.” But I cannot expel from my mind the cutting sharpness with which he describes how the notion of “person” only exists in I and You and is lacking in the third person: how personhood is destroyed when I becomes It.13

“This, however, is the sublime melancholy of our lot that every You must become an It in our world."14 (Martin Buber)

No, you didn’t tell me anything about your health.

Only three weeks ago we talked on the phone.

I project the story I’ve inherited onto the one I listen to. The primal scene: that when your father (my grandfather) died, you were told—lied to—that he had gone on a trip. Gone away, in the place of death. The repression-substitution of an eternal departure into a temporary leave-taking.

You did not die.

My hero cannot die.

The tension between self-actualization and self-evacuation, being and nonexistence, between I becoming You and It in three works by Füsun Onur:

[trans. “THIS PLACE”] scrawled in pink paint on a sheet of iron on the floor—
I am here, in this place. Where are you?
(BURASI, 1993)

(4.8.1992 – 16.8.1992)
inscribed on a slab (of metal? stone?) on a patch of grass in Prilep, Macedonia—
a tombstone for the living.
(FÜSUN ONUR, 4.8.1992 – 16.8.1992, 1992)

written on a name plaque atop a chair wrapped in chains15
the symbolic annihilation of personhood.
(Untitled, 1993)

I will never know.

I am ready to believe you moved away.

I hope you are healthy and went away

I wish you are somewhere in the world. Happy.

The opening scene of Je Tu Il Elle [I You He She] (1975):

Chantal Akerman sits in a wooden chair with her back to the viewer, facing the wall. A mattress and a dresser with a mirror to her left. Over the black and white image, she narrates: “And so I left. A tiny white room…on the ground floor…as narrow as a corridor…where I lie, motionless…and alert…on my mattress."16

I will never know.

The unanswered call catches me in its return. Inside, my mind races, translates, in an attempt to face the encounter. I traverse the languages that have never been and will never be mine, despite that some dwell within, while others have been forgotten, yet to be reactivated. Amid reduction via agglutination, the words eventually emerge: Buradayım. Neredesin?

It will be buried here with the umbrella. Unless the walls whisper

“There is much we must try not to remember. There is much we must attempt to dis-author. In wishing anonymity in reading, we are also wishing it in writing."17 (Maria Fusco)

I am leaving the perfume you liked here.

Maybe, someday or one day, you will come back.

Contoured by the loss of today, I wait for this story to continue, but cannot imagine its return. Or else I must invent what follows, to shift the orientation of everything away from its departure. I remain in night, knowing you will appear in shadows. And facing the walls within, I falter.

I am here. Where are you?

  1. This text was written as an imagined dialogue with Füsun Onur’s exhibition This story will continue at ChertLüdde, Berlin (6 November 2021– 5 December 2021). For more information and installation shots, see here. The italicized text is borrowed from the exhibition’s audio work; errors might have occurred in transcription. 

  2. Horace, Ars Poetica, 145-147: “Nor does he begin the Trojan War with the egg (ab ovo) / but always hurries to the action / and snatches the listener into the middle of things (in media res).” “Good epic poets do not commence their tale from the beginning—ab ovo (with the egg)—as Horace states, but rather descend in media res (into the middle of things), a reference to the Iliad opening already many years into the Trojan War.” Jonathan Foote, “In media res,” in Confabulations: Storytelling in Architecture. London: Routledge, 2018, p. 185. 

  3. Quoted from the Füsun Onur’s self-authored exhibition text of Dıştan İçe İçten Dışa at Taksim Art Gallery, Istanbul, in 1978. For the whole text, see Margit Brehm, Füsun Onur. For Careful Eyes / Dikkatli Gözler İçin, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2007, p. 81-82.  

  4. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970, p. 58. 

  5. Rey Chow, Not Like A Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 

  6. Shapeless Form is the name of an artwork by Füsun Onur from 1971. 

  7. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970, p. 58. 

  8. Opus, Prelude, Fantasia, and What the Earth Sang are all from titles of artworks or exhibitions by Onur. 

  9. Margit Brehm, Füsun Onur. For Careful Eyes / Dikkatli Gözler İçin, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2007, p. 101-102. 

  10. Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, p. 9. 

  11. Spoken by the artist in “Füsun Onur – Silent Music”: https://vimeo.com/89235530

  12. E. M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born, trans. Richard Hower. Arcade: 2013, p. 177. 

  13. “It must be seen that the ordinary definitions of the personal pronouns containing I, you, and he, simply destroys the notion of “person.” “Person” only belongs to I/you and is lacking in he.” See Émile Benveniste, “The Nature of Pronouns,” in Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1973, p. 217-212. 

  14. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970, p. 68. 

  15. For an image of Füsun Onur’s Untitled, 1993, see here

  16. Chantal Akerman, Je Tu Il Elle (1975), https://archive.org/details/je-tul-il-elle

  17. Maria Fusco, “The Critic as Gesture,” in Art Writing in Crisis. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2021, p. 126. 

Carlos Kong is a writer and art historian based in Berlin. He is a joint PhD candidate in Art History at Princeton University and in Film Studies at Universität Mainz, where he researches queer afterlives of migration between Germany and Turkey in contemporary art and film after 1989. His criticism, essays, and text-based artworks have appeared in magazines (Texte zur Kunst, Flash Art), catalogues (Kunstverein Göttingen, C/O Berlin), and artist-run publications
(Pilot Press, Failed States). He has curated programs at HKW Berlin, Moderna Galerija, and Independent Curators International.