Issues of identity and belonging are never far from the surface in Turkey, and have become one of the main themes for many contemporary artists. Serra Behar’s first solo show, To Remember, engages with society, personal history, and religion through 17 years of her work. Due to Behar’s training in fine arts, costumery, puppetry, and stage design, the theatrical aspects of group identity take center stage.
Behar’s issues with identity began at an early age as someone whose religious background did not fit the norm in Turkey. That in turn opened her eyes to the other categorizations that are common in this society. “Being Jewish in Turkey, you don’t belong to that community, but you also don’t belong anywhere,” she told The Guide Istanbul. “When you go abroad, they call you Turkish, so you don’t belong to them. When you come back here, they call you Jewish. Then they say, this is your team, Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe. There are tags everywhere. You’re an artist. You’re so apolitical. If you’re not left wing then you’re not one of us. That’s how I was raised, not by my family, who are very open-minded, but by the minds of everyone surrounding us.”
Looking at her personal experiences in the light of society, each of Behar’s works reflects a different stage in her life. “I’m not an artist of one subject. I work with the materials that help me express what I want to say at that particular time. It’s a way of trying to understand me actually, a kind of diary,” she says. The exhibition’s centerpiece is a wearable sculpture called Embryo/Belonging. Being able to enter the embryo sculpture, putting it on like a second skin, allows the artist to regress back to the first identity that she considers natural, rather than social or political.
Behar began her artistic training at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, an environment that personally she found toxic to her creativity. “I didn’t have any self esteem at the university because they put pressure on you and say you’re nothing. You feel so ordinary and miserable. The academics are like gods, and you just think, I hope he likes it. You’re always in front of a jury, like a Miss America stage. But you’re naked with your art, and they’re judging you. In that way you lose your self-esteem more and more,” she explains. The person who convinced her to finish her training there was Saim Bugay, a respected Turkish sculptor and puppet-maker.
Behar was temporarily freed from the labels and hierarchy that she had experienced in Turkey when she traveled to the UK on the Erasmus program. This freedom informed her work Paradise Bird, an animatronic sculpture that is trying to break away from the cables and wires that tie it to the ground.
“In Turkey, they tell you that you can’t be an artist until a certain age, or after a few exhibitions, or after your first solo show, or after working with a famous artist. But when I went to the UK, there were 18-year-old kids saying hey, I’m an artist. I was very excited by the joy that they felt in calling themselves artists. So I said, yeah, I’m an artist too, and I’ll produce more,’” she recalls.
Later on, Behar’s soul-searching led her to investigate various spiritual and self-development courses. Her cynicism about the financial motives of these courses informed her work Self-Deception. The leather angel on top of the box reaches up to heaven, but the coin-operated mechanism only gives it a slight lift, and the coin drops on the floor.
The work Organ Inc. grew out of the artist’s interest and concern in factory farming and genetic engineering. Behar created fliers for a fictitious company, Organ Inc., that grows replacement human organs in the bodies of pigs. Her motive was to show that despite our talk of animal rights, most people would accept such an organ to save themselves or a loved one. The sculpture’s skeleton is made from a mixture of real animal bones, such as cow, sheep, and chicken. Three leather hearts pump with animatronic motion while oinking sounds emanate from a hidden speaker. At the time of making the sculpture, this kind of organ production was not a real phenomenon, but as Behar explains, “About two or three years later, I saw in a magazine that they were actually growing human organs in pigs.” To Remember is on display at Adahan İstanbul from May 23–June 20.