Born in Istanbul, Turkey (b. 1989) Gulsah Mursaloglu is an artist living and working in Chicago, IL. She received her BA from Bogazici University (Istanbul,Turkey) in 2012 where she studied sociology and she received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL) in 2015. She has shown her work at a variety of venues, including Sullivan Galleries (Chicago, IL), Richmond Art Gallery (Richmond, BC, Canada), Roman Susan Gallery (Chicago, IL) and she also participated in the 2nd Santorini Biennale in Santorini Greece. In 2013 she was a postgraduate artist in residence in Scuola Internazionale di Grafica Venezia in Venice, Italy. She was recently awarded a Teaching Fellowship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she is currently teaching.
The experience of distance—smelling a thing inches away from my nose and then understanding it from afar with my eyes—is where my work begins. In making, I turn back, look far away, and remember. Then I turn forward and search within what is present around me. I find materials and objects and imagine their histories. Then I embed them within absurd and precarious systems that monumentalize them, giving them responsibility. These systems are non- functional and they are built on multiple dependencies. They are fragile and they operate on a strange sense of balance. It feels like the system can fall apart, collapse any minute, but it’s holding on. A pulley comes from the ceiling and gets connected to the water tank with a telephone cord, little jars of cinnamon move through cables and become popcorn.
Making my work is a very physical process; my hand is present in each piece. Surfaces, textures, and the sense of touch are all important elements. Touching is a big part of communication in certain cultures and it is a way of showing presence: it createsa senseof intimacy. The sense of intimacy is a substantial part of my practice in two ways. Firstly, my pieces invite the viewer to get intimate with them. By constantly shifting the scales within my sculptures and installations, I try to create intimate viewing environments for the viewer. I create small parts within the pieces that the viewer can see only by getting very close and moving their bodies physically around the piece. I use the element of smell through spices and oils to create an inviting sensory experience. Secondly, the use of ephemeral materials allow my pieces to take on a life of their own, which requires me to be intimate with them on a regular basis. This also brings in the element of time. Pieces change slowly; smells fade away; water levels go down. The work responds to its environment.
I build my work with a poetic sensibility and I aim to create a sense of unity within the multiple parts/materials of my pieces. I try to create an organic relationship within each piece in which parts feel essential to one another. In a certain sense, each piece becomes a microcosm with its own set of rules and relationships. Though this new context may give the materials and objects new aspirations, it does not rewrite their humble origins. Rather, viewing my work presents an opportunity to travel over these distances: from insignificant to astounding, from a child’s play to an adult’s observation, from near to far, and from the kitchen to the monument.
Q&A with Gulsah Mursaloglu
Interview by Kaveri Raina
KR: Hi Gulsah! I remember chatting with you when we were both interviewing at Hunter, and then I saw you while I came in for interview at SAIC! What a small world!
GM: That is so funny; I was meeting so many people at the time and running into the same people at different interviews. I am glad we both ended up at SAIC.
KR: It’s been great getting to know you and your work at SAIC while I was a first year MFA student and you were a second year. You just graduated this May, how does it feel to be out of school? What was your experience like in grad school? Do you miss the artist community?
GM: I think most people tell you it’s going to be really challenging and shocking to get out of grad school, but I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but then once I had to leave my grad school studio it was really difficult. When you’re in grad school you get used to being surrounded by artists who are working all the time, you get used to the company, studio visits and conversations that are stimulating. So after grad school I rented a studio in the same studio building with some of my friends to have that company, support and conversations. I think what is most challenging after school and I am still working on that is to create studio time. So I am teaching, also doing some installation work and then in between also trying to fix studio days to be here. We also just started this reading group; we meet every other week on Friday nights and each week one person chooses the reading and then we discuss it as a group. This really helps to keep the conversation going and having a sense of community.
KR: Any particular memories from SAIC, or any advisors that stuck out?
GM: There were several people I really enjoyed working with and one of them was Richard Rezac. I thought he was a very invested advisor, someone who is always thinking about his students, and he would always give me very helpful advice and bring me great resources. Also he has a great sensibility towards material, which was particularly helpful for my practice. Laurie Palmer was another big influence; she was my advisor, I was her TA and I also took her seminar. So I was in multiple different situations with her, and I learnt a lot from her conceptual approach to matter and materials around us. She also always assigned really stimulating readings that were eye opening in many ways for sure. Susanne Doremus was another great advisor I had. She has a great eye and I always trusted her vision, sensibility and advice.
KR: Since graduation what have you been up to? Do you have plans to stay in Chicago?
GM: Right now I feel invested in Chicago. I really enjoy teaching at SAIC. It’s going really well and I enjoy teaching drawing. I really like the student body I’m working with. Chicago offers a lot for emerging artists, and I really like the community here. So I think at least for a couple of years, I am planning to stay around and then you never know what happens, but I do not have immediate plans of moving somewhere else.
KR: Congratulations on receiving the Teaching Fellowship at SAIC! Was teaching always a passion of yours? How do you balance your teaching and studio time?
GM: Thank you! It has always been my passion, and it really feeds my practice. Trying to explain art to someone else is a process that I find really fascinating. Because everyone has their own preconceptions about art and most students come with their own understanding of what art looks like, and what is finished and unfinished and what does it mean to do a drawing. I really enjoy the multiplicity of perspectives teaching provides and it allows you to have a larger sensibility. So I really like teaching and hope to continue.
KR: You have a great studio space! Can you tell us a bit about your studio practice?
GM: Having a proper studio practice is still something I am trying to figure out. Ideally I would like to come here everyday. Sometimes it’s just coming in and looking at things, or if I don’t feel like doing anything I read or look. I think my work includes a lot of looking. Looking from here, looking from there, looking from multiple places or sometimes just being here and talking to my studio mate. But I feel like I need to be here everyday in order to maintain something, and that’s been hard for the past month but in the future I am hoping to find that balance more. Usually when I am in the studio it takes like an hour to get into business, because in my work there is a lot of figuring it out. Doings drawings and searching for things is also an important part of my studio practice. It’s a lot of composing.
KR: I think art making can be very boring at times. Making the same things over and over—how do you escape boredom or how do you embrace it? Is being bored okay? I see artist friends who have a great work ethic and can go on for hours and hours in their studio—something I cannot do. How do you not get frustrated and keeping creating?
GM: I actually don’t find boredom as a struggle in my work. I don’t get bored easily and I always try to come up with a family of objects that have many elements and that are in relationship to one another. So each project takes a month or two. And at this point I try to think of each project as a whole installation, and it changes a lot in the process. Right now I am working on a piece, which has this specific type of salt that dries, and sucks water out of things. The piece also includes toothpaste, sunflower seeds and a gyroscope. So I am using a lot of materials that we interact in the practice of everyday life. Material investigation is an important part of my work and I do a lot of tests and experiments. If I can’t find anything to do I just do tests in my studio. I also usually have my titles prior to executing the piece. So I have a lot of parameters before starting the piece and within those parameters there is a lot of circling around during the process. I guess I don’t get bored. My work comes along with a lot of epiphanies, and there is a lot of fascination with materials. I do think though being bored is perfectly fine, but I think the repetitive parts of the process let me get lost in the materials and I really enjoy those parts. I was listening to this interview by Anselm Kiefer, and he was saying in his own intense way that being bored is actually the only time you really realize your existence. I think that can feed into the work.
KR: I know you recently assisted artist Manish Nai install his artwork at Kavi Gupta here in Chicago—what was that experience like? I love Manish’s work!
GM: It was the first time I assisted an artist making his or her own show. I was attracted to his work as well. It was a great experience working with Manish. We had to be instructed on how to do the work and it’s was a repetitive process and meditative as well. I really related to that aspect of the work and getting lost in the making. Doing installation jobs really help me because it teaches me what goes on behind the scenes in the gallery. When you see the shows everything is perfect so it was a nice experience to see how things come to that state. I also really enjoy the problem solving part, when something doesn’t work and fail how you adjust and manage things is very interesting for me.
KR: I see you have experience with a few residencies—what is the importance of going to artists’ residencies for you? Do you have any suggestions for emerging artists?
GM: When you are going to a residency you really need to be in the mindset. I did a residency in Italy in 2013 and I wanted to do this particular one because it was at the same time with the Venice Biennale. I got to spend a lot of time at the Biennale and there was so much happening in Venice. So it was a lot research and it opened a lot of doors. I think when I go to residencies I need to be prepared with all kinds of materials because you don’t know what you will end up needing so for me it is good to be in the city. Venice is a very different city and it was an amazing experience to be there; I did a lot of drawings for future pieces. I will be going to Vermont Studio Center Residency in 2016. I will be there for a month and hopefully get a lot of work done! I think residencies are great but you need to think about particular things you are going to need and the purpose of it. It really depends on what your practice needs and feeds from. Think about what you need from the specific residency/location. I recommend applying to a lot of things and forgetting what you have applied to and then being surprised!
KR: How do you deal with rejection?
GM: For me being motivated is very important and I always remind myself why I am doing art. I am not a very competitive person, and I always think of my own path and not worry about others. Competition can get you down very easily. I try to think of myself as a separate case and I believe everyone has his/her own pathway when it comes to art.
KR: I remember coming to your second year lecture at SAIC. Your lecture was very poetic and thoughtful, and your writing was incredible. I was immersed in your work and loved the way you spoke about it by including a story. Can you please tell us a little about your background—where you were born/raised and how that influences your installation pieces?
GM: I wrote that text specifically for that lecture, and I think for me when I go to artist lectures I like to learn more about the artist and how they came to the point they are now. I strongly believe that our life experiences and who we are as people affects our practice. I wanted my lecture to be really honest and sincere. It took me a month to write that text for that lecture and it was a process that I really enjoyed. I have another one coming next month so I will have to change it according to the audience.
I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey and my father was working in a city called Hatay. He farms cotton there. For us life was always divided between two cities. Certain things about the landscape of Istanbul really affected my work. How people deal with failure and a slower sense of time that is present there were also big inspirations for me. When objects, systems fail, you rarely find the source material to fix things, so you’re always searching for materials that can replace one another. This creates interesting patterns within the landscape and it’s a logic that also got into my own work. Also I have always been interested in different production systems. My father was farming and my mom was working for a concrete company/factory in which they had huge concrete batching machines. Relationships of production, sources of things and the order of the things around us have always been interesting questions for me that got woven into my work throughout time.
KR: I love the way your statement flows. You talk about in your statement; ‘Making my work is a very physical process; my hand is present in each piece.’ Can you elaborate on that? Can you also talk about ‘touch’ and how that is an important part in communication? How does this translate in your work?
GM: For me touching is a big part of communication. In Turkey touching is a way of saying ‘I am here’ and also touching has always been a way to get to know things for me: for example whenever I would go to the market with my father he would touch all the vegetables before buying; a particular way of touching to understand what is going on in the inside of something. Now when I make my work I always think of it as collaboration between my materials and me. I strongly believe that the materials have their own agencies; they reject certain actions and accept certain ways. This all affects my work and the sense of touch really communicates to the viewer through the presence of the hand.
KR: Can you explain the significance of materials you use to make your sculptures/installations? How long does it take you to make a piece?
GM: For me departure point of each piece involves looking around a lot and a set of epiphanies. Usually at first I’m attracted to different materials then I start researching them; both conceptually and by making tests and experiments. The final step of making is to try to make sense of everything and figure out a way for them to work all together. It takes me around 1-2 months to create each piece; it takes a long time. I was really struggling with this in grad school because everyone around me was producing so much. I was always showing change in progress and I always felt behind but then I came to terms with the way I make my work and now I’m okay with spending time with my pieces and composing them for a long time.
KR: What are you inspired by? Who? Are there any artists that you are crazy about right now?
GM: I went to Berlin this summer and I was really inspired by the solo show of Michael Beutler that was up in Hamburger Bahnhof; the exhibition was called Moby Dick. He changed the entire gallery into a space of transformation in which you could really follow the artist’s process and logic. I really related to his way of making and sensibility. It was an ongoing project in which the artist keeps working on the piece throughout the show. Other artists I’m really interested in right now are Michel Blazy and Carol Bove.
KR: I have an issue of getting too precious with my work. Is your work precious to you? Do you get attached to your pieces? I know you have to dispose of most of them—how do you maintain a distance, while spending so much time and energy on them?
GM: I am really attached to my work but not too precious with it; since its very fragile it has a lifetime and it is impermanent. When the life of the piece is over I accept it and let it go, it’s durational. I can always make a new one of the same piece. I enjoy the idea of the artwork having a life of its own. Also most of my pieces have to be taken care of in order to extend their existence; taking care of something creates a special intimacy and I’m really interested in that relationship. I always keep relics from each one of my pieces. It comes, lives and goes away. It is part of my process and it motivates me to keep making and building.
KR: Why do you make things/art? What is your motivation? Why do it at all? Someone asked me this question—and I loved thinking about it. I guess what is the need?
GM: I think people who are artists have this creative urgency. It’s an amazing thing. In high school I was taking classes at an artist’s studio to draw after school. Her name is Deniz Orkus and she is an amazing artist who has been a big influence for me. I realized I was leaving this studio really happy. It was a kind of happiness that I didn’t find anywhere else. Then I studied sociology so I thought I wasn’t going to follow this creative urge, but then during my time in undergrad I kept drawing and kept going to the studio, honestly it was my gut feeling that pushed me to do so.
KR: Do you balance aesthetics and the meaning/idea of your pieces?
GM: The struggle is to find a balance between aesthetics and meaning. I work with a poetic sensibility and finding internal meaning and logic in my work is crucial for me. Then to put everything in an aesthetic framework/sensibility that I enjoy is the final step and I think that’s why it takes a long time making. It a complicated equation and takes time to resolve but in the end my goal is to balance the two.
KR: What do you listen to while you are making these intensive installations? What is your environment like? Any suggestions? As I mentioned I get bored easily! How do you extend your patience?
GM: It’s very quite when I’m making and it’s an internal, concentrated process. There are certain moments that I feel stuck and I need to talk to someone, look at something or read. I have lots of books in the studio and I also have a studio mate who is very nice, so talking to him helps in moments of crisis. The people in my studio building are usually around which is great. It’s a real luxury to have people around to talk about your work.
KR: Besides ART, what else do you enjoy doing?
GM: I really enjoy reading fiction. I have always been someone who is attracted to magical realism. I enjoy Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami and Milan Kundera a lot. I also enjoy baking!
KR: Any exhibitions you are part of currently or going to be? Keep us updated! Good luck with teaching and of course with studio work! Great talking to you, and thanks for taking the time.
GM: We are working on a drawing show with few other Chicago artists currently! We don’t know when it’s happening yet but will keep you updated.
KR: Well, thank you so much Gulsah. It was fun chatting with you and hearing about your progress. Good luck with everything!
To find out more about Gulsah and her work, check out her website!