Pinar Yolacan: Perishables
December 10–January 21, 2005
Pinar Yolacan presents a series of photographic portraits in her first solo exhibition in New York City. Yolacan, a native of Ankara, moved to London in 1998 to attend Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Her first time living outside of Turkey, she was struck by a certain icon — that of a British female whose mature age, pin straight posture, and aristocratic air seemed unique to the visual culture of Great Britain. Yolacan sensed a pride and mystery in these women, a particular kind of ”other-ness” (note her own word of choice) that would become the basis for her latest exhibition, Perishables, at Rivington Arms.
While studying in London, Yolacan developed a keen interest in materials, how they may be manipulated to take on wholly new lives. She produced a body of work that included a pumpkin whose interior she upholstered with velvet, she bedecked a melon with gold sequins, and made a blazer out of popcorn. These pieces are surreal and humorous, and play with the fantastical possibilities of the quotidian. Yolacan is drawn to organic materials for reasons she cannot fully articulate. Her ability to transform and suspend something just before it begins to decompose is a kind of feat — the added layer of velvet preserves the pumpkin just long enough for one to appreciate all the other things it could be.
Yolacan left London in 2000 with a BA, and in 2004 graduated from the Cooper Union in New York City with a BFA. While at Cooper she worked solely on Perishables, which began with the ladies in London and ended up being comprised of a cross section of similarly aged women in New York. The photographs on view are a selection of nineteen subjects whom the artist found through a Craigslist casting call. All of the subjects were white, between the ages of fifty and seventy, some were professional actors, others curious and willing to support a young artists’ project. Yolacan took a Polaroid of each woman and sent them off with a lose date at which they would reconvene. In the interim the artist studied the subjects’ faces, the kinds of personality traits their looks conveyed, and devised a garment that each would wear for the second shoot.
The clothes Yolacan created for her subjects were made with various kinds of animal flesh: tripe, cow stomach, chicken skin, and lamb testicles. In some instances the artist incorporated the flesh into a pre-existing garment, others were made completely of flesh. It was important to Yolacan that the flesh-clothes retained the buttoned-up elegance she was so fascinated by in London, a kind of Victoria-era haughtiness that spoke as much of good breeding as it did of secrets and speckled pasts. The puffed-sleeves, ruffles, and sharp lines, which characterize Victorian clothing, lend a dignified elegance to the wearer. Replacing fabric and line for animal flesh steals away some of the power from this kind of stylized dress.
Looking at all of the photographs in sequence, one notes a varying tonality. A few photographs are a bit green, others cyan, and some magenta. Yolacan’s technique is not flawless — she took up photography simply in order to realize this project. Nevertheless, the tonal variation saves each portrait from being a cold study; it provides each woman with a distinction, a facet of personality. As each garment was made of perishable flesh, they were all damp and sticky, some incredibly heavy, and imposed themselves on the wearer in exactly the way they should — like a second skin. The burden, the absurdity, and the sheer grotesqueness of wearing another’s skin upon one’s own forced each subject to squirm, or remain defiantly poised, while adjusting to her new corporeality. Those moments of transition were the one’s Yolacan was most concerned with.
A woman with steely blue eyes, sharply cut blond bob, and a square, dignified, face, regards the camera, her hands clasped beneath her chest. She wears a creamy-white silk blouse with cascading folds. The neckline has been replaced with a draped layer of chicken skin, its slightly peach hue barely contrasting against the subject’s skin and blending nicely with the blouse. Where the chicken skin meets the subject’s neck it is slightly bunched and rough-edged, but the meeting of the two wrinkled fleshes allows for a smooth transition from one skin to the next. This woman seems perfectly natural and not necessarily at ease, but at least in full command of her new appendage. Other subjects look more disheveled. They are not as statuesque but a little heavy, hair messier, bodies less defined. Perhaps unconsciously, Yolacan made full suits that cover these ladies. A surly looking woman faces front, her outfit wrinkled and bunched where it is sewn together down the centerline. The flesh pulls and puffs at her shoulders and breasts, adding additional lumpiness to her person. Her garment acts aggressively as an extension of her body, literally adding mass rather than blending into a preexisting garment. Her expression is due in part to the weight of such a large piece, and additionally, to her need to reacquaint herself with her dimensionality.
An immediate interpretation of these portraits reveals that animal flesh, pimpled and limp, mimics the way that an old woman’s skin sags and wrinkles. Perishables may be read as a commentary on aging and beauty, a critique on the plastic-surgery industry, a sarcastic play on the idea of skin, as the title and the materials the artist chose support such readings. Additionally, Yolacan chose a particular group of women as subjects to reflect what she is not — that is to say, a white westerner. This is an important and immediately evident aspect of the work. Choosing the “other” as artistic subject is to open a can of worms in contemporary art — one bulging with a breadth of previous work and critical theory from Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s performance as two undiscovered Amerindians to Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, that are as heavy with history as they are heavy-handed. Despite the playful way that Yolacan approached the subject , it is not easily eluded with wit and naïveté.
The artist possesses a sophisticated understanding of her subject matter that goes beyond the either/or of “self” and “other.” She hopes to present a scope of ideas around the grotesque, performance and psychology. Perhaps one of the subtlest aspects of Perishables is the morbid sexuality that threads through each portrait. Damp animal flesh, perhaps a mere twenty-four hours old, laid upon the subject. The action of putting on the skin and each subject’s reactions to it reveal themselves through a single shot, a time during which she adjusted, played with, and embraced or rejected the strange garment. Yolacan’s primary interest was this moment of transition. She sought to capture how each woman would respond to the shock of something foreign and frightening physically imposing upon her. The artist created an experience for her subjects that the viewer could understand as analogous to Yolacan’s need to adjust to western culture. As much as Yolacan may have felt scrutinized or judged by the white women she was so intrigued by in London, she found herself exoticizing and questioning them. Perishables presents a reversal of expectation. Yolacan has rendered her subjects even more “other,” rather than being critical of “otherness” itself, or finding the similarities and parallels between herself and her subjects. Yolacan’s skin-clothes create each subject anew as strange hybrid beings. She prods each woman to withdraw further within herself while forced to reconsider the body and its indeterminate nature.