Gökhan Tanrıöver is a Turkish-born photographic artist living in London. Following a brief medical career he dedicates his time to visual culture. His work consists of constructed imagery that focuses on personal and cultural identity informed by personal experience and memory.
After completing his BA (Hons) Photographic Arts (2017) at the University of Westminster he has been shortlisted for the Peaches and Cream Photography Competition (2017) and selected as a finalist in the Royal Photographic Society International Photography Exhibition 160. His work has been included in numerous group exhibitions including Separation and Belonging, which he co-curated as part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursday tour in May 2016. In 2017 he was chosen to participate in the Travers Smith CSR Art Programme and received their Emerging Talent award in 2018 for his series Confessionals.
Following his debut solo show at Argentea Gallery Birmingham in May 2018, he is pursuing his MA Photography at the Royal College of Art. His work is held in both private and corporate collections.
Looking at the beginning of your career, can you tell us about your brief medical career? How did the shift from medicine to art occur?
My relationship with photography began when I was a medical student in London. I related to photographers and artists more than I did to my own colleagues and felt the need to surround myself within a creative sphere. Although I enjoyed art as a subject in school, it never felt like it was a viable career choice for me. As a first generation immigrant, I felt more pressure from familial social circles to commit to a more familiar profession – I think choosing a career whilst a teenager has major drawbacks.
During my medical studies, I modelled for several artists working with different media. Photography grabbed my attention the most due to its indexical nature: the impact of what I did in front of the lens was more direct and predictable. Over time, I wanted to be the one making the decisions about constructing the image rather than being a collaborator at best or a prop at worst. Following my graduation, I was unhappy at work and felt the constraint of choosing a degree that was very much vocational. I fully believed that I needed to pursue a profession that I was passionate about and hence I quit my job to freelance as a photographer before going back into education.
After completing your BA (Hons) in Photographic Art from the University of Westminster, you’re now studying MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art. Can you share some of the highlights of your art education in London?
Though it doesn’t appear so from the course title, the approach to photography at University of Westminster leaned more towards documentary practices and was very academic in comparison to other institutions in the UK. I went in with an open mind and used my three years there to experiment with different genres and outputs of photography including fashion, advertisement and ultimately fine art. My final year degree show at Free Range was definitely a highlight as I felt the work I presented was most exemplary of my research and practice interests. It was then that I acknowledged I am indeed an artist whose medium is photography.
I chose to pursue my MA at the RCA because of their approach to photography: an expanded and interdisciplinary art practice with no fixed identity. Outside the core Photography curriculum the teaching occurs within the School of Art and Humanities, which offers plenty of elective study opportunities. In late 2019, I took part in a weeklong seminar titled Who’s There? – a performance workshop that is narratively inspired by the mythology of Narcissus and the perennial flower known by the same name. This was my first encounter with performance art and as a group we experienced various introductory exercises, from movement, experimenting with materials, and time-stretching durational practices. The workshop allowed a reflection throughout on the self as a main instrument in devising a performance and concluded with a 4-hour performance opera within an exhibition space, allowing all participants to simultaneously present their performative gestures. The performance itself was mostly improvised, which is very different from my photographic methodology - a very refreshing mode of working.
In 2016, you’ve curated a group exhibition titled Separation and Belonging, as a part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursday tour. Can you tell us about this curating experience? What do you like most about curating?
Separation and Belonging was a group exhibition centred on identity as a fluid notion. The works shown were concerned with how what appears to be the essence of a person, a culture or a space, as well as the relationships between them, shifts from known to unfamiliar, from new to obsolete and often vice versa. This was my first experience in curating and took place during my BA degree. I teamed up with three other lens-based artists and worked together, utilising our collective skill set. It was a collaborative project rather than me single-handedly taking on the role of the curator.
As an artist I think it is crucial to make connections between your own work and those of others, looking at the works through differing gazes and becoming your own curator in a way. What I really enjoyed about this experience however was the element of project management, which is probably the least ‘artist-like’ thing to say. The challenge of grouping works together, finding an appropriate venue, promoting the exhibition, as well as working through a long list of tasks you naively discover in the process, is what made the experience truly memorable. We didn’t want to have a label of a ‘student show’ and through an effective collaboration we managed to get the exhibition to be part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursday tour which takes place on the first Thursday of each month, with over 150 galleries in East London taking part in free events, exhibitions, talks and private views. Whitechapel Gallery selects 5 galleries to be included in their walking tour – including our exhibition in May 2016.
How do you describe your art practice? What ideas or concepts do you seek for in your photography? Is there any recurring theme/question in your work?
As a first-generation British citizen of Turkish descent and a gay man, my work does revolve around personal and cultural identity, often explored through autobiographical memory. As an introverted individual, I make the work as a way to communicate with my audience and myself; about my own reality and the reality I observe living between two distinct cultures. My research interest includes identity politics and representation, which hopefully comes through in my work.
Since very early on in my photographic practice, I construct the image and hence the majority of its aspects are premeditated and tightly controlled. I tend to place myself centrally in the work – at times literally but usually figuratively. Over the years, I have become more controlling and obsessive with the process of image making, but I have made peace with this aspect of my personality and try to use it to my advantage in my practice. Once I decide what it is that I am photographing, I construct the sketched composition – I always carry a notebook with me – and photograph it until I am satisfied with the outcome. For the past few years I’ve used 35mm black and white film almost exclusively so there is always a delay between the act of taking the image and seeing it. I then go on to print in the darkroom – a space that has become a personal sanctuary.
Can you talk a bit about your works in the series ‘Confessionals’? Is it a series of confessions about the past? What ideas did you intend to explore in this work?
Whilst I was researching for my dissertation I came across Annette Kühn’s Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. She explores her childhood memories by looking at the photographs in her family album. She begins to reveal her family secrets through a framework she calls memory work – ‘a method and a practice of unearthing and making public’ stories that are untold. She states that the practitioner of memory work does not only choose what memories to preserve but ‘how we then make use of the stories they generate to give a deeper meaning […] to our lives today’.
As a self-reflective individual I began to recollect my own childhood memories to link my current thoughts and behaviours to gain a deeper self-knowledge. The expression or performance of my identity is informed by these memories: those that are recalled and those that remain hidden below the surface. Confessionals is a series of analogue still life photographs rooted in my autobiographical memory. The studio and the darkroom serve as the physical space where a meditative state facilitates a form of auto-therapy. The accessed childhood memories, first voiced as a text-based confession, are used to construct an image. I regard the methodology I’ve used in this body of work as a way to enrich the understanding of myself and open up a channel of dialogue to take place among the viewers – either with themselves or with each other.
In the series Dead Sleepy, there’s a man lying in different setting of the series of landscape photographs. Who’s that man and how did the series emerge?
Dead Sleepy is one of the earliest series I’ve worked on: it began during the first term of my Bachelors degree. We were assigned to work on a small series of landscape photographs shot on 35mm digital camera. I was more interested in the relationship between an individual and the landscape, and whether it is the physical space that defines who and how we are or whether it is our influence on our surroundings that is more significant. Covered with a plastic sheet, lying in various spaces, I presented myself ambiguously as either dead or asleep, transferring the responsibility of the choice to the viewer, while the space too shifted from a scene of a crime to an embracing landscape. It was a challenge for me to be both part of the subject and make myself an object in the image whilst retaining the authorship of the work. I didn’t consider it whilst making the work but I was inadvertently making references to female representation in paintings from past eras and embodying a queer identity.
Who inspires you?
The oeuvre of Sophie Calle has fascinated me ever since I commenced my photographic studies. The ease of using her private life to drive her projects and its authenticity is admirable. She doesn’t see them as private moments but rather universal banal occurrences: death of family members, rupture of relationships and so on. For me it is important for artwork to be relatable at a human level.
The conceptual art movement of the 1960’s is another big influence; artists such as Sol LeWitt who didn’t have an interest in inherent narrative or descriptive imagery, but maintained that the idea behind the work is just as important. In 1971 he stated ‘if the artist carried through his idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the process are of importance. The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product’. I make most of my decisions before touching the camera and the act of photographing; especially with sequential images, it is as much a performance as it is a method of visualising.
I have been very fortunate to meet Tom Lovelace at the RCA as he empowered me to be more confident and trusting in the intention and the output of my work. His practice oscillates between photography, performance and sculpture, inspiring me to think beyond the photographic medium. I am also motivated by seeing my classmates develop their practice and experiencing together the change in our differing practices, approaches and styles in a course that is not strictly medium specific.