December 28, 2012



Canan Tolon was born in Istanbul and spent her childhood in France. She spent her formative years between the ages of 1 and 11 in hospital being treated for Polio. Tolon later studied in Scotland, Germany, England and the US, worked in architectural practices for ten years, and now lives and works as an artist in Emeryville, California. However, Tolon disavows readings of her own biography in her body of work - instead, her pieces are made with the intention of allowing the viewer to see themselves within the abstractions. Her work has made use of organic materials, including grass that was grown on canvas and died during the course of the exhibition, rust, and coffee. A series of ink drawings on mylar plastic called Futur Imparfait, completed between 1986 and 1999, have recently been acquired by the British Museum. She spoke to Ashitha Nagesh on the occasion of her first UK solo show, “Sidesteps” at Parasol Unit in London.
AN - I’m interested in your architectural background, because it translates quite strongly into a lot of your work and there’s an exploration of space in a lot of the pieces. Could you tell me a bit more about this? 
CT - You know, I think I studied architecture because I was interested in space, rather than the other way around. I worked for ten years in architectural offices, and I realised that although I didn’t have my own office or anything I had a strong idea of space – space and distance have always been very important to me. When I walk, I of course take longer than other people, so I see a different perspective to others. Of course, architecture really helps as an education in so many ways, for example with scale and draughtsmanship, but I’m really beginning to see that it’s not the architecture that influenced the work – I studied architecture because I wanted to structure my concept of what space was. Even when I made figurative works, space was very much a part of it.
AN - With those figurative works depicting people within the boxes, there’s the idea of inhabiting a space. This might seem like a strange connection to make, but in one of your later monumental works also it looks as though you’ve used pre-natal sonograms?
CT - Yes, I didn’t use sonograms but I used a squeegee and I twisted it to get that same sweeping effect, and the mylar [plastic] gives it that x-ray quality – and the inside of our bodies are spaces also. I was thinking about how we can grow in spaces, in rooms rather than wombs – but the interesting thing is that if you are a woman you might think it’s a pregnancy or similar inhabited space. I like the idea of people reading my works in different ways, especially when doctors look at them and they think it’s about looking under the skin. This is a space that we don’t really know, but we just are. It’s another form of architecture really.
AN - The womb is the first space we inhabit…
CT - Yes! Exactly. It wasn’t intentionally from a womb image, though, it was totally accidental. I never want to use borrowed images; I create my own images, but I want them to look like they’ve been borrowed.
AN - That reminds me of what you were saying earlier in the gallery about wanting to “trick the viewer.”
CT - It’s like a guessing game – and I’m glad that you’re guessing in the game. I basically want people to see something different each time they look at the pieces. I’d be very happy if people were not able to describe my work.
AN - I’m also drawn to your use of grass and other natural materials that decay, marking the passing of time through the course of the exhibition.
CT - In this work [Under Pressure, 1994, in the exhibition catalogue] you can see that there is a repetition. It’s a Cartesian mapping – but when the different elements of the sculpture were placed next to each other, they looked like stretchers carrying bodies. At the same time, they had a beautiful California landscape look, because the California landscape is pretty bold. But because of the rhythm they were also like hospital beds, with bodies lying down to recover.
AN - The idea of the body seems to pervade all of your work.
CT - Yes, exactly.
AN - Your rust works, also, have cellular structures – they could be either animal or plant cells.
CT - This is true, these works look like blood cells or neurons within the brain. In another sense they are also like cityscapes – when you view them from afar, they look just like the plans of cities. They’re completely organic, because I set up the elements but the rust forms bubbles on the surface, and then they form these little pathways between them. It keeps going and creates its own organised plan. This happens totally naturally, but I have to stop it in the middle of the corruption process – before it blackens completely. So I am artificially stopping time, I’m putting the decaying process on hold.
AN - Time plays an interesting role in your work, and it seems that death does too. Would you say that your work deals directly with death? Considering in particular how a lot of your works decay and mark the passing of time.
CT - Death does play a part, but I am particularly interested in the act of waiting – particularly nowadays, when so much time is spent waiting for something good or bad to happen. At the time when I was making these rust works, there was much less of a sense that the world might end – I never thought about the fact that one day there would be none of this left, and that these things would all come to an end. I suppose I am concerned with death insofar as we are spending our lives watching time go by, and when you die you are said to see this quick flash of life before your eyes.
AN - This idea of waiting is very poignant – standing within the installation Time After Time, you had said it was like being on the inside of a train and watching the world go by on the outside. But when I first saw it, I felt it was much more like waiting on a train platform and watching trains go by…
CT - Yes there is an interesting dialogue to be had about perspective – viewing something go by from the inside or the outside. Who is moving, what is static? Are you moving through the world too fast, or watching it pass you by whilst you stay still? You know, there is something wonderful about watching trains go by – it’s so fast and noisy, there is an incredible sound that surrounds you. Have you ever watched two trains pass by each other in complete silence? That is the most amazing thing – the reflections, it’s incredible. I want the work to surround the viewer and make them feel as though they are losing their balance – the feeling I get when I’ve been working on the floor, and I stand up for the first time…
AN - A kind of vertigo?
CT - Yes! Vertigo, exactly.
AN - It was so encompassing and immersive, it really made me feel like everything was moving around me. In your interview with Ziba [Ardalan, published in the exhibition catalogue] you say you avoid “cultural labelling” – this is interesting to me, could you tell me a bit more about this?
CT - Of course. I find the idea of representing a certain culture very strange, because I’ve never had that feeling of belonging to just one place. I grew up in hospital from the age of 1 to 11, so I was never really part of a “nuclear family.” In hospital, there was also no sense of “mine” and “yours” among us all – everything was everyone’s, we all shared. I don’t want to sound like I’m idealising my time in the hospital, or make out that it was the most idyllic place or time, but that’s how it was. On top of this, I grew up in France, but both of my parents are from Turkey – so I speak French but do not speak my mother tongue, Turkish. So I don’t feel like I necessarily own anything, and because of that I find it difficult to imagine how anything – a culture or a place, for example – could own me.
Although now I feel no need to be defined by a culture or nationality, this takes time. When I first left hospital and went to school, I had never thought about where I “belonged” before but you know – kids can be cruel. Suddenly I started being told that I was different, and I thought “oh, I’m not quite the same, I don’t quite belong here.” For a long time I felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. Adolescence is the worst time for this, because you are desperate to figure out who you are – but now I don’t feel the need for labels at all. What people see in me, and my work – that is their view of where I might be from. For example, people have told me that they can see Islamic calligraphy in some of my work. It’s an interesting thought, but that is what they see based on where they think I’m coming from – I didn’t put that in there.
AN - I know exactly what you mean, it’s a strange thing being expected to represent a culture or nation that might be more or less alien to you.
CT - This is what I find strange about Biennales, too, and the pavilions you find there. How does one come to represent their country in that way? It seems impossible to me to think of one person representing an entire place. What would I represent – the Turkish-French Disabled Women’s pavilion?
AN - Actually, one of the things I’ve scribbled here in my notes is “borderless maps” – on some of your 1990 works, the stains made on the fabric are quite cartographic, but they have no recognisable shape.
CT - That’s interesting, they do look like that. I always thought they could be coffee stains. The meaning changes depending on the viewer. You know, in Turkey they read coffee grounds to foresee the drinker’s future? When I was exhibiting in Istanbul I decided to use ground up coffee beans in the actual artworks, because it is such a strong part of Turkish culture – and the reading of coffee relates again to this idea of waiting, of anticipating the future and waiting for something to happen. It’s also interesting because although in Islam art is supposed to be non-representational, things like coffee reading prove that actually a lot of people are very good at recognising images within abstraction – you literally see shapes in the coffee. When I staged that show, the whole room smelled of coffee – but still nobody could tell me what the material was. It looked more like burnt umber really. People would ask me all the time what it was made of, but in return I would ask them to tell me what they saw.
In a way, that’s what I mean by “sidestep” – I want to take a step aside and look at the work from a passive perspective, and see what it’s like for others looking at it. Because I work mainly on the floor of my studio, very close to the work, it looks very different when I see it up on the wall from a distance. “Sidestep” is in many ways my way of distancing myself from my work.
AN - It’s also a way of moving without going forwards or backwards – much like the feeling the viewer gets in Time After Time, of things moving but also of being still, not travelling anywhere.
CT - Yes you’re moving, but neither forwards nor backwards – you’re moving and still at the same time. You know when you almost fall over, and you have to step to the side to balance yourself – that’s what I feel I’m doing at the moment, with this show and my entire body of work. I’m just trying to keep myself balanced, to stay afloat.
You may reach the Canan Tolon exhibition news: Sidesteps at Parasol Unit and Somewhere now at Von Lintel Gallery to click below links.








UNTITLED 2 - 2009

GLITCH X  - 2008


Canan Tolon, ( Istanbul - 1955 ) studied literature and philosophy in Istanbul. She was graduated from the Department of Design of the Edinburgh Napier College of Commerce and Technology in 1976. She studied interior architecture at the German Fachhochschule, received her bachelor of arts in design from the London Middlesex Polytechnic and Architectural Association, and in 1983, completed her master’s degree in architecture at the Berkeley University of California. Following her first solo show at Berkeley in 1984, her exhibitions took place in Ankara, Istanbul, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Paris.
In addition to the Istanbul Biennial, “I am Another” at the Charlottenborg Center for Arts in Copenhagen, “Plastic Dialogues” at the City Hall in Brussels, “Organized Conflict” at the Proje 4L Museum of Contemporary Art in Istanbul, “Angle of Respose” at Mills College of Art Museum in Oakland and “Intersecting Times” at Istanbul Modern -Istanbul Museum of Modern Art- can be named among the significant group shows she participated in. Tolon lives and works in California; in San Francisco, she is represented by the Gallery Paule Anglim, in whose list one can find artists such as Louise Bourgeois.
You may visit to see Canan Tolon's exhibition news at Von Lintel Gallery to click below web page.