What does a war look and feel like? This deaf child tells it like no other

The hand is crueler than the tongue, the poet and artist Armando once said. After all, it is the hand that grabs the weapon. But what to do with weapons that exist to protect us, let alone weapons that have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site? These are two of the questions that Kurdish artist Erkan Özgen asks in five video artworks about war, weapons and violence. Together they make up the exhibition Off the recordexhibited this summer in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam.

Take his video Aesthetics of weapons (2018): Here the words are much more threatening than the weapon itself. In the picture, you see an anonymous officer telling about the love for his gun. The weapon forms his identity because it allows him to show his masculinity. It was not for nothing that his father became furious when he saw the weapon in his house: “I had something he did not have”, says the mouth (you do not get to see the officer’s face), which made the father feel. weak, the least of his son. While the officer irons, cleans and focuses his gun, he explains how he sees the gun as his life partner and praises the almost feminine form of the thing in his hand. He just does not put the thing in his mouth, but holds it by a kiss. A kiss to the gun, which is especially threatening because of the words. The weapon that is supposed to protect civilians is not so much the problem here as the man who attributes it to his status.

The reassuring weapon: that’s what Özgen embroiders in The memory of the time (2018), a video he made as an artist-in-residence in Helsinki. On the Finnish archipelago of Suomenlinna, an army island that is still an ancient fortress and where cannons from a distant past have been exhibited since UNESCO declared them a cultural heritage, he filmed the tourists posing near such a cannon. Some put their head in it, others climb upstairs and in some cases the whole family laughs at it. A holiday snapshot that looks pretty skewed due to the series where Özgen places the video. No one seems to care what these weapons have ever done. This links Özgen himself to the question of whether today’s weapons must also be treated in the same way in several hundred years. Whether Putin’s ballistic missile ‘Satan 2’ will ever be hugged like that, for example, is a good question. But the sensible question in this case results in a slightly too long-haired video: The tourists posing in front of the cannon look too much like to keep watching them with interest.

Video still from: Erkan Özgen, The memory of the time (2018)

Grey hair

zgen’s (Turkey, 1971) videos often tell stories of the impact of violence, migration, and identity. Whether it’s the officer or the tourist, or the Yazidi women in a refugee camp in northern Iraq. Abused and abused by IS fighters, they tell about their experiences in Little Muslin (2018). “Do not be deceived by my gray hair, I’m not that old yet,” says one of the women. The traumas have confused her, daughters have disappeared, and meanwhile she is confusing the names of the children. As she sits on a bright blue rug and can be seen behind her colored pillow and other rugs, she is flat on her story. No colorful pictures, but bare facts about the dehumanization that hit her. She is one of the many in the camp where cloth and wood must provide protection. The women talk about their trauma, while trying to stick to some rituals. The strongest point here is that Özgen provides no context, no images of IS fighters, but only focuses on the women and keeps the camera at a distance.

The combination of harsh words and flourishing image contrasts with what Özgen tries in his video Harese (2020). He was inspired by the Armenian musician Aram Tigram, who once said, “If I were born again, I would melt all tanks and weapons and make instruments out of them.” That’s what Özgen does promptly: he lets American military veterans make music with weapons: a rhythmic whole is created while a series of bullets are zipped, weapons are loaded, and missile parts serve as drums. Here, too, we are dealing with traumatized men, but they do not need words. Maybe it’s because the sound was not completely synchronized with the images that here too, as with the cannons in Helsinki, the idea is better than the execution, the trampling men do not stick.

Video still from: Erkan Özgen, Little Muslin (2018).


It can not exactly be said about thirteen-year-old Muhammad in the video Wonderland (2016). This work, in which a deaf boy who cannot speak, explains in gestures what he saw before fleeing Syria with his family, is the highlight of the exhibition. While waving his hands in front of his eyes, putting his hands behind his back for a moment and then pretending to fall over, you can hardly help but look away. He emits sounds while imitating how people get beaten, how they fall down when there is a shot. Every time you look the other way, it’s like he’s keeping you on track again with a few sounds, a repetition of a fist on one hand, or your hands like binoculars for the coming bombings. No words, no rhythm, no pose: here it turns out that it is indeed the hand that is linked to cruelty: Muhammad’s hands show hard what war and trauma look like.

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