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Pleasure as an Emancipatory Practice

Exhibition Text by Deniz Kırkalı

Merve Tuna’s exhibition The Case of O: Scenes, Formulations, Derivations, is equally about bodies, objects, and stories. It is a culmination of her background in fashion and production design; longtime interest in psychoanalysis, film, and mathematics; and fascination with materials as well as making techniques that provoke certain feelings she finds worthy of chasing after. Walking through the various rooms of the exhibition, namely the genital, phallic, anal and oral rooms, you are surrounded by objects that are extensions, insertions, additions, stories of and references to the human body. You see bodies everywhere, very few in the form of human bodies. 


The one question I find myself keep circling back to since I got to know Merve’s practice is “How does pleasure look outside of the body?” Pleasure is a sensual and a phenomenological concept. It is rather bodily, libidinal, sought after, and almost always associated with positive connotations. Pleasure is supposed to feel good. But how pleasure looks or what it can look like is not as objectively or clearly defined. What bodily pleasure might look like outside of the body is, in fact, a situated notion. Corporeal pleasure, which for me is rather liquid, fluid, permeable, in Merve’s visual world and fantasyland, is made concrete, hard, shiny, malleable. It invites one to imagine how pleasure might be visualised in an object which is perhaps waiting to be a source of pleasure. Yet, the object also exists on its own outside of and separated from a body that activates it. The object, with its unyielding agency, dictates a certain way of approaching, using, and relating to it. 


How can we think of these fetish objects, which might or might not be used for sexual pleasure or gratification, as extensions of bodies? This, for me, is particularly compelling as a posthuman question. The moment or the ways in which the body meets things ‘outside’ of itself is loaded with information. And that information allows one to build imaginary worlds that are not mere fiction or sources of escape but realms of emancipation and potential. 


Fetish and fantasy has a lot to do with fictioning and world-making. The case Merve is building through the objects in the exhibition, mirrors her systematic thinking that tends to select, categorise, name and encode information, references, and materials. It is a rather delineated world, its limits and narratives are cautiously set and there is little room for intervention. Her self-proclaimed object fetishism and underlying masochistic impulses dictate what, how and where. She is an avid collector in that sense; selecting, organising and rearranging, often very intuitively. Yet, pleasure and the shame that such pleasure might often be thought together with are highly subjective, personal and unique phenomena. Therefore, here I am inserting (no pun intended) myself and my ways of engaging with the fictional world Merve is very attentively crafting and communicating through words, symbols, sketches, sound, and last but not least, objects (or alternatively scenes, formulations, and derivations). The objects, some of which are, in fact, familiar, tend to become unfamiliar, something other than they are or they were. Their potentiality is revealed and therefore they create room for further imagination, stories, fantasies and worlds to be made. Their uncanniness stands as an invitation for world-making as they vaguely oscillate between familiar/comforting and disturbing/uncanny. 


Merve’s works are, to me, not merely stories of psychosexual development stages but just stories, her stories indeed. They unfold in the exhibition space in a certain pattern and rhythm, following an outlined narrative but nevertheless inviting to promiscuously multiply this narrative. The room to play is created only to be penetrated, challenged, and further experimented in. The music in the exhibition follows this fictional narrative as another sensory component and places the body in this fictionalised space, in front of the displayed objects, in a crafted and calculated manner. It reminds one that they are a body. 


The timeline which provides the framework of the narrative Merve is threading through the four rooms is presented to the audience very explicitly in the exhibition. Her methodology using narrative, color, and sound as elements that moulds the experience of the exhibition are recognized components of filmmaking. And her material-driven practice is one that emphasizes tactility and rigorous making. These strategies compose the backbone of The Case of O:Scenes, Formulations, Derivations in which she thrives to understand, conceptualize and trace her triggers for pleasure, thinking, and making. 


Using the objects outside of their purpose, making references to what they could be reveals and encourages a childlike imagination and leaves one in a limbo of scenes that could potentially unfold. In this in-betweenness, it opens space for further unconscious or deliberate associations. The mode of display of these objects, through vitrines and iron-framed glass cabinets which seem fit for medical tools or antiques and crystals but instead presenting compositions of daily objects, defies an awaited shame, working through politics and aesthetics of visibility and presentation. It confronts the invisible or the hidden. As Merve tries out some limits (of her own and of all bodies wandering in the rooms and cavities of the hammam), she challenges and messes with the ideas of where shame comes from as much as how shame can be transformed. And in doing so, lays out a foundation for thinking pleasure, outside of a body and as an emancipatory practice. 

The Case of O: Scenes, Formulations, Derivations

The Case of O: Scenes, Formulations, Derivations is a body of work that explores and attempts to understand the etiology of masochism and object fetishism. 


To track masochistic and fetishistic symptoms, the artist adopts a methodology where she simultaneously enacts the reciprocal roles of infant & adult, analyst & analysand. This self-dissection allows exploring the two opposing urges: to play and to analyze independently without self-interruption, self-limitation, or self-correction. During the work process, these urges are named the Infantile Gaze and the Analytic Gaze. When the Analytic Gaze observes, judges and classifies the work/play of the Infantile Gaze, the latter feels safe while being watched, just like an infant playing while the parents are watching. 


The research of Analytic Gaze encompasses a series of questions: What is shame is and why is sex shameful if that is the case in the first place? How could one resolve opposing feelings of inherent shame and shamelessness? How and why does a person bond with an object and what could these objects be in his/her lifespan? How could we understand the urge of collecting particular objects? What is masochism and its etiology?  How could we know how sexuality is formed and whether we can track it to its beginnings? The formulations drawn from this research are turned into artworks using the mediums of hand-embroidery and oil transfer. A timeline, which is a summary of all the formulations on the subject (such as unconscious fantasy workings, repression, infantile amnesia, and shame), follows Freud’s psychosexual development stages (namely oral, anal, phallic, and genital), and it becomes the map of the exhibition, and a narration tool used when dividing/classifying the Infantile Gaze work room by room.


Infantile Gaze plays with the collected objects, rearranges them to bring out new meanings that they hint at, and asks “what if”s to make up new objects, similar to children’s sexual theories. Its mediums are instant photos that capture this ‘playing house’ with particular objects; display cases that remind of the museums which are called Object Causes of Anxiety; sculptures resembling medical tools, toys, and pleasure implements made of materials varying from bronze to latex; and linoleum prints which could be interpreted as derivations. 


The exhibition space, made of four rooms, starts from the present (the genital stage) and goes back to the oral stage. ​​The walking experience in the exhibition space is premeditated by site-specific music pieces that attempt to give sound to objects and the anxieties experienced in each stage of infancy, which, as a method, is an experimentation with the space as a filmic experience and a symptom of masochistic control. 


The exhibition location, a historic Ottoman hammam dating back to 15th century, furnishes the exhibition with a series of sensory backdrops: Cold marble connotes the frozen quality of masochism; the bathing rooms trigger intimacy that is ‘presexually sexual’; one being the men’s entrance and the other women’s entrance of the hammam; the Genital Room mirrors the Oral Room architecturally, which allows showing verbal (hand-embroidery) and preverbal (oil-transfer) formulations in spaces that reflect each other, playing with the concept of memory. 


The whole exhibition layout and dispersion of works within rooms parallel to the psychosexual development stages is the final step of the methodology to draw out the roots of masochism and fetishism. Walking through the rooms of the artist’s staging, the oscillation between The Discarded Teddy /Anal Stage and The Masculator/ Phallic Stage also shows the oscillation between anal repulsive ( where imperfection is allowed) and passive-phallic (in search of control, perfection, and omnipotence) stages, which shows the artist’s regression during the work process as “a case” of a masochist and a fetishist. 

Original Music by Avi Medina

00:00 / 03:49

The Genital Stage

The first room of The Case of O is the Genital Stage, which represents the present for adults. It consists of the Analytic Gaze hand-embroidery formulations and instant photos depicting scenes of playing house with found objects. 


In the center of the formulations, The Timeline - 0821 illustrates the subject formation and development stages from birth to death. This timeline shows all the objects this subject connects with during their life parallel to the particular psychosexual development stages, starting from the first bonding with the mother in the oral stage to the fetish objects in the genital stage.It draws links between infancy and adulthood and mainly focuses on infancy, after which antecedents get buried with infantile amnesia. To further understand and reason with the themes of inherent shame vs. shamelessness, the timeline expands to the unconscious and the unconscious fantasy (∮) workings. Lastly, it focuses on what has been before the infantile amnesia in the preverbal stages. It is an attempt to see how a subject ‘works’ as a being and uses the unconscious fantasy workings as tools for tracking symptoms of “now” back to the stages of infancy. In other words, it is an abstract psychological map where fetishistic and masochistic symptoms (and works that come out of them / Infantile Gaze) can be tracked from the present / Genital Stage back to phallic, anal, and oral orders. It is also a map of the exhibition, in a backward direction, since the exhibition flow starts from the Genital Stage and ends in birth / the Oral Stage, like going back in time. 


Other formulations are graphs on shame, jouissance, and masochism. These are reductive graphs with mathematical symbols as tools to learn, simplify, memorize the information and bring out new links. Formulations are neither entirely personal nor objective.


The choice of medium and the making process for formulations are also masochistic and thus paradoxical; they are hand-embroidered into canvases where each symbol and word is indicated.. Memorizing tool becomes tactile and action-oriented, on the other hand, the process is too slow for seeing the larger framework and is alienating. 


As part of the Infantile Gaze, narrated in the Genital Stage, the cabinets of instant photos, namely Oral, Phallic and Anal Gazes, depict scenes of ‘playing house’ with the collection of tools, objects, and, materials. The photographs document the links between objects as if they have intercourse. Without the human body parts they refer to or actions they propose, they (as discrete objects)  make suggestions that are humorous. 


The two-dimensional works exhibited in the Genital Stage highlight a particular strand of superficiality and the unnoticed features of the unconscious drives. The music, which includes track parts from Britney Spears’ Toxic, aims to reflect this superficiality at ‘play’ and in ‘formulation’. Yet what lays underneath all this and what awaits the audience in the rest of the exhibition, are foreshadowed through the Lynchian touch of sounds starting with the later rooms of infancy.

00:00 / 06:00

The Phallic Stage

The Phallic Stage is a room of duality, whether it is about gender differentiation or power relations. Infantile Gaze reduces the primal scene to a phallic object (I), and a hole (O). Any found object played with, or any object made considering a particular notion of gender differentiation, is narrated in this room.


Whether the completion phase happens across ‘object to object’ or ‘object to body’, each object in the Phallic Stage complements another one or itself. The double bind between anxiety and pleasure in masochism (pleasure of anxiety and anxiety of pleasure), the suspense element in masochistic fantasy, and the desire for a scene of omnipotence are projected onto the ‘scenes’ in this phase. 


The ‘superficial’ play-house with 2D photos in the Genital Stage becomes three-dimensional and  animated with cabinets of found objects that are called “Object Causes of Anxiety” as a pair: Phallic - O and Phallic - I.


Pleasure Anticipator mimics a medical device and measures one’s hole and the penetrator in a ritual that extends the suspense before the actual action. 


Masculator and Max & Dorothea are penetrative implements that suggest shifts in power roles. The Death and The Executioner Masks designate particular submissive and dominant roles. Yet, in The Execution of O with the Death Mask, an excerpt from a staged experiment of a shibari artist represents the desire for suspension and invokes curiosity about self-execution (and possibly the desire for omnipotence).

00:00 / 05:17

The Anal Stage

Curiosity, anxiety, and bowel control... The anal stage happens before gender differentiation, hence the objects within this room. It is about the anxiety around holding feces and the aggression that follows it. The organ sound that mimics the bowels, the tick-tocks referring to the anxiety around making ‘it’ on time, and the beating sounds that refer to the sadistic drives and tools, make up the soundtrack of this room. The curiosity about the primal scene and the pleasure of finding the answer to the question: where babies come from, a maltreated and discarded teddy bear placed in the toilet, and a glass anal plug that could be confused for glass stoppers form material settings in this stage. Letting irony and humour out in an expulsive manner in contrast to the calculative manner of the prior Phallic Stage makes sense.

00:00 / 05:15

The Oral Stage

With the replica of the red walls of the Genital Stage in pink, this final room is a repetition/variation of the first room. The preverbal oil-transfer derivations of the Analytic Gaze formulations hang on the walls in exact placement and narration. The window display exhibits scenes of found and made objects concerning the concepts of devourment, asphyxiation, Isakower Phenomenon, and the cannibalistic breastfeeding stage. The music supports the oscillation between the satisfaction and the bliss and the anxiety and the frustration caused by ‘the good and bad object’, which is the mother’s breast.