About Songül Boyraz

In the film Le Mépris by Jean Luc Godard, there is a scene in which Brigitte Bardot lies upon a bed and poses a series of questions to her lover, played by Michel Piccoli, as to how he likes her feet, her legs, her bottom, her breasts, etc. The significance of this episode lies less in the predictable outcome than in the fragmentation of Bardot’s body, which she herself describes – as if her body were a montage of various body parts. The longstanding rule that the whole is more than the sum of its parts is here turned into its opposite. It is only the sum of the bodily fragments which gives rise to an image of Bardot. That which appears as a whole is the product of a montage which illustrates an aesthetic principle of Modernism: How do you like me as montage, or how do you like the montage that I am – my uniform? My corporeal clothing? Godard’s film from the sixties experiences a minimal but decisive correction forty years later. Songül Boyraz displays in one of her first video installations eyes or mouths and teeth of various people – eyes follow after eyes, mouths after mouths. The question is no longer whether the bodily fragments are pleasing or not, but instead whether they are sufficient to allow recognition of the particular person in the fragment. In this case, the role of Michel Piccoli as well as his opinion is left to the viewers. Does the part still stand for the whole, or has the fragment itself become a whole, has the body been lost as a frame of reference? What remains is corporeality without a body. A corporeal subject which searches for an appropriate body and perhaps finds one in a fragment that is not its own. My body is a foreign body and a foreign body is my body.

In his book Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon has described the experience of how one’s own body can become a foreign body in a cultural context – the experience of a racist perception according to which the skin color of a body is suddenly no longer suitable to a cultural context, so that the subject now appears to be foreign. Not only does the body thereby become a foreign body, but the individual is himself or herself deemed “offensive.” For a person feeling foreign in a specific context, this context becomes a piece of cultural garb, a suit of clothes that doesn’t fit. This constricting cultural vestment is presented in a work of Songül Boyraz whose title indicates that which is being talked about here: Schuhplattler (“Country Dance”), a folkloric, Austrian phenomenon; a local custom whose dances and costumes clearly indicate who belongs within and who is shut without. Someone who has ventured into Austrian folklore can gain the impression – and this is the theme of the video installation – of being circumscribed by this cultural-political environment, of being positioned at its center in such a way as to be excluded and enveloped at the same time. The fact that the Schuhplattler is a seemingly aggressive dance which derives its energy from the striking of various parts of the body allows free rein to the corresponding associations as to how people are bound to customs.

Inasmuch as the cultural context prescribes a system of rules governing how one ought to behave, what language is to be spoken, which background allows this but prohibits that, which appearance is opportune and which type of clothing is inappropriate, daily existence accordingly resembles a fashion runway and everyday life becomes a performance. A video such as Catwalk documents the omnipresence of that stage which already exists in the consciousness of human beings, even before they step onto the wooden planks which signify the world. In Songül Boyraz’s video, the boards and tools are still being carried around. Only the demeanor of the construction workers betrays the presence of the quotidian stage which already exists even before it has been set up. The manner in which this video has its sights trained on the public behavior of men and on male role-playing offers confirmation of the fact that, from a contemporary point of view, the distribution of roles between men and women cannot avoid being tragicomedy.

The modern distinction between private and public spaces – between individuals who wish to pursue their personal interests amid the concealment of the private sphere and persons who have incorporated the expectations of the general public into their own subjective roles – is now experiencing a crisis. The subject as an individual representation of social relationships has been established in the feminist observation that the political aspect is also at work there where what is being talked about is the private realm – that the general disadvantaging of woman is also domiciled there where woman and man are at home. With this hegemony of the social aspect, privacy disappears from the sphere of the individual. This surrender to the public domain causes even recreational clothing to look like professional attire designed for work in private. That which once was a private space is today the place where the individual can attempt to organize his or her social space in such a way as to convey the impression of having found a suitable position within society. Against this background the private residence, one’s own apartment, functions predominately as a wardrobe – as a wardrobe worn for the individual’s public performance.

When Songül Boyraz visits various individuals in their private surroundings in order to get a picture of these persons and their place in society, and in order subsequently to design a wardrobe for them, then this takes place in a double sense of the term, for “wardrobe” designates both clothing and the space where such clothing is stored. Boyraz conceives of this wardrobe, however, in a public sense, inasmuch as she gives consideration not only to what these persons are to wear but also to the spaces where they can appear in public in their new wardrobes.

Whereas many works of Boyraz have focused on that inappropriate cultural context which many individuals perceive, and are obliged to perceive, as an unsuitable and overly tight suit of clothes – like a culturally defined and socially anticipated wardrobe which simply doesn’t fit –, these “measures” have a contrary aim. What is up for discussion are conceptions of a cultural environment which fits the subject exactly. From this perspective, the cultural context seems like a tailored suit of clothes in which the individual feels comfortable in both body and identity and enjoys self-recognition, just as is the case with the cultural environment which has now taken on the nature of a second wardrobe. Like the way in which the street has become a room for the modern saunterer, so could public space be the apartment of the contemporary subject who feels at home even when not actually being at home. On the one hand, the fact that Boyraz documents these “measures” proves that this project is capable of realization, and on the other hand it remains the documentation of a promise that these “measures” are possible with any subject and at any location.

Andreas Spiegl