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The Human Stain
Villa Romana Fellow Asli Sungu

When little mistakes are fraught with meaning: Asli Sungu lets professionals explain to her how to brush her teeth properly or cut vegetables – and reflects on how people have to meet universal role requirements in day-to-day life. The Turkish artist and current Villa Romana Fellow convinced Brigitte Werneburg that it can be great art to face your own inadequacies.

Asli Sungu, Faulty, (video still), 2007,
© Asli Sungu

"A wheel that doesn’t turn isn’t part of the machine," said Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the face of the work of the Turkish artist Asli Sungu, however, one could claim that a wheel that doesn’t turn is part of the machine for that very reason. The temptation to interpret her work as a machine that only produces art when a wheel locks, when s shirt can’t be buttoned, or shelves don’t hold the things put on them, is big. Watching Asli Sungu’s short videos, you get the impression that she is fascinated by mistakes.

Asli Sungu, Faulty, (video still), 2007,
© Asli Sungu

Everything we do is full of flaws. Even the simplest things. Take brushing your teeth, for example. People believe they have such a mastery of this chore that they wouldn’t even think of calling it into question. Asli Sungu is much more distrustful, as is apparent from her contribution to the exhibition of works by this year’s Villa Romana Fellows at the Deutsche Guggenheim, her four-part film Faulty (2008). In the test phase of Faulty, she invited a dental assistant to her home, who was supposed to observe the artist while she brushed her teeth and correct her if necessary. It quickly became apparent how necessary it was. Asli Sungu came to the shocking realization that she knew nothing about brushing teeth. Of course not everyone has to know how to cook. That requires a certain amount of knowledge. But brushing your teeth? That’s easy as pie? Everyone can do that!

Asli Sungu in the garden of
Villa Romana in Florence 2008
Photo Gregor Hohenberg
© G. Hohenberg

But it quickly becomes evident that the issue of errors is a highly complicated matter. You have to find them first, or perhaps even invent them, because they’re not simply there. In any case, until the dental assistant came the wheel had turned and was part of the machine. "Brushing your teeth isn’t art," you might say. But now the wheel is blocked, and suddenly brushing teeth is art. Art simply means asking the right questions. Questions that people do not arrive at quickly, that go under in everyday life. Once they are addressed, however, they bring up a cascade of additional questions. Who has the authority to decide what is wrong and what is right?

Asli Sungu, Faulty, (video still), 2007,
© Asli Sungu

It was not without good reason that Asli Sungu asked so-called professionals to observe her performing daily tasks and to comment on how she ironed, washed windows, or cut vegetables. They are specialists, who, unlike her, an amateur, perform activities as chefs, laundry experts, or window cleaners to earn a living. As professionals, their qualifications and their personal appearance suffice for them to be expected to play a role manifested above all in a pronounced, expertly authorized - and therefore professional - distance. Parents, however, can never be professionals when it comes to educating or even just communicating with their children. Yet strangely, they still view themselves as authorities.

Asli Sungu, Quite her mother (video still), 2006,
© Asli Sungu

Asli Sungu, Quite her father (video still), 2006,
© Asli Sungu

For instance, parents believe they know which clothing is most advantageous for their children. Who isn’t familiar with parents’ critical probing questions about whether these trousers or that dress don’t look better than the one you are wearing? And who isn’t familiar with the anger this arouses? So it is easy to understand how Asli Sungu got the idea for her video Just Like Mother/Just Like Father (2006). For an artist is someone who sees the wheel in her parents, blocks it, and thus sets the machine in motion. We see Asli Sungu at her parents’ house in Istanbul dressing in one case in accordance with ideas of her mother, and in another case in keeping with the notions of her father. The differences are striking. While the mother chooses a rather girlish dress and in the end Sungu looks like a well-behaved schoolgirl, the father opts for a classical businesswoman’s outfit. The mother apparently is looking for the child in her daughter and therefore plays the dressing game in a naive way. The father, however, sees the daughter as an adult woman and thus behaves in a more distant, or more biased, way. But as different as the mother’s and father’s ideal images of their daughter are, they have one thing in common: They are both modern images of women represented by European clothing.

Asli Sungu, Mein Zimmer, 2000,
© Asli Sungu

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