The visual language Özgen creates in his videos almost makes the impact of violence and trauma on people tangible. His work highlights the fact that spoken and written language alone are often insufficient tools for making people understand the effects of war. The poignant and powerful video Wonderland (2016), for instance, features thirteen-year-old Muhammed. In 2015, he and his family fled from Syria to Derik, the district of Mardin in the southeastern part of Turkey. Muhammed is deaf and uses sign language to tell us about the horrors he witnessed in his native country. Even though Muhammed is not talking, his eloquent way of communicating is universal and piercingly confronts us with the atrocities of war. “The purpose of this video project was to show the people of the world what war looks like in its naked brutality, to show the havoc wrought by war. All through the accounts of this boy,” Özgen explains.
For Purple Muslin (2018) Özgen collaborated with a group of Yazidi women. After escaping various IS attacks they are now staying in a refugee camp in northern Iraq. In the video they talk about their experiences of kidnapping, abuse, and starvation. The traumas of these women are not only conveyed by what they tell but are also obvious from their tone of voice. The colourful patterns in their clothing sharply contrast with their testimonies.
Aesthetics of Weapons (2018) sheds light on an entirely different aspect of violence than the abovementioned works. An anonymous police officer talks about how much he loves his weapon: “I see it as an old friend or a life partner.” We can see him loading, unloading, aiming, and cleaning his gun, and practicing how to shoot. In his line of work, guns are meant to protect people. However, these same weapons are also causing a lot of harm.
Contrastingly, the original purpose of some weapons has been completely erased from our collective memory. This is shown in the video The Memory of Time (2018) which was made on the Finnish group of islands Suomenlinna: a fortress surrounded by cannons that were used in wars that raged centuries ago. UNESCO has since designated them as cultural heritage. The video shows tourists posing near the cannons. Özgen is simply observing the scene with his camera and has omitted the sound. The work raises the question whether the weapons that are causing so much suffering today will also be treated like this in a couple of hundred years.
“If I were to be born again, I would melt all the tanks and weapons, and I would make musical instruments out of them.” Inspired by this quote by the Armenian musician Aram Tigram, Özgen made the video Harese (2020). It features dismantled weapons that have been transformed into musical instruments. In the work these instruments are played by American veterans who fought in various wars, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. They have been traumatised and feel abandoned by the same society for which they were fighting. With the help of music, Özgen attempts to alleviate the psychological effects of war.
Erkan Özgen (Turkey, 1971) lives and works in Diyarbakır, Turkey. In 2000 he graduated from the Çukurova University’s Painting Department. Since then he has been mainly working in the medium of video and has participated in group exhibitions in various countries in Europe and Asia, and in the United States. His work was exhibited during the 15th Istanbul Biennial in 2017, and Manifesta 12, and is part of many private and public collections, including those of Tate Modern, London, Collection Pinault Venice and Paris, Pinakothek Munich, and the Han Nefkens Foundation. Apart from an artist, Özgen is also a lecturer on contemporary art in Turkey and abroad, an ecological activist, and co-founder of Loading Independent Art Space in Diyarbakır.