Mayis Rukel, still from 'The Pendant'

‘Where are those stars to shoot for?’ - in conversation with artist and writer Mayis Rukel 

Issue no4
Aug - Sep 2021
Onbeperkt toegankelijk & Eindexamens 2021

In the current issue of Metropolis M (Diaspora dialogen) Mayis Rukel is presenting an artist contibution, wrapping up the strange but intense last twelve months showing tables with Tarot cards, inspiring books, personal notes and a funding application form. Nele Brökelmann talks to the 2020 recipient of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy Award for Autonomous Art about his widely praised graduation work The Pendant and his plans for the future.

Two men are fighting over the head of a stuffed elephant, a fable about foxes is read out loud in a blue room and at a border control a woman with two faces helps a man to obtain his residence permit. With The Pendant, Rukel connects his Turkish origin and background to his current reality, living in the Netherlands. The videowork uses various short stories to reflect on how our societies are structured and, in Rukel’s words, ‘indoctrinating us’. Rukel enjoys discussing his work and its symbolic narratives, and including it into further discussions on the systemic state violence that it relates to.

—Nele Brökelmann In your graduation work and thesis, the mirror plays an important role. It makes me feel that there is something hidden, something I am as a viewer not supposed to see. Could you describe the mirror scenes? How do you conceptually interpret this object?

—Mayis Rukel ‘In the film, the mirror symbolizes the relationship between the whole and the fragments. The gemstones of the pendant are only visible on a fragment of the broken mirror, for instance, while they were invisible when the mirror was filmed as a whole. In order to detect what’s rendered invisible, we sometimes need to break the whole down and shift our focus on the smaller parts. The breaking of the mirror exposes the violence that takes place in the scenes following it. It takes us to the very roots from which we can create bigger life-affirming systems.’

'In order to detect what’s rendered invisible, we sometimes need to break the whole down and shift our focus on the smaller parts'

Mayis Rukel, still from 'The Pendant'

—Nele Brökelmann Another intriguing part in the film is the part in which the little fox recites the 24 Holy Words of the Wise Men, an imaginative scripture, in order to get chocolate from a human. It shows the little fox is completely taken in by his belief in the humans, and their view of how to engage with life .

—Mayis Rukel ‘Yes, that is the moment in which we see that the little fox has been completely indoctrinated by the human narrative of compulsion for control and the anxiety of the lack of it; reciting those holy words correctly means that the little fox is already dead.’

—Nele Brökelmann A third scene that interests me is the scene that takes place at some border control. A potential new citizen takes out plastic disks with engraved attributes that describe him in terms related to his culture of origin: Turkey. He exchanges them for the interpretation of the same attributes in the Dutch culture, shifting from ‘Upper Middle Class’ to ‘Lower Middle Class’, from ‘Tall’ to ‘Average Height’, and from ‘Fag’ to ‘Gay’. The scene seems to argue that immigration always entails that one forcefully has to leave certain parts of her former identity behind.

—Mayis Rukel ‘State borders are places where we are confronted with our assigned identities in a very straightforward way, mostly through biometrics that are completely political and racialized. A couple of times White people with a Western European background who watched The Pendant expressed their confusion about the way I, or people like me, can experience borders. In the domain of direct state discrimination, privileges are inevitably at play; that’s where the experiences differ a lot. The changing tokens in that scene are like an exchange of privileges one carries while crossing interstate borders.’

'A couple of times White people with a Western European background who watched The Pendant expressed their confusion about the way I, or people like me, can experience borders'

Mayis Rukel, still from 'The Pendant'

—Nele Brökelmann Being an immigrant myself, but having left at a much earlier age and without pursuing a study in my country of origin, Germany, I was wondering how you see your own background reflected in The Pendant?

—Mayis RukelThe Pendant is not solely about contemporary Turkish politics, even though many parts take their roots there. Sourcing them from my own experience of Turkishness gave me a personal access to the topics, but political disappearances, media and government manipulation and class warfare are everywhere. They are common experiences in the massive state structures we live in and I attempted to cover that ground universally.’

—Nele Brökelmann There is a lot of humor in The Pendant, from the satiric statements of the fortune teller to the fight over a stuffed animal, whose head gets ripped off. And it returns in your new podcast series Soft Edges as well, in which you and your colleague Lucie Gérard are talking about adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism. Is this humorous approach a strategy you developed over time or is it something you already did when you were a child?

—Mayis Rukel ‘Honestly, I think that it is a part of who I am, and I guess in the end it did become a strategy as well. A lot of these oppressive structures are completely illogical, it’s absurd that we are abiding by all of this, terrified because our survival is at stake. Sometimes it’s hilarious, but when we laugh about it, it’s often a nervous laughter: it’s so terrible, wrong and needs to change, but it appears to be so much bigger than us. I feel that humor is powerful, it helps us discern the truth from illusions and provides confidence and joy to our movements.’

Mayis Rukel, still from 'The Pendant'

—Nele Brökelmann Are you researching something specific at the moment?

—Mayis Rukel ‘These days I’m busy with many different things. Including the development of a feature film I want to make, and a story that might end up as a novel. Some of my projects might not directly relate to my visual practice or reach a gallery or a media space, but I see a lot of value in working without that kind of a calculation. My interests also appear unrelated sometimes, but they inevitably feed each other. I’m now partly focused on symbolism in the collective consciousness for a short video I am making for the RietveldTV that will be published end of May 2021. Meanwhile I am reading the book Is the Turk a White Man?, about the construction of the Turkish identity and how, in the earlier republican years, the Turkish elite tried so hard to attach Turkishness to Western Whiteness, and how that intense effort made the modern Turkish identity extremely complicated. We are still dealing with the consequences of that racial campaign, which directly relates to Turkey’s relationship with the EU. At the same time I follow the developments in the Dutch cultural community closely. Thanks to the efforts of brave journalists, survivors and artists, a lot of dysfunctional and harmful structures within our communities and institutions are exposed and are pressured for true change. I want to be involved in the conversation and take the responsibility of offering my own critical input to help; which is what I tried with my essay Issues of Accountability in the Dutch Cultural Community: Questions for the Post-October 30 Era that I published on my website recently.’

—Nele Brökelmann How do you think about and approach collective efforts? Collaborative working methods are also ways to bring forward systemic change and I was wondering if you see a shift towards that around you?

—Mayis Rukel ‘I have no doubt that collective efforts carry crucial keys to liberation and abolition. The collectives I am a part of feed me and my research a lot. At this point in my life though, I feel quite isolated because of the pandemic, and I’m trying to accept the tempo and the conditions of this situation as much as I can. It is very likely that a massive collective grief will emerge when this pandemic does not feel as threatening anymore. For all the loss, for having lived so long with the constant fear of the death of our loved ones. But the shape that grief will take is unpredictable to me. At the moment I am participating in a workshop about the principles of a death doula: someone who holds space for people who are in the process of dying. I don’t think I will pursue it as a career, but I felt the need to be better equipped at dealing with the reality of death when it came so close to us all. Our collective needs shift and change, and I feel that it’s important to adapt in order to shape the change.’

'The value and respect we show to each other’s work, labor and time, I feel, will inevitably reflect to bigger structures and pressure them for change’

Mayis Rukel, still from 'The Pendant'

—Nele Brökelmann How do you see your artistic career in relation to the process of learning these kind of skills, as accompanying someone in the process of dying?

—Mayis Rukel ‘My practice is my life, this is how I lived most of my life: researching, developing, learning and creating, way before I started my studies at the Rietveld. When my graduation work was received well, I got lots of encouraging advice urging me to pick this speed up, start a new project immediately and shoot for the stars. But where are those stars to shoot for? Where are we supposed to get acknowledgment from in the end? What are we supposed to aim for? That was a moment in which I was more focused on how my work was received so well, how affirming that felt and how happy it made me, and to experience that joy fully rather than jumping on the next thing. I am just interested in finding my own definition of happiness and success. Shaping a sustainable method of working that feels right to me and having a creative community that aligns with it is much more important to me. That is also why The Pendant was quite costly despite the generosity I was given. I got funding, had my savings and I paid everyone within the limit of that budget, totally transparent to everyone involved in each step. Our demand for a fair wage for our creative labor is crucial. I believe that we need to demand this from each other as well; this, to me, is one of the ways that it can move upwards in the form of pressure for bigger cultural funding. The value and respect we show to each other’s work, labor and time, I feel, will inevitably reflect to bigger structures and pressure them for change.’

MAYIS RUKEL VERZORGT DE KUNSTENAARSBIJDRAGE IN METROPOLIS M NUMMER 1-2021 DIASPORA DIALOGEN. ALS JE NU EEN JAARABONNEMENT AFSLUIT STUREN WE JE DIT NUMMER GRATIS OP. MAIL JE NAAM EN ADRES NAAR [email protected]

Nele Brökelmann
is a visual artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2021