Mood Swings: Dropping Something, Picking It Up, and Dropping It Again           

Mood Swings: Dropping Something, Picking It up, and Dropping It Again: On the Art of Zeynep Kayan

TEXT, 2022
originally published on exhibition catalogue
Zeynep Kayan : one one two one two three,
Zilberman Gallery Berlin


1-Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV,
Chap. 5, § 11, transl. by Terence Irwin,
Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985, p. 106.

2-See Sianne Ngai: Ugly Feelings, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 35.

3-Dylan Trigg: Topophobia:
A Phenomenology of Anxiety,
London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, p. XXIX.

4-Annette Baier: “What Emotions Are About,” in: Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 4:
Action Theory and Philosophy of Mind (1990),
pp. 1–29, here p. 3.

5-This is a reference to Bruce Nauman’s
work Get Out of My Mind,
Get Out of This Room (1968).

6-See Jacques Lacan: The Seminar of
Jacques Lacan. Book X: Anxiety, transl.
by Adrian Price, London: Polity Press, 2014.

7-Trigg 2016 (see note 3), p. XXXI.

8-See Dylan Trigg: Topophobia:
A Phenomenology of Anxiety, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

9-See Henry Lefebvre: Rhythmanalysis:
Space, Time and Everyday Life, London:
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013

10-See Arne Melberg: “Repetition (In the
Kierkegaardian Sense of the Term),” in: diacritics,
Vol. 20, No. 3
(1990), pp. 71–87.

11- The idea of anger as something
one can or cannot afford comes from the phrase “She couldn’t afford
anger”, Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, ed. by Deborah McDowell, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

12 I am indebted to Sianne Ngai’s beautiful book Ugly Feelings (2005) and her conceptualisations of noncathartic feelings.

Mood Swings: Dropping Something, Picking It up, and Dropping It Again

On the Art of Zeynep Kayan

One: Irritation

Those people we call irritable are those who are irritated by the wrong things, more severely and for longer than is right.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

You are sitting in a cafe – or a library, or a coworking space – doing something on your computer. You are alone at your table but surrounded by people who are all in their own universes. You enjoy being passively social by not interacting with anyone but still feeling the proximity of other feeling beings. As you are delving into your own thoughts in full concentration, something comes in and reaches your ear. A monotonous sound. Someone in the room is tapping on a table, on and on and on. You cannot hear anything but a fingertip’s tapping. It gives you a tingle. You look around and check the surface of every table and every chair to detect who’s the perpetrator. You cannot find the guilty one. Someone’s mechanical expression or release of anxiety makes you irritated. You cannot concentrate on anything else anymore. All you can do is let yourself listen to the stupefying sound. You know that when it stops, it will resonate and repeat in your head. How would you communicate this kind of mood of unease which is too trivial to put into words but too invasive to ignore?

Zeynep Kayan’s works in the exhibition, one one two one two three, are coming from something that is akin to those moments of irritation. Seemingly trivial, mundane, and everyday, coming from an unknown limb, the unidentified irritations resonate in corporal depths, and on the epidermic surface. The images of Kayan, be it moving or still, capturing a movement, a gesture, an act, are the records of the body’s urges to work through, mitigate, convey the restlessness. Irritation is both an emotional and a physical experience, particularly related to the skin and its hypersensitivity to its surroundings. Zeynep Kayan, in her works that excessively depend on her own body, and mostly out on a limb, puts herself in the world as highly irritable skin. She condenses her body into two-dimension; she does not provide us with multi-faceted, restless objects, her practice takes place within the limitation of the image, the surface, the film; namely: her skin. Stretching herself up as a big long skin covering the whole space, she records the levels of sensitivity in response to whatever is around her. In a closeted, dimly lit space, Kayan sits, plays with immediate objects, throws herself against the wall, looks at pieces of rope, repeats a sentence, spills water, rubs the floor, distracts herself until this ugly mood is over, and finally she makes peace with her surroundings.

A mood shapes our experience of the world, binding us with things in a meaningful and singular fashion,” says Dylan Trigg. Unlike emotions that “are about something, not everything,” moods, “if they are about anything, seem to be about nearly everything”. In the eternal loops of moving images and repetitive photographs that are nothing else but screenshots of her videos, we are not given the cause of the mood that seems to be anything and everything. Instead, in the strange and gloomy sequences of irritated and restless Kayan, we are exposed to the artist’s reveling in actions and aesthetics of irritation. She both offers the gestures, sounds, images, sublimations of her own experience, and passes on the mood to us, our skin resonating with the exact same irritation. We are following, impatiently and irritated, Kayan’s intermittent movements with the expectation of finally seeing her resolution, “go girl, get over this net, get out of … (your) mind, get out of this room!”; and at the same time, we are enjoying the images of unease.

One: Anxiety

What happens when you drop something on the floor – a piece of rope, a glass, an iPhone – you bend down to pick it up, you pick it up and resume what you have been doing, not taking this small mistake seriously, and then BOOM, you drop that thing again? What happens this second time when you bend down and pick it up hastily, irritated by recognising the failure of the motor functions of your body, its resistance to your orders? Where does this irritation come from?

When there is no one watching you as you are failing, falling, dropping, and knocking over – there is still something gazing at you. Anxiety watches you, controls you, polices you in case you fail. Anxiety, for Lacan, is the sensation of the desire of the other; you get anxious when you don’t know what you are for the other. You don’t know how they see you, therefore you don’t know who you are. Anxiety begins just at the moment that you can’t pin down your own image in others’ eyes, when your image is lacking. In a different discipline but within a similar register, for Heidegger, in anxiety, the predetermined meaning of things in their everyday context, including our own selves, melts away. The result is that the subject “feel ill-at-home in the world, the world reveals itself to be the site of an irreducible and original strangeness.”

Zeynep Kayan, through her exhibition, constitutes and re-constitutes her missing image, sometimes by way of hiding herself under the shadow, sometimes by taking shelter under her big hair, sometimes distracting the viewer’s gaze with the constant movement and cacophony she creates. As she renders herself as a moving silhouette, she unwieldily tests and controls her image in the eye of the other. Although she comes to the stage with er face bare in all its nakedness, with the movement, repetition, multiplication, and illusion of herself, she hides, masks and distorts her image in the eye of the other in an attempt to conceal herself as much as possible so that she can soothe her anxious self. Against this anxiety, or exactly because of it, she puts herself out there, not only is her body the corporal material she is using in her works, but she is also exhibiting her very self. Ultimately, as she exhibits her own ruptured image, she cannot satisfy the desire of others, and what we see in her work becomes about the body of anxiety, how the body is shaped by anxiety and how anxiety is shaped by her body.

In this mood of ‘ill-at-home’, everything she touches and intervenes in starts feeling strange, unworldly, uncanny. Her experiments with the room she inhabits, the walls, the pieces of rope, the net, the water, the glass, and even with the model she uses in her videos are experiments she makes to understand where her body, as her own, begins and where it ends. In a phenomenological frame, our pre-given bodies, our forms that are paradoxically pre-coded as ourselves, navigate by experimenting with the world with their corporal materialities while experiencing themselves as bodies at the same time. We are programmed to equate our bodies with ourselves. In many instances, however, from sudden shivers, trembling of legs, temporary blindness to any kind of illness, or just getting old, we encounter the materiality of our own corps which we don’t have a say in. Autonomous, alien, unknown – we fail to know the body, or the body fails us. Anxiety takes place in moments of the “felt experience of the body as alien”, when I confront the body that ceased to be me but becomes it. As one gets alienated from one’s body, one gets anxious; and as she gets anxious, she further confuses the body’s boundaries.

Being unable to escape from the body but also not knowing where the body starts and ends, Kayan, in the anxious quest for her body’s contours, is looking for certainties. In each gesture, she seeks an affirmation that she has a body, this is her body, she is in control of that body. She slams her arm against the wall, she records herself slamming her arm against the wall, she projects her video showing herself slamming her arm against the wall onto herself and she slams her arm against the wall, once more, in synchrony with her multiplied self. She wants to make sure her body makes noise. She wants to make sure she is present, just like throwing a coin in a wishing well and trying to understand how high the well is by listening to the sound of a splash. She makes sure she exists with the echo of herself.

Two: Repetition

What happens when you drop something on the floor – a piece of rope, a glass, an iPhone – you bend down to pick it up, you pick it up and resume what you have been doing and not taking this small mistake seriously, and then BOOM, you drop that thing back again in the same way as the previous time? What happens this second time when you bend down and pick it up hastily?

The repetition – of dropping, of failure, of the mechanical body’s movements – is what Zeynep Kayan’s is interested in. In her anxious quest of re-finding and defining the outline of her unified body, and body image, she multiplies, shatters, scatters herself. To further self-affirm, to de-alienate her body and its image, she breaks the mirror and multiplies her fragmented image. From repeating her broken image, she goes on to repeat the gesture, the action, the sound to reach a broken rhythm, and a sense of difference born out of each iteration of the same gesture, action, and sound. The rhythm that she creates with her repetitive acts with her body resonates as a chorus of the inharmonic but coexisting voices of different moods. Rhythm, as something only sensed and analysed through the body, in the exhibition are the sounds generated through Zeynep Kayan’s body, swings from arrhythmia, conflict or dissonance among rhythms, to polyrhythmia, co-existence of many rhythms.

Repetition is linked to Zeynep Kayan’s take on the body as an automaton. The body’s ability to live in the world, mundane movements’ mesmerising harmony, the body’s autonomous functioning bewilder and disconcert Kayan. The simple acts of pouring water, of sensing an object, or walking from point A to point B can be subjected to an investigation as one might easily question who is it that walks from one point to another, who is it that is holding that piece of rope, who is that slams itself against the table. Since we are not calculating our steps, the mere act of walking can easily turn into a mechanical operation that disempowers the reflexive self and puts the unified, conscious, ultra-connected self into question.

The anxious body of Kayan, in her alienation from her own body and with its unfathomable capabilities eluding her control, questions meticulously every act her corporality enables her to do, through repetition. Her investigation of her body’s limits, however, is itself limited; she does not go as far as Chris Burden or Bas Jan Ader; she is not interested in violating herself in her investigation of the body. Instead, she looks closely at the repetition of mundane, domestic gestures to test her body’s self-governance and to detect malfunctions in her body as automaton. And this happens, eventually. The tone changes, the sentences break off abruptly, her body and the image of her body are not always congruent.

Repetition, in failure and in arrhythmia, plays out different roles and functions in various ways in Zeynep Kayan’s practice. The same image is repeated on different prints. Her image mirrors itself, sometimes via the projection on herself, sometimes on different screens. We hear the echo of her voice, the reflection of the sound created by her body mechanics, the accentuation of her own words. The continuous, eternal loop the videos are being played in renders Kayan’s actions compulsive behaviour. The aesthetic atmosphere created by Kayan seems like a reminiscence. Her works seem to allude to minimalist videos, to performance works, to some iconic movie scenes, or to an act from a dance theatre. With the low resolution of the videos and images taken from videos, we are reminded of early video works. Nonetheless, the citationality of Kayan’s works fails. Her works create a false nostalgia, a repetition of something that never happened, and give reference to someone who never existed. Repetition manifests itself as something never really achievable; it is possible only in failure; the only repetition is the impossibility of repetition, repetition is always doomed to create a difference from an initial event. Kayan’s works are about the failure of repetition, more than repetition itself. Passing from one identical print to another, we see a difference. Even looking at a loop, successively presenting the same video over and over again, we become sceptical if it is really the exact same video every time, or if there aren’t rather some slight differences.

The failure of repetition, rhythm, image makes the effect longer-lasting. Zeynep Kayan’s works create some kind of a Zeigarnik effect, an earworm, a song that is stuck in your head, or an eye-worm, an image creating a sense of incompleteness that lingers and keeps one’s mind busy with futile attempts to complete it, which only enhances the irritating insistence of the rhythm, of the image. The only video that keeps talking creates that urgency of the insistence, Zeynep Kayan repeats and we repeat after her:

Ben yapmak istediğim şeyi yapma fırsatını çoğunlukla böyle kaçırırım.

(This is how I often miss the opportunity to do the things I want to do.)

And on and on.

One: Entrapped

You are walking on a narrow road, lost in thought. You are not looking ahead. You suddenly find another person in front of you. You understand that while she is coming from the opposite direction, she finds you in front of herself too. You must give way to each other. You shift to the right, and she shifts to the left with a mirror effect. You step to the left, she to the right. At that moment, you can’t get away from each other. You are in sync. All you need to do is break it. You should step to the left and she should step to the right.

In many of the works, Zeynep Kayan shows herself entrapped. She is always in a closeted space. She is always already in a compulsive loop, but she is also cornered, hunted, put through the hoop. We don’t see if someone else caught her into the net or if she put herself into it. We clearly see two bodies in the video where one of them is cornered, and her chair cannot go through the wall; but this second person does not appear as someone else but one of Zeynep Kayan’s split images, her extension, a part of the irritable skin, her anxious body that does not know its boundaries.

Should we save her? Or is she happy being entrapped?

Two: Repetition

You are sitting in a cafe doing something on your computer. You are alone at your table but surrounded by people who are minding their own businesses. As you are delving into your own thoughts in full concentration, something comes in and penetrates your ear. A vibration. A monotonous sound. Someone in the room tapping on the table, on and on and on. You cannot hear anything but a fingertip’s tapping. It gives you a tingle. You cannot concentrate on anything else anymore. All you can do is to let yourself listen to the sound. The more you listen, the more you find yourself tuned in. You start accompanying the rhythm. You tap along. Now you form a choir.

Repetition serves Zeynep Kayan to heal herself, to ease her ugly moods. She repeats and repeats in her approximation of a machine, an alien, an autonomous stranger. She renders herself mechanical, neutralises herself, numbs herself …

… so that no more ugly mood can haunt her.

Three: What happens to anger when you cannot afford aggression?

People come together and act out with mutual anger and shared fear, as they say. Rage and terror can turn a society upside down. But what is the social potential of irritation? Can all the anxious people in the world come together, break the loop and change the world? What’s political about noncathartic moods?