The endings of a Turkish verbal tense written in black plexiglas were applied on the ochre façade of a corner building.
Photo: author unknown. Source here.
Mise-en-scène: a significant part of the Turkish community in Berlin was established during the ’60s and ’70s, under a bilateral agreement between Germany and Turkey. Originally recruited in order to fill the lack of manpower in post-war Germany, the Gastarbeiter (guest workers) were mostly young men who were paid full wages, but from whom it was expected to return to Turkey within some years. “But few workers returned because there were few good jobs in Turkey. Instead they brought in wives and family members and settled in ethnic enclaves.”
Am Haus, the 1994 installation by the Turkish female artist Ayse Erkmen (1949-), chose the façade of a housing building at the busy Oranienstrasse, in Kreuzberg, one of the districts with the highest rate of Turks in Berlin.
Photo source: ERKMEN, Ayse – In Berlin. Berlin: DAAD-Künstlerprogramm, 1995. p. 29.
Am Haus could well be mistaken for an advertisement to a language school. According to a website of online Turkish lessons, there are two different variations of the past tense in this tongue: one with the suffix -di and one other with -mis, being that the first one is more common in the everyday speech. The difference between -di and -mis past tenses is simple: if you’ve lived the event or have seen it with your own eyes, with your own senses, the past is built with the -di suffix. But if you didn’t see nor hear it, then -mis is employed. The -mis tense is used in stories and tales. It is commonly referred to as the indefinite past tense.
Erkmen’s installation introduces that peculiarity of the language through the endings of the Turkish indefinite past tense, a conjugation that fell into disuse amidst the younger generations of Turkish background who, meanwhile, assumed the German as their main tongue.
Am Haus means literally “On the House”, but one should conceal the article between brackets in order to preserve the ambiguity of the German title – specially considering the emphasis that this installation puts upon language refinement. “On (the) House” also refers to the way one speaks in Turkey, the faraway home of parents but less and less of their offspring.
Though subtle, Erkmen’s installation is extremely poetic. By employing the past that no one saw or heard, the “tense used in stories and tales”, the intervention acts in the field of nostalgia by promoting it – if it exists – or by pointing out its absence – to those for whom that past is long gone.
Concerning its categorization on the tripartite scheme of the public art – memory, identity and action –, one could say that Am Haus relates more to identity, but its subtle interventional character grants it a special framing as action.
By adding a textual message to a wall, one can arguably state that Am Haus approach is reminiscent of the graffiti – they both definitely intervene in a provocative manner. However, Am Haus stands boldly apart from the intrusive character of a random vandal attack. Erkmen’s installation doesn’t seek to place itself where it doesn’t belong. In fact, by ‘turkifying’ a façade in the Kreuzberg district, Am Haus expresses an almost opposite attitude, like an attempt to complete the setting with an indispensible element that it lacked before. Erkmen’s “graffiti” convert instead of subverting. Furthermore, by imposing a Turkish cultural element on the façade of a typical Berlin building, Erkmen also seems to suggest that the social integration of the foreigners implies a certain need to rethink the public space and its ways of appropriation. It is specially this feature that reveals the interventional nature of Am Haus, defining it better as “action”.
For its prime location, daily crossed by thousands of Turkish speakers, Am Haus promotes transient discussion. One can imagine that, whenever a passerby who knows how to conjugate with -mis notices the installation, some sentences might be constructed employing the threatened tense. Others, to whom the hooked letters will stress an immediate familiarity, might end up frustrated for not understanding what they write. To those, the installation might end up whetting the curiosity for a grammar review.
More than a graffito, Am Haus is a “wanted poster” for culture, or a transformed form of publicity promoting the language.
Photo: author unknown. Source here.
The link between this installation and advertising was emphasized in 1997 when Erkmen gave continuity to the project in Istanbul. On a large electronic billboard, the same indefinite past endings were screened for a few seconds in-between the programmed advertising spots. Conversations, was the title chosen by the artist for the installation in Istanbul.
In Erkmen’s own words: “The first version in Kreuzberg, Am Haus, sought to be a mere visual experience for those that are not familiar with the language and, for the Turkish community, an opportunity to build up sentences. While in Istanbul, it could induce conversations considering that most people speak the language.”