The hand is crueler than the tongue, the poet and artist Armando once said. After all, it is the hand that grabs the weapon. But what to do with weapons that are there to protect us, let alone weapons that have made it into UNESCO World Heritage? These are two of the questions the Kurdish artist Erkan Özgen poses in five video artworks about war, weapons and violence. Together they form the exhibition Off the recordon display this summer in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam.

Take his video Aesthetics of Weapons (2018): Here the words are a lot more menacing than the weapon itself. In the picture you see an anonymous cop who talks about the love for his gun. The weapon forms his identity, because it allows him to show his masculinity. It was not for nothing that his father was furious when he saw the weapon in his house: “I had something that he did not have”, says the mouth (you do not get to see the officer’s face), which made the father feel weak, the lesser of his son. While the cop strokes, cleans and focuses his gun, he explains how he sees the gun as his life partner and praises the almost feminine shape of the thing in his hand. He just doesn’t put the thing in his mouth, but keeps it at a kiss. A kiss for the pistol, which is especially threatening because of the words. The weapon that should protect civilians is not so much the problem here, as the man who attaches his status to it.

The reassuring weapon: that is what Özgen embroiders in The Memory of Time (2018), a video he made as an artist-in-residence in Helsinki. On the Finnish archipelago of Suomenlinna, an army island that is still an old fortress and where cannons from the distant past have been displayed since UNESCO declared them a heritage site, he filmed the tourists posing near such a cannon. Someone puts their head in it, others climb on top and in some cases the whole family is grinning for it. A holiday snapshot, which looks rather wry because of the series in which Özgen places the video. No one seems to care what these weapons have ever done. Özgen himself links this to the question of whether today’s weapons may also be treated in the same way in hundreds of years’ time. Whether Putin’s ballistic missile ‘Satan 2’ will ever be hugged like that, for example, is a good question. But that sensible question in this case results in a video that is a bit too long-winded: the tourists posing in front of the cannon look too similar to keep watching them with interest.

Video still from: Erkan Özgen, The Memory of Time (2018)

Grey hairs

zgen’s (Turkey, 1971) videos often tell stories about the impact of violence, migration and identity. Whether it’s the cop or the tourist, or Yazidi women in a refugee camp in northern Iraq. Abused and mistreated by IS fighters, they tell about their experiences in Purple Muslin (2018). “Don’t be fooled by my gray hair, I’m not that old yet,” says one of the women. The traumas have left her confused, daughters have disappeared and meanwhile she is confusing the names of the children. As she sits on a bright blue rug and can be seen behind her colored pillow and other blankets, she is flat on her story. No colorful imagery, but bare facts about the dehumanization that befell her. She is one of the many in the camp, where cloth and wood have to offer protection. The women talk about their traumas, meanwhile they try to stick to some rituals. The strongest point here is that Özgen gives no context, no images of IS fighters, but focuses only on the women, keeping the camera at a distance.

Video still from: Erkan Özgen, Purple Muslin (2018).

The combination of harsh words and flowery image contrasts with what Özgen tries in his video Harese (2020). He was inspired by the Armenian musician Aram Tigram, who once said: “If I were born again, I would melt down all tanks and weapons and make instruments out of them.” That is what Özgen does promptly: he lets American military veterans make music with weapons: a rhythmic whole is created while a row of bullets is zipped, weapons are loaded and missile parts serve as drums. Here too we are dealing with traumatized men, only they do not need words. Perhaps it is because the sound was not completely in sync with the images, that here too, as with the guns in Helsinki, the idea is better than the execution, the stomping men do not stick.

gestures

That can’t exactly be said for thirteen-year-old Muhammed in the video Wonderland (2016). This work, in which a deaf boy who cannot speak, explains in gestures what he saw before fleeing Syria with his family, is the highlight of the exhibition. As he waves his hands in front of his eyes, then puts his hands behind his back for a moment and then pretends to fall over, you can hardly help but look away. He emits sounds while imitating how people get pounded, how they fall down when there is a shot.

Every time you look the other way, it’s like he’s keeping you on track again with a few sounds, a repetition of a fist on one hand, or the hands as binoculars for the bombings to come. No words, no rhythm, no pose: here it turns out that it is indeed the hand that is linked to cruelty: Muhammed’s hands show hard what war and trauma look like.

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