By Ashitha Nagesh
Canan Tolon was born in Istanbul and spent her childhood in France. She spent her formative years between the ages of 1 and 11 in hospital being treated for Polio. Tolon later studied in Scotland, Germany, England and the US, worked in architectural practices for ten years, and now lives and works as an artist in Emeryville, California. However, Tolon disavows readings of her own biography in her body of work - instead, her pieces are made with the intention of allowing the viewer to see themselves within the abstractions. Her work has made use of organic materials, including grass that was grown on canvas and died during the course of the exhibition, rust, and coffee. A series of ink drawings on mylar plastic called Futur Imparfait, completed between 1986 and 1999, have recently been acquired by the British Museum. She spoke to Ashitha Nagesh on the occasion of her first UK solo show, “Sidesteps” at Parasol Unit in London.
I’m interested in your architectural background, because it translates quite strongly into a lot of your work and there’s an exploration of space in a lot of the pieces. Could you tell me a bit more about this?
You know, I think I studied architecture because I was interested in space, rather than the other way around. I worked for ten years in architectural offices, and I realised that although I didn’t have my own office or anything I had a strong idea of space – space and distance have always been very important to me. When I walk I of course take longer than other people, and sometimes I have to work on the floor; so I see a different perspective to others. Of course, architecture really helps as an education in so many ways, for example with scale and draughtsmanship, but I’m really beginning to see that it’s not the architecture that influenced the work – I studied architecture because I wanted to structure my concept of what space was. Even when I made figurative works, space was very much a part of it.
With those figurative works depicting people within the boxes, there’s the idea of inhabiting a space. This might seem like a strange connection to make, but in one of your later monumental works also it looks as though you’ve used pre-natal sonograms?
Yes, I didn’t use sonograms but I used a squeegee and I twisted it to get that same sweeping effect, and the mylar [plastic] gives it that x-ray quality – and the inside of our bodies are spaces also. I was thinking about how we can grow in spaces, in rooms rather than wombs – but the interesting thing is that if you are a woman you might think it’s a pregnancy or similar inhabited space. I like the idea of people reading my works in different ways, especially when doctors look at them and they think it’s about looking under the skin. This is a space that we don’t really know, but we just are. It’s another form of architecture really.
The womb is the first space we inhabit…
Yes! Exactly. It wasn’t intentionally from a womb image, though, it was totally accidental. I never want to use borrowed images; I create my own images, but I want them to look like they’ve been borrowed.
That reminds me of what you were saying earlier in the gallery about wanting to “trick the viewer.”
It’s like a guessing game – and I’m glad that you’re guessing in the game. I basically want people to see something different each time they look at the pieces. I’d be very happy if people were not able to describe my work.
I’m also drawn to your use of grass and other natural materials that decay, marking the passing of time through the course of the exhibition.
In this work [Under Pressure, 1994, in the exhibition catalogue] you can see that there is a repetition. It’s a Cartesian mapping – but when the different elements of the sculpture were placed next to each other, they looked like stretchers carrying bodies. At the same time, they had a beautiful California landscape look, because the California landscape is pretty bold. But because of the rhythm they were also like hospital beds, with bodies lying down to recover.
The idea of the body seems to pervade all of your work.
Read full interview @ Blouin ArtInfo