by Dick Hebdige
Elcin Pia Joyner is a gifted and ambitious thinker-practitioner who manages to condense subtle and complex ideas and issues into images and sometimes stunningly ‘blunt’ three dimensional objects with an economy and wit that is quite remarkable. What distinguishes Elcin’s work is the extraordinary facility with which she manages to navigate between highly elaborated and nuanced conceptual and theoretical concerns and the design, fabrication/ execution and presentation of fully realised art works.
In Elcin’s fast developing ouvre the theory does not provide an ancillary support for the art work any more than the artwork sets out to passively ‘illustrate’ the theory. Instead, the two axes -the material and immaterial aspects of the art work- intersect organically in formally rigorous, but consistently provocative and surprising ways. The work is in dialogue with the theoretical, critical and literary/cinematic sources that function alongside her experiences as a self-described ‘nomad-migrant’ as the primary inspirational triggers. The hinge that links the artist to the theory through the work turns literally and figuratively on tropes of mobility.
A glance at Elcin’s resume perhaps provides one explanation for the ease with which she has appropriated the conceptual frameworks and persona of the nomad. Hailing from the ‘liminal’ state of Turkey, Europe’s hinge with Asia (and vice versa), she studied Theater and Film in Germany and The Netherlands before arriving in California to undertake her studies at the graduate level in Art, and Film and Media Studies. But though clearly a cosmopolitan and world traveler, Elcin actively repudiates the aura of privilege and entitlement associated with certain forms of contemporary cosmopolitanism. She remains keenly aware of the constraints that operate at the border and the very different circumstances under which different national, social and ethnic groups are consigned to staying put or moving from one place to another. Rather than fixating on the facile ‘facts’ of mass transit and accelerated mobility-in-general, her work addresses issues of cultural difference, historical and geo-political conflict, migrancy and refugee status in an unevenly ‘globalized’ international context.
Two sculptural works in particular exemplify this aspect of her project: the Ziggurat and Mobile Charlie. The Ziggurat consists of 16 cinderblocks stacked as a pyramid. Each block has four caster wheels glued to its base. The Ziggurat, the ancient Mesopotamian precursor of the pyramid, hailing as it does from the part of the world we now know as Iraq/Iran is in Elcin’s work a surrogate for all apparently stable hierarchies. It’s only when we get closer that we realise that each of the blocks out of which the piece is made has four caster wheels glued to its base. The implication is clear: the hierarchies can be dismantled and reconfigured, the semblance of permanence remains haunted by the specter of mobility. In March 2011 as part of a site-specific exhibit organised in the Mojave Desert, Elcin added another pointed twist to the work by installing the Ziggurat in the hinterland adjacent to the Twenty Nine Palms Marine Base, the primary military training ground for U.S. wars in other deserts and home to a simulated Iraqi cityscape constructed out of shipping containers.
With The Mobile Charlie, Elcin’s investigation of border issues/ mobility are extended and expanded with concision and dry wit. A scaled replica of the historic ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ guard hut in Berlin, itself an internationally recognised symbol of the Cold War, is placed on two wheels and attached via a trailer hitch to a police car complete with flashing red and blue lights which was parked at the entrance to the gallery housing the Art show in May 2011. The absurdist paradox of a mobile border check point (less innocently hilarious, perhaps, if one considers the deadly game of cat and mouse played by undocumented workers, vigilantes and the Border Patrol along our own southern border) is suddenly grounded by its literal articulation to a vehicle that represents the power and authority of the law enforcement wing of a (super-power) nation-state. Like much of Elcin’s work, the Mobile Charlie is a three dimensional literalization: a metaphor of a metaphor: an incisive meditation on the political spats and classificatory tangles surrounding terms like ‘citizen’, ‘alien’, ‘resident’, ‘refugee’,’migrant’,’ guest-worker’ etc.
For someone at such an early stage in her career, there is, then, an unusual degree of both consistency and sophistication across all of Elcin’s endeavors. She has a rare capacity to rigorously think through some of the key social, cultural and political issues of the day while making work based around those concerns that is at once serious and seriously playful. Claims for ‘criticality’ and ‘innovation’ are now axiomatic within contemporary art, but what is remarkable about Elcin’s various projects is that they consistently transcend the all too familiar vocabulary of ‘politically engaged’ work and function instead as ‘critical interventions’ that are time and time again (for once!) genuinely worthy of the name.