Staging Brancusi

Sarah Handelman and Asli Çiçek

Asli Çiçek, sketchbook notes from Brancusi’s studio, for ‘Brancusi’, BOZAR, Brussels (detail), 2019. Pen on paper.

Sarah Handelman: When we started talking about your work in scenography almost a year before, you were in the middle of designing the Brancusi exhibition, which opened last October at BOZAR in Brussels. Since then I’ve been wanting to have a conversation with you about the kinds of stages that scenography asks you as an architect to consider. In the context of this show, there is the stage of Brancusi’s re-enacted atelier that for many reasons had to be transformed into another kind of space; there is also the staging of the objects themselves; and there is the question of how you stage movement – how you compel a visitor to get from one thing to the next. But what I’m particularly interested in discussing is how you begin to consider any of these things because there is also a kind of staging of these first ideas. How and, more importantly, where do you start?

Asli Çiçek: I begin like I always do, by studying the content and by taking notes in a sketchbook. But a sketchbook is the opposite of what a stage is – performed and observed. What happens on the page is never meant for anyone but me. What we’re looking at aren’t drawings for clients. They aren’t meant to be aesthetic objects, and in that sense, if they become nice, then it is someone else interpreting them as a nice thing. They’re just work – a way of talking about my projects with myself, however intimate or insecure.

As a place, a sketchbook allows me to move through ideas. My process is this literal and childish: I am given a commission, I dive into the oeuvre to be shown, I think of something, I immediately draw it in a sketchbook. If this reveals a problem, I turn the page and draw it again. There are moments when I revisit earlier pages to find something, but I don’t dwell. If I went back to look at most pages I wouldn’t remember what I had drawn, because in design, a sketchbook is there simply to help you move on.

I also have no interest in the aestheticisation of working documents, which transforms them into commodities. You can make something very decorative and beautiful, but if there’s no content, then it just becomes a visual object. And today especially, that kind of stuff gets digested quickly. I still want my finished projects to have certain aesthetic qualities, but there is a difference between an aesthetic that emerges from the final object (the key word here is ‘object’), and the aestheticisation of something you produce on the way to that. When a process becomes reduced to a series of images, I find that problematic.

SH: That issue of commodification is very relevant to Brancusi himself, whose work and process have become extremely consumable.

AC: Yes, and even his studio is a re-enactment. I had visited it in Paris many times before, but once I got the commission to work on this project I went back again in order to understand how he was showing his work.

Asli Çiçek, sketchbook notes from Brancusi’s studio, for ‘Brancusi’, BOZAR, Brussels, 2019. Pen on paper.

This is the first note I took related to the show. It’s a summary of the elements I thought were important: the pedestal and the wood on the right side, the curtain caught my eye early on; and a cupboard of gypsum models.

SH: That reminds me of photographs of the Brancusi atelier that I have seen, where the floor is covered by a forest of plinths, solid volumes and his artworks.

AC: Right – and I knew it was this atelier space that works the best for showing Brancusi’s sculptures. But due to the conservation requirements of several of the private lenders and collections, we were forbidden from positioning anything on the floor of the galleries in BOZAR. Consequently most of the sculptures had to be in a vitrine. And so even in that early observational study I was aware that the elements as they appeared here would have to be distilled and used in unexpected ways.

One example of this was the entrance to the exhibition. The idea was that you could not see the exhibition when you entered the first hall. To get away from the ‘Brancusi aesthetic’, I wanted an entrance where you could not immediately see what you already expect, and so what you see here in this sketch is a delayed sequence where you do not see the exhibition when you enter the first hall. You walk behind a curtain with a video projection, and up the stairs to see Le supplice in all its drama. Beyond sculpture, curtains functioned as partial walls to elongate the entrance.

Asli Çiçek, floorplan (left) and entrance studies (right) for ‘Brancusi’, BOZAR, Brussels, 2019. Pen on paper.

SH: Included in the show were a number of photographs taken by Brancusi of his own work. They’re so chromatic they shimmer, and you lose your sense of the ground. How did these inform your design?

AC: I wanted to design an exhibition that could turn the ideas in these photographs into three-dimensional space. The views through the galleries of the sequences of objects needed to be visually layered. Glass pedestals became the way of letting this happen. It could both contain and present the objects, while allowing visitors a way of seeing through them. So, in looking at one artwork, you might also be seeing one in the background, or another off in the periphery. Glass also allowed me to use the floor as a narrative device, it was the tapestry that could hold these floating objects in place.

Asli Çiçek, floorplan showing miniature technique for ‘Brancusi’, BOZAR, Brussels, 2019. Pen on paper.
Asli Çiçek, vitrine studies for ‘Brancusi’, BOZAR, Brussels, 2019. Pen on paper.

The page below shows the moment when I pretty much knew what I wanted to do. You saw the first drawing I made – the observation drawing. There were many more between that drawing and this one, but I guess both serve a similar purpose in that they were drawn as reminders to myself. One was a summary of elements as found in Brancusi’s studio, and this one is the expression of that in BOZAR. You see the shimmering effect. Then on the right side you have the entrance where I’ve drawn the projection. In this drawing I am showing myself that I understand what I want to do. Then come the other drawings, where I start to get into details.

Asli Çiçek, floor plan and installation notes for ‘Brancusi’, BOZAR, Brussels, 2019. Pen on paper.

As you can see with the floor plan, the artworks roll into the halls. The floor goes in-between them and there is a kind of continuity. In that sense, it is also extremely staged. In exhibitions a visitor enters the space and at first they follow your logic, but after the second or third room there may be too many people and they start taking unpredictable routes. This means that while a chronology or some curatorially established sequence is important, you have to think about how the objects and visitors spatially relate to each other. You never know how they will move.

This floor plan in the centre of the page shown below is very simplified: two entrances, three objects and the relationships between them. You can also see how the corner meets the curtain. It’s not really a floor plan or a perspective, but for me it shows the constellation of five objects in their totality. Everything is watching you, in a way. The hybrid plan-perspective method I’m using comes out of the tradition of Ottoman miniature paintings, where you’re never really fixed to a certain reality or perspective but loosened from it. I am not interested in whether my drawings show a real simulation, but instead what your eye might catch, even when the space is still unrealised and existing only in two-dimensions. You can define your object, you can know your elements, and you have your plot – which is the floor plan or your space. And then everything in-between becomes part of that whole conversation. Everything that is not defined makes its way into the composition. The miniature drawings allow me to capture this in-between quality almost immediately. It is not an architectural drawing, but it tells a story.

Asli Çiçek, miniature, perspective and detail studies for ‘Brancusi’, BOZAR, Brussels, 2019. Pen on paper.

SH: And in an exhibition you have to be able to have that: the plot as plan, but also the plot in the sense of a storytelling device.

AC: Right. And I need that narrative in order to make the design. The space between objects is also a part of the exhibition.

SH: How do these ideas play out in traditional miniatures?

AC: For a long time I didn’t have an interest in these paintings but growing up in Istanbul I saw them in Ottoman palaces and libraries. Then I got older and moved away, and like many things from childhood, I only realised their value as an adult. In a miniature the story informs the drawing. It uses many different techniques to show what is important to the space. There is no concern for light or perspective, no shadow. There are lines, colours and patterns, but the scene is extremely surreal. Here, realistic spatial reproduction is not the priority – and I like that there is a method that helps understand this world I’m designing without having to be true to it in terms of spatial or architectural conventions. I mean, eventually I will have to do that – because this isn’t all about atmosphere. I have to bring the ideas back into a recognisable reality and proportion. At a certain moment I take the ruler and I start to draw to scale.

SH: Right, but the miniature is a reminder to you that there is more to reality than space alone – such as time, movement, people.

AC: If you make a section of a house, for example, you make only one view in a space. But a miniature can criss-cross the scene, and you immediately know that things are happening at once. As a drawing technique, the miniature opens up the possibilities for translating what I see in my head, which is simultaneously thinking from eye level and from above. Miniatures help because they are very schematic and object related. I can define the objects and then design the spaces out of the presence of these objects. At the same time the drawing is a total composition – it isn’t piecemeal, but follows a logic, or a story. And all of the objects related to that story are there to enhance or strengthen it.

Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014
Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014
Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014
Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014

SH: And that’s sort of the whole point of an exhibition.

AC: Yes, you want to enter an atmosphere that is all about the work. The work is object based. Each piece of Brancusi’s we showed had particular ways of being seen. In the big gallery which was called ‘The Muses’, for example, seeing some of them from the back upon entering the room contributed to the narrative of the space. Others had to be seen from the front. By arranging the busts so that they watched the centre of the room, the visitor also became a point of their gaze. But I also imagined that the busts of these different female figures, which are recurring and connected to each other in Brancusi’s oeuvre, would be gossiping over the visitors after the opening hours. While the Ottoman miniatures can be very fantastical, using them in design is part of a practical choice. They offer many layers, allowing you to see multiple objects and views at one time. It frees your concern with the perfect perspective – instead you can have five, six, seven perspectives in the same composition. Your eye catches something and you enter the drawing from anywhere. You start to walk through it.

In design you find something, you give it a frame, and then you let everything loose – out of your head, out of your drawings. In a farfetched way, these compositions come close to that idea.

Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür of Manisa. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014.
Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür of Manisa. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014.
Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür of Manisa. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014.
Metin And, Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları, Minyatür of Manisa. Published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014.

Watch a talk by Asli Çiçek on the exhibition architecture of ‘Brancusi’ at BOZAR.