Culture
5 September 2019

Living Under The Net

Alexandra Chaves

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Years ago, Hale Tenger came across a story that she couldn’t forget. It was a fictional narrative about a hunting ploy used by aristocrats that turned birds into easy prey.

Before hunting season, hunters would cast nets over the forest, forcing birds to fly closer to the ground. By the time the hunt began, the birds had become so accustomed to low heights that they inevitably fell victim to the shooters.

“If birds can forget to fly high in the sky, what have we humans forgotten?”

Although she was unable to trace the origins of the story, Tenger was so affected by it that she used it as a starting point for her latest public intervention titled Under, the psychological experience of which explores structures of power and control in our societies and communities. The artist poses the question, “If birds can forget to fly high in the sky, what have we humans forgotten?”, challenging our own learned behaviours and self-repression.

The form of the work is a free-standing structure placed in the middle of The Yard. Its exterior is similar to the warehouses of the Avenue, so much so that it’s easy to pass by it without realizing it is the artwork. Inside is a single tree with a net stretched under its branches, obstructing the view of the sky. A sound commission plays on speakers, with a woman’s voice narrating a poem.

Speaking to guest curator Mari Spirito, Tenger explained the site-specific nature of the work and the deliberate selection of materials that mimicked the Avenue’s structures. “From the beginning I had this idea to use The Yard,” she said. “I wanted the outside to be almost invisible. I wanted something to blend in with its surroundings, just like we tend to forget what we have forgotten. It is in our way of being habits, habits. But some habits, we are under [them]; they are put on to us… You can’t escape it.”

These “habits”, though Tenger did not specify them, could refer to a multitude of things. In the context of her previous work, she has looked at and critiqued systems of control, within communities or imposed by traditional hierarchies. In the case of Under, Tenger implies that it is not just external forces keeping us down. We don’t even get caught in the net anymore. We just lay low.

Tenger also commented on a recurring theme in her work, the exploration of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Her installations act as portals to dimensions outside of their existing environments and within private, hidden, or psychological states.

Spirito, who founded Protocinema, an ‘itinerant arts organisation’, previously worked with Tenger in 2015, bringing one of the artist's installations to New York. Created for the 4th Istanbul Biennial and displayed for a second time in Protocinema, New York, the installation We didn't go outside; we were always on the outside/ We didn't go inside; we were always on the inside consisted of a wooden guardhouse in an area fenced in by barbed-wire. Tenger preserved the guardhouse as is after claiming it from a building on the site where Istanbul Modern now sits.

Like Under, visitors could also enter the space. In the case of We didn't go outside; we were always on the outside/ We didn't go inside; we were always on the inside, the walls of the guardhouse were covered with images of nature, indicating the fixations and inner workings of the occupant’s mind. Under evokes a forest, a world where creatures are trapped through conditioning or self-defeat, unable to break their mental bondage.

Before stepping into Under, visitors must climb a few steps and hunch down slightly to enter, as intended by Tenger. “Our lives are a stage,” she said. “I’m also creating temporary stages. That’s why I have this entrance at 150 [centimetres], so you have bend to get in and bend to get out, so it’s like a preparation… You’re going back and forth between two stages.” This idea of performance, of putting on an act, relates to how humans conceal their beliefs for the sake of self-preservation or as a consequence of conditioning.

Under was on view in The Yard until 31 May 2018

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