30 Clay Heads, modelled by pupils
Developed for Art Hansa Special, Hansa-Gymnasium, Köln, Germany
A historical illustration she encounters while leafing through the exhibition catalogue for “Turks at the Gates of Vienna” (1983) organized on the 300th anniversary of the second Ottoman siege of Vienna constitutes the starting point for the artist. The illustration titled “Karussel” made in 1814 depicts a ceremony at a school where the Habsburg royal family and courtiers took horseback riding lessons. The cavaliers are stabbing the pulp male busts representing Ottomans on the pedestals bogged in the sand with their spears and being applauded by the aristocrats watching them from the loges. This ceremony called “Stabbing Turkish Heads” corresponds to a traditional military game and exercise.
The main dynamic of Ersen’s project titled “Carrousel” was built upon the interaction with the school’s students. The artist had asked students to transform the image of the Turk in their heads into clay busts. The emerging statuettes were placed on the desks in the biology lab and the historical image which was the departure point was projected to the wall. The constant rotation of the busts on revolving mechanisms and the choice of music recalling barrel organs in the background typically employed at these events were designed to emphasize the “Carrousel” reference. Through the historical illustration she alluded to, Ersen was highlighting the persistence of an archaic perception of the enemy constructed as the “absolute other” in a society whose modernism was beyond contestation. On the other hand the choice of the biology lab as the site evoked the categorization obsession of modern positivist thought (even though it was not explicitly asserted, it was possible for the audience to remember in some way that this categorization had evolved into racism and skull measurements). While bringing together clues of the genealogy of the discriminatory approach in Western societies, Ersen did not forecast what sort of busts the students would come up with—once again there was a construction enriched by various connotations by the artist and the question of what input would come from the participants was left wide open. Even though the busts the students made were naive, they still entailed obvious traces of historical prejudices and current discrimination: all the busts were male, most had handlebar moustaches; deformed and blemished features; some had fez on their heads.
The work was realized for the “Focus: Human Rights” exhibition organized in a high school called Hansa Gymnasium which was one of the UNESCO project schools in Cologne.