A man goes walking in a ghoul-haunted wood. His soul walks with him. It is October – ‘the lonesome October/ Of my most immemorial year’, says the man in the poem – and the night is lit by a bright star, Astarte. He follows the star through the dark woods. Psyche, the soul, doesn’t like where this is going: ‘Her pallor I strangely mistrust!’ Their wandering leads them to the door of a tomb, which the man recognizes as that of his dead love, his ‘lost Ulalume’.
Published by Edgar Allan Poe in 1847, ‘Ulalume’ lent its name to Evren Tekinoktay’s third solo show at The Approach. That Poe wrote the poem as an elocution exercise adds to Tekinoktay’s reading of it, which acts as a soundtrack to the show’s eponymous piece, a video work. The reading is rough, rushed, distractingly physical: we hear the artist draw breath, gulp, sniff and stumble over certain words (‘Sybilic’, ‘senescent’). Her body has not been edited out. Charm is in the halting singsong, the vagaries of an unplaceable accent. A clipped, perfectly rhythmic recital would have made little sense. It is in this gap – between exacting norms and recalcitrant bodies – that the show finds fertile ground.
Eight neon reliefs and two near-static films glowed in the dim room. Like Astarte, they are luminous emblems of a faintly troubling sexuality. The films – or, rather, projected animations assembled by hand – are what Tekinoktay calls ‘collages with a respiratory tract’. In ULALUME (2014), a model of taut femininity in black lace, garters and stilettos smiles into a shiny red telephone. After a moment, I recognized it as drag (the show was full of such double takes). Behind her is a dreamscape in rapid flux: swatches of fabric, lynx eyes, skulls, painted nails, legs both Barbie-smooth and hairily gnarled, childish scribbles, feathers, glitter, cacti and a noose. And was that a raven?
If ULALUME is a lone star, BAZOOKA (2014) is a constellation of her sisters. Six figures cut from magazines – a pin-up, a queen, a few in between – form an unruly frieze on the screen. One wears an afro, another a cross. None has her natural hair. A hole has been cut where each mouth should be and, behind these, silver flashes – as though they were breathing, or blowing bubblegum. The soundtrack here is not a poem but something faint and indeterminate: clicks, a shuffle, a scrape. Behind the glassy images we hear the heave and rasp of effort, though whether its origin is human or mechanical is hard to say. This sound and the holes’ rough edges are traces of a hand at work. Here, again, the artist’s body is present.
CRYSTAL, BUNNY, TWIZ could be the names of these hybrid creatures – instead they are the titles of the neon reliefs on the opposite wall (all 2014). PAROLE (2014) is a pastel mouth from which three blazing rods shoot: one pink, two baby-blue. In EGG (2014) an ovoid, blood-red loop connects two identical wheels in neutral tones, black and teal. What bodies are these? The pieces churn in the gallery, radiating heat. Mobile and visceral, they seem more palpably alive than the human figures they face.
Down a walkway, a dark room held – barely contained – the show’s third film and standout piece, CLOSET (2014). On a screen that covered an entire wall in the small space, another cut-out figure loomed – rouged, hennaed, plucked, bangled and unmistakably androgynous. The eyes have been scissored out, widened to saucers and, through the holes, a slow procession of images is revealed, by turns erotic, cartoonish, folksy and glam – a grab-bag of archetypes and anxieties. We are being dragged through an archive, the messy hinterland of a polished facade. The sound – the same unnerving rustle as in BAZOOKA – is that of a patient machine moving its slow gears, a reminder that the persona on show is at the cost of some invisible labour, some constant and strenuous effort of iron will.