"What interests me in all my works is munificence," says Benjamin Yavuzsoy as he prepares an espresso in the kitchen of his apartment in the Villa Romana. It's quiet except for the clattering of plates. Outside the studio window is a view of the villa's spacious park of cypresses and bamboo groves. "Munificence"—it quickly becomes clear that the artist, born 1980 in Bremen, is not referring to a single clearly defined concept of generosity when he uses this old-fashioned word. Yavuzsoy does not mean it in the sense of a rule of virtuous conduct, but rather as an open concept that provides him with the principles of action for his video performances, works on paper, and text miniatures. Pathos would hardly suit this friendly young man in jeans and a sweatshirt, who prefers to conduct the discussion that follows without a tape recorder. This reserve also characterizes his work: Yavuzsoy's art speaks of a delicate sensibility for the surrealism nestled in the interstices of everyday routine, either his own or that of others.
And one is prompted to think of this surrealism when one regards the video performance Alle Wünsche gehen in Erfüllung (Eng.: All wishes are fulfilled), 2007 in which the artist staged himself as a nighttime intruder in the attic of a Hamburg municipal building who undertakes several mysterious interventions there. In the video, Yavuzsoy can be seen entering the room through the window, walking around, and then draping an opulent evening gown of red velvet over a clothesline; then he makes a written entry in one of the cleaning plans lying around: "all wishes are fulfilled." The apparent goal of the action was to incite mild confusion among the cleaning staff, because they only use the attic as a place to store their cleaning equipment and to dry their washcloths. Yet the artist disagrees with the objection that the evening gown action could be interpreted as a cheap trick on those who carry out a necessary, but socially little respected and badly paid job whose workers can hardly expect their own wishes to be fulfilled: this work is also a part of everyday life, he explains, and hence the very subject of his art.
Yavuzsoy does not seek to protect himself against possible misunderstandings. He likes to leave it up to his audience's imagination to answer the many questions posed by the simple actions in what initially seems like an unpretentious video. How will the cleaning staff react after reading what the artist wrote in the work plan? And what will happen with the old-fashioned evening gown that Yavuzsoy left behind for the finder to do as he or she pleases? Is the viewer of the video a mere witness to a prelude, while the actual work of art remains undocumented and invisible, to be completed only in the viewer's fantasy? We never find out, just as we never learn the precise location and time of Yavuzsoy's spooky appearance, which he filmed without assistance and then turned into a four-minute video.
Perhaps the artist was inspired to create his action by the austere room's dearth in secrecy and memory, the stark fluorescent light further emphasizing its sense of being empty and uninhabitable. Attics traditionally serve not only to hang up wash to dry, but also for the long-term storage of discarded household items, books, and documents. They have become elevated to a subconscious location within the building's spatial order—a place for things forgotten and perhaps even suppressed, waiting patiently in boxes for their eventual discovery. Yet the space Yavuzsoy visited does not live up to this mythical, architectonic function, which Anselm Kiefer for instance evoked in the early seventies with his "Attic Paintings." The aura of mystery that often imbues dimly lit places has presumably disappeared long ago, eradicated by a myriad of fire safety rules.
Yavuzsoy also has very little in common with the street artists of today, who often, in the guise of communication guerillas, seek to shake up big city dwellers in their everyday routine—even if he shares with them both a love of the surprise moment and a peculiar optimism concerning today's non-locations, which despite their lack of character could serve as stages for sublime games. In contrast with these artists, who often operate under the protection of anonymity, semi-public spaces serve Yavuzsoy as stages for self-presentation. He carries an aspect of intimacy into the public arena. In other videos, for instance, one sees him in an underground garage (Ich bevorzuge in der Küche zu tanzen, Eng.: I prefer to dance in the kitchen, 2007), a hotel room (Das glaube ich nicht, Eng.: I don't believe that, 2005), or an auto mechanic's garage (Ein Schlüsselsatz, Eng.: A socket bit set, 2008). All of these places are somehow connected to a service industry of one kind or another. And as an actor, Yavuzsoy always performs with the greatest deliberation in this environment—like someone whose idea of art corresponds more to a particular service than an elevated luxury good.
And so it's not really Yavuzsoy's thing to approach the sites and the visible or invisible co-actors of his performances with a jackhammer; his finger never points with socially critical intent. Instead, he operates through subtle humor, as in the very early work Zucker ist schon drin! (Eng.: It already has sugar in it), 2003. In the film the artist made at the beginning of his studies with Eran Schaerf at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, one can see him standing in the midst of the frenzy of a huge kitchen, placidly preparing a pot of tea, placing it on a little stove, and adhering a post-it to the pot bearing the friendly message that the beverage already contains sugar. The precise circumstances of the action remain concealed—such as whom this private gesture in a public space could be directed at, whether strangers might have taken up this open offer, or whether the cooks merely shook their heads over the absurd theater in their working place.
In any case, the fact that they let him carry out his performance nonetheless testifies to a certain degree of trust; along with munificence, this is another concept the artist gives special credence to in his work. Trust also plays a key role when the buyer of Yavuzsoy's lined paper drawings has to promise the artist to give them to anyone else who, upon seeing them, says they would also like to have one: a generous act in which Yavuzsoy calls the circulation of art goods into question. Since 2004, he has been creating the lined sheets of paper that strictly adhere to the DIN (German industry standard) norm of industrially manufactured writing paper. The artist draws his straight lines on white paper on an almost daily basis—freehand, but with an underlying "model" to go by—until the pencil he is using is depleted. The resulting drawing is the product of a machine-like virtuosity, without ever quite being able to attain to the industrial norm. But Yavuzsoy explains that he is not concerned with the idea of artist as machine: "People can always see that the paper is drawn by hand." What fascinates him more is the endlessness of the self-appointed task, in a state of dissolution and approaching the inexhaustible.
For Yavuzsoy, it is unimportant whether the work's buyers—except in the case of the generous transferal to another party—actually collect these sheets of paper or use them to write letters or notes. The main thing is that unusual combinations arise between the public sphere and private action and reaction, staging and documentation that allow for a fresh look at society, art, and life.
The gallery Aanant & Zoo in Berlin will present "Benjamin Yavuzsoy: Letter paper (Individual time)", starting May 16.