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The Distance Between Smoke and Fire

Curator Jing Yi Teo muses on Sergen Şehitoğlu’s mathematical abstractions and faraway signals within a time of global crisis.

SO-FAR reviews

Two chalkboards with mathematical equations

Sergen Şehitoğlu, Pebbles, Installation shot, 2020 (Photography: Zeynep Fırat, courtesy of SANATORIUM and the artist).

I’ll admit I was nervous on my way to view  Pebbles , Sergen Şehitoğlu’s solo exhibition at SANATORIUM. Having been in self-imposed quarantine for the large part of the past seven months, I was about to see art — art that had been  installed in a space I would be standing  in for the first time since we were adjusting to clanking elbows in place of wine glasses in early March. I was nervous, not with the worry that my now possibly recalibrated senses and mental state would be overwhelmed, nor that I was about to be in the physical presence of other people, but whether I could, or should, view art without the context of the current ongoings. In 2017, the writer Orit Gat wondered “whether there is a way for art not to seem detached” during a time the world was beginning to grapple with what a Trump presidency meant amidst an escalating refugee crisis and an impending Brexit. Fast forward three years where every foot between the next person and myself protuberates with chance, fear and downright awkwardness, all thanks to infectious particles at once omnipresent and elusive.[01]


Sergen Şehitoğlu, f(x): 0.176x – 0.29, 2020

Sergen Şehitoğlu, f(x): 0.176x – 0.29, 2020, Plexi cut, 48 x 455 cm; 10 x 95,5 cm, 48 x 270 cm (Photography: Zeynep Fırat, courtesy of SANATORIUM and the artist).


The exhibition’s title stems from two not unrelated points of reference: Jorge Luis Borges’ story about a professor on a hunt for the blue tiger of his dreams who instead finds some uncanny blue stones,[02] and the ancient medium of mathematics preserved by the word “calculus”, which is Latin for “pebble”[03]. But if I were looking for the semblance of round innocuous stones, I would have been disenchanted as mathematical symbols and repetitive images pervade the gallery’s space. A pair of black chalkboards is stoically erected with its back facing the entrance, guiding me towards the empty space in the middle with a 360-degree view of all the works on view. Faced with the blown-up image of smoke over Gaza, it is also where the experience of viewing art is presented as a contentious starting point. Seven Google Earth snapshots of the same frame at different time periods throughout the years 2004 to 2016 are vertically lined up beside the wall-sized image captured by the map interface in 2014, a time of escalated conflict in Palestine.


I was nervous, not with the worry that my now possibly recalibrated senses and mental state would be overwhelmed, nor that I was about to be in the physical presence of other people, but whether I could, or should, view art without the context of the [pandemic].


The fact that the artist chose to magnify this particular capture, Gaza 29.07.2014 , in spite of the political context in which Gaza sits, and subsequently trace the smoke’s trajectory onto the opposite wall as a mathematical function simultaneously sums up and heightens the tension brought to the centre of the exhibition. This is the tension between reality and a perceived signal. When I squinted at the middle of the composition, I saw a minuscule, blurred orange spot that seems to indicate fire, a guess confirmed just as quickly as the phrase “no smoke without fire” came to mind.


Sergen Şehitoğlu, Gaza, 2020

Sergen Şehitoğlu, Gaza, 2020, Archival pigment print, vinyl on wall, 276 x 150 cm (30 x 60 cm each) (Photography: Zeynep Fırat, courtesy of SANATORIUM and the artist).


The image of fire may conjure the sound of explosions or wood crackling, but combustion reactions do not inherently produce sound. The exhibition’s discernible silence is felt less in the void of sensorial stimulants — a redaction already paradigmatic of conceptual art — than in the way that visitors are exacted into speechlessness by the flush of mathematical equations, symbols and numerical indicators (dates and coordinates) upon stepping into the gallery. MASAÜSTÜ (2020) presents an array of works on paper at the back end of the gallery, some handwritten with more functions and others with printed markings that recall the unconventional musical notations in John Cage’s Notation (1969)[04], which is ironic in this instance. The abstract scores of the 1950s progressive music composers proposed an indeterminancy in the translation of visual to auditory, whereas here, the flecks of disorderly lines are the direct graphical outcomes from functions such as “f(x)=abs(x)tanx” which typically make no mathematical sense, but were derived by Şehitoğlu to achieve graphs that appear in abstract compositions.


The exhibition’s discernible silence is felt less in the void of sensorial stimulants — a redaction already paradigmatic of conceptual art — than in the way that visitors are exacted into speechlessness by the flush of mathematical equations, symbols and numerical indicators (dates and coordinates) upon stepping into the gallery.


Another transfer of mathematical language occurs in the Malevichian[05] black squares that make up 135664 + 37863 = 173527 (2020), but this time the straightforward material application is sublime in effect. Each of the three metal squares is etched with holes as per each number making up the equation. The overall result is a triptych that contrasts — and thus highlights — what the exhibition suggests as a whole: any form of representation, down to the most fundamental signs and symbols, is ultimately abstracted from that which is witnessed.


Sergen Şehitoğlu, MASAÜSTÜ, 2020

Sergen Şehitoğlu, MASAÜSTÜ, 2020, Handwritten and print on A4 papers, Works in various quantity (Photography: Zeynep Fırat, courtesy of SANATORIUM and the artist).


For years, Şehitoğlu has carved a space for himself in proposing a critical look into the nature of photography as a means to explore the tangential points of representation, analytical philosophy and the artist’s labour, often by featuring “photographs without a camera” at photography exhibitions and festivals. This was why I was surprised to see Milk Box (2020): consecutive photographs of a discarded milk carton laying on the concrete road of a coastal highway in (judging by the box label) Greece. It is a never-before-shown series of photographs taken by the artist ten years ago, where each photograph captures the milk box at a slightly different angle, at some points shifted in position by the wind. Turning around to look back at where I began the tour, I thought about the impermanence of an object versus the preciseness of time captured in a photograph.


The overall result is a triptych that contrasts — and thus highlights — what the exhibition suggests as a whole: any form of representation, down to the most fundamental signs and symbols, is ultimately abstracted from that which is witnessed.


The tautology of analytical philosophy typically renders an audience at arm’s length. However, during a time of planetary reckoning, such a fundamental investigation into representation, language, images, symbols and the Earth on which they amalgamate into art could be something to welcome, even while keeping our arms and hands to ourselves. Yet it still seems imperative to ask: how then, to not nihilistically experience the process of viewing art? The artist cracks into a smile. He takes two steps towards the formula-lined chalkboards, “I’m always thinking about my position as an artist; I couldn’t have shown works like these without [Joseph] Beuys, [Sol] LeWitt, [Bernar] Venet…” Perhaps, just like the iterative process of appropriation of conceptual art icons and their contemporaries, the process of viewing art itself is also one composed of infinite tos and fros, each step a chance for permutation.


Sergen Şehitoğlu, 135664 + 37863 = 173527, 2020

Sergen Şehitoğlu, 135664 + 37863 = 173527, 2020, Triptych metal plates, acid etching, 3 + 1 AP, 70 x 70 cm (each) (Photography: Zeynep Fırat, courtesy of SANATORIUM and the artist).



  • 01.

    Orit Gat, “New York City Roundup”, Art Agenda, May 23, 2017, https://www.art-agenda.com/features/240210/new-york-city-roundup.

  • 02.

    Borges, Jorge Luis. “Blue Tigers.” First published in the original Spanish in Rosa y azul. (Madrid: Sedmay, 1977)

  • 03.

    “Calculate”, “calculation” and other words derived from “calculus” are all derived from Latin meaning “pebble”. Today, “calculi” may still refer to stones — those that form in parts of the human body such as the gallbladder, although it is unclear whether the term denotes its etymological meaning or from the build-up of calcium, its most common cause. Robert Coolman, “What is Calculus?”, Live Science, May 08, 2015, https://www.livescience.com/50777-calculus.html.

  • 04.

    In Notations, the avant-garde composer and artist collected abnormally graphic pieces of scores by 269 composers and compiled them into a book.

  • 05.

    Kazimir Malevich was a Russian avant-garde artist and art theorist most famous for leading the suprematism movement, epitomised by The Black Square, a painting of a black square on white background. Even though many of his works featured squares of other colours and other geometric forms, he never described his own works as “abstract”. It is thus said that Malevich had anticipated the 1960s’ conceptual art movement. See Noemi Smolik, "Was Malevich an Absurdist?,” Frieze, September 2014. https://www.frieze.com/article/was-malevich-absurdist.