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In the Forest 2009. installation with threads in t
In the Forest 2009. installation with threads in the forest.

Joana Kohen

The Istanbul-based artist discusses her gothic and often erotic approach to her work and what we can expect from her up and coming solo exhibition

Born in Istanbul, Joana Kohen is a 22-year-old visual artist with a strong set of opinions and ideology. She describes her work as “scandalism” - a new wave which combines irony, anarchy and revolution - its aim, to shock. Kohen’s intention is to break out of the conservative culture from which she hails, feeling it is her obligation to alter that society’s perceptions through the activist subjects within her work. Her gothic and erotic approach mixes photography, poetry, painting performance-video art and installation, boldly and unapologetic.

Often using herself as the subject Kohen has a very specific way in which she wants her audience to view and perceive her art; still coming to terms with sharing such intimate pieces she committedly forges forward. Having studied fashion design at Marangoni Institute of Milan and contemporary art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, she is now living back in Istanbul, preparing for her solo exhibition.

Dazed Digital: You were born in Istanbul and left when you were 17 to study in Europe. Now that you are back, do you think the culture has affected the work you produce?
Joana Kohen: Definitely, I am [a] young woman who lives in a Muslim country, born Jewish and being quite radical in my approach. When I say “radical” I mean the sexual and activist thoughts I have. I aim to change people’s mentalities within my culture through my art. I have a different background to most of the people. Neither in Europe nor in Turkey do they really understand my mentality yet.
DD: Can you tell us about that difference in background? What is it about your work that you think is misunderstood?
Joana Kohen: There aren’t that many Turk people who live in Istanbul with the same deep-seated thoughts. My ideology has always been different to the mainstream; it’s actually quite understandable as I am extremely open-minded. Of course art professionals accept my work but it’s generally not that easily absorbed due to cultural differences between [the] majority of society and myself. I am pretty open and explicit for them but that’s the purpose of my work. I have no complaints, even if they do not really understand me yet.
DD: Do you think your brief venture into fashion contributes to what you do now in any way?

Joana Kohen: Fashion has nothing to do with my art! Fashion is such a boring concept for me; it comes and goes but style is something completely different; style stays with you forever. I studied Fashion for a year and I just got so bored, I am just so into my Art.
DD: What are some of your biggest influences?
Joana Kohen:
Relationships: men, women and sex. So... Bridget Jones!
DD: Obviously your work is very intimate; often referencing femininity and sexuality - marked with your own personal experience – why are these subjects particularly important to you?

Joana Kohen: I only use myself as a subject. I am woman and this is my life I am exhibiting - my work is autobiographical, similar to a performance. Femininity is a subject I mainly use because my culture is quite conservative. I believe that if you are born a rebel, then you must show yourself bravely. Sexuality is referenced because I am trying to get over my sexual limits, I have to relieve my feelings somehow. It is important in the process of maturing as a person.
DD: How do you become comfortable with sharing such personal work?

Joana Kohen: I still don’t feel 100% comfortable. I sometimes think, “they are gonna kill me!” or at least try to shoot me down one day if my work goes any deeper than it is now, but I have to do it. If your work is really autobiographical then the first step you have to learn is not to attach yourself to it otherwise you regret things. I have to change some of these ideologies – I believe that’s why I came into this world. People should not be ashamed of what they are or what their thoughts are even if it is filthy or radical.
DD: When you start a piece, whether it be a painting, body art or an installation - do you generally work towards a specific outcome or do you improvise?

Joana Kohen: There is always specific outcome; I have written-articles and scripts more than my 3D works. When I start working, most of the time I need at least a month to focus on a project. I write down my ideas, teach myself new stuff and then I start making it but there is always improvising in it as well otherwise I cannot really learn anything from myself. I think the best part of art is you always teach yourself new things. If not, what are you giving to others? Art is not for the artist, we just puke...
DD: Are you interested in the final product or is the entire process just as important as the outcome?
Joana Kohen: I think they are both important! The entire process is the most important I can say because you can only see yourself by doing your stuff. The final of it is the hardest part because then you will be showing it to another person. The first part is about you sincerely, the second is the final for others and for your ego.
DD: Can you tell us about the piece entitled "Melissa Drexler You Screwed My Teenage Dream” and how it relates to you personally?
Joana Kohen: Melissa Drexler is a girl who gained infamy for delivering a baby in a restroom at her high school prom and putting the body in the trash before returning to the dance. They call her “prom mom” – It’s a 90s legend. I discovered this while researching fatal murders and I had sleepless nights for like two weeks, the idea of it was so cruel. At the same time I was thinking if I got pregnant what would I do? Abortion...or what? It’s a decision between yourself and life. At that time I was so in love with a guy who really did not want me and it made me fall in love even more. The sex was so amazing that I wanted to have his baby even – so there is [a] weird bend between love and hate in that work. He encouraged my feelings in a different way and fucked up my mind. I felt like a teenager again - the way I felt about his love. There is murder, love and pain in that piece.
DD: What is one of the major elements you hope that people will take from your work?

Joana Kohen: Well understanding my work matters ... I do not really sell my work to people who do not understand it.  They must get to know my ideology and that is what I want them to take from my work.
DD: Which project did you enjoy producing most?
Joana Kohen: There is never a “most” otherwise I cannot cure myself and others!
DD: What is the next project that you're working on?
Joana Kohen:
I’ve been working on my solo exhibition, which is quite a lot of work lately and sometimes I DJ in clubs for fun and deal with art collectors/dealers.

Text by Zeyna Sy