When I think of my friend of many years, our friend, Tardu Kuman, I always remember an anecdote spoken about him from a time prior to our meeting him: “I went on a boat with Tardu in Bandırma, and hugging the shore, we arrived in Istanbul within a week.” It was early 1980s. Tardu was studying History of Philosophy at the School of Literature in Istanbul University. It remains in the back of my mind that he came to Istanbul aboard a small fishing boat. There were many myths about him whispered around. The Fisherman. From Erdek. No, From Bursa. Worked in his family’s campsite in Erdek. Has a knack for carpentry. Lives like Robinson Crusoe. Can even build a house all by himself. It was almost like he never attended elementary school, middle school, or high school but came straight to university. In fact, it was almost like he was never a child but was born into this world as a rebellious adolescent in his family’s camping site.
This unruly nature of His worried his father. Because He possessed a mighty strength that had the power to rip the roots of trees from the earth, Because He desired to change the world in to His own vision. Finally, when He wished to restructure the campsite, it was the last straw. Tardu set out on a long journey only a few days after He was born, leaving the campsite behind.
We got to know him when he came to Istanbul. After that, we had many days together, many close, familiar days. Possibly, some of us were his best friends and some of us were just good friends. But, I believe, none of us knew much about Tardu’s childhood or adolescence. Tardu, like Odysseus, like Gilgamesh, like the epic heroes and pilgrims of olden times who travelled the Earth on foot, had set out on a journey, widely receptive to all the quirks fate had to offer. And as fate would have it, he was destined to be commemorated by this very journey.
Tardu started to work with metal by making jewelry during the years he spent in Paris, between 1985-87. His jewelry resembled miniature versions of bronze objects of another epoch. These engraved, beautifully interlaced, sturdy but elegant metal pieces were the kind of jewelry one would prefer to admire or discover by touch rather than wear. These pieces were also mini sculptures. But maybe, at that time, he hadn’t yet realized that he wanted to sculpt. Maybe, the art of sculpting got through to him and chose to make an introduction to his life in this manner. He returned to Istanbul, accompanied by his jewelry and tools. This is how he made a living. While contemplating whether to make Istanbul his home or not, in the summer of ’89, he went to Greece and ended up staying there. In Greece, he became familiar with large-scale materials. He made artwork and furniture from old iron and wood pieces he gathered from railways. He exhibited these objects in the years he lived in Greece and was able to make a living by selling furniture. Panagiotis Kanellakis, a self-taught carpenter and a lawyer, was his friend, guide and mentor who encouraged him to showcase his artwork, and supported his art spiritually and financially during his stay in Greece. When Tardu decided to come back to Turkey, Panagiotis was also the one who convinced him to build a home and studio in a village in the Aegean region. Years later, in 2007, when Panagiotis passed away, Tardu carved a casket with his own hands from the most beautiful tree and took it to Greece himself.
In 1995, Tardu moved to Istanbul and established Stoa Design. He also had a fine shop amongst the buildings, on the street right behind the high school in Galatasaray, that stayed open until 2015. It was a well-known shop to those who had interest in furniture design. Stoa Design consisted of hand-crafted furniture with his authentic signature; however, behind that façade, Tardu was working on keeping the sculptor in him alive. Similar to his jewelry, Tardu’s furniture pieces were also a form of sculpture. They were not only created to be utilized within their functional purpose but also to challenge the viewer. It was difficult not to get absorbed in their form and materiality, and to wonder how such harsh materials could accept to be molded into such elegance. The materials lead to question about our relationship with objects and their roles in our lives.
I believe Tardu started to build his stone house in Kozlu in 1996, right after his return to Turkey. He explored the surrounding areas and discovered the North Aegean village of Kozlu. At the time, there was neither a sewage system nor power lines set up there. He built his house, more or less, by himself. With no clear-cut boundaries between the inside and the outside, the house had a very exciting layout plan. Before we became neighbors to this house, I remember a few days we spent there. The sounds of animals, nature and humans echoed through the mountains, from village to village, to the sea; and I imagine from the shore to the island of Lesvos. The universe of sound was so unbelievably vibrant that it seemed to materialize. Like the air we breathed, its existence felt tangible. It was almost as if we were surrounded by a muffled, buzzing, murmuring but cohesive sphere of ambience, in which one could not decide whether it was quiet or noisy. And the larger spectrum that encompassed this palpable sound sphere, was the celestial sphere that interconnected the island across to the earth we were standing on, and to all the eras this land ever experienced.
At the top of the mountain Kozlu village is nestled on, lay the remains of the ancient city of Lamponia, a contemporary of the ancient city of Assos. Like all of us, Tardu had many a time wandered in this mountainous region. A twenty-year period of productivity in sculpture came out of this particular geography. In fact, one of his sculpture series was named Lamponia Warriors. In Istanbul, alongside Stoa Design, his home was also part studio, part living space. But his real workspace and the place where he wanted to settle, spread and grow old was the village. At the end of the day, this was the one place that merged the childhood we didn’t know much about, the campsite, the carpenter, the fisherman, the philosophy student, Stoa and stoicism, the years in Greece, his friends, his work, his art and whatever there was to speak of in his life. In years to come, this place started to take shape as a resting ground for his final journey and in return, the place began to shape the journey itself.
From time to time, Tardu would make an attempt to showcase his work. But none of these initiatives went too far. I believe the determining factor for this was the fact that his creations were too enmeshed with where they were created. I can imagine how hard it must have been for Tardu to sever his creations from their habitat and place them within the confines of a gallery. Maybe, in this sense, his sculptures were pieces of his own self. He had found the earth for them to take root in and did not want to pluck them before their time and cause their death. Maybe until he himself felt rooted those pieces would not separate from one another. In other words, this attachment was a life-sustaining necessity.
The sculptures increased over the years. The area they covered expanded out of his home and front yard and spread into our homes and front yards. They were born, lost and then reborn out of heaped wood and metal raw materials, discarded, sometimes mixed with scrap, but once taken notice of, astonishing to the viewer.
Pagan Sounds series that consist of wind chimes, above everything else, reminds me of that confounding sound sphere of the North Aegean I mentioned earlier. We never talked about it, but I suppose Tardu could hear the sound sphere as well and wanted to channel his own sounds into it. Made of industrial leftover heavy metal pieces, the chimes produced the right balance only after intense labor, each achieving differing resonances with every touch.
The sound of some of the chimes that were hung facing Lesvos always made me think of the foreigner, the other, what was no longer a part of that soil and what was lost. Some sounded like old church bells clanging and some like a gong that takes you on a time travel through the ages, parting the layered veils of history… Or yet another, more specific sound came to mind: the unknown sound of the Chime Rock that existed, once upon a time, on a hill facing the sea, on the highlands of Kozlu. Reportedly, this rock, which broke off in the 1970s, stood in that spot since the Lamponians’ rule. It is said that the Lamponians used it as a means of communication with Lesvos. Seeming to be an ordinary rock to the random onlooker, the chime consisted of two large rocks. In order for it to chime, one had to stand on the rocks and shift balance from one leg to the other like a seesaw. The villager, who initially showed us the Chime Rock made a tremendous effort to describe the sound the chime produced. But all his efforts were to no avail. It was obvious there was something from his childhood in that sound, which was lost now, and no sound or imagery could fill its place. Tardu’s wind chimes included in Pagan Sounds, in my opinion, were created to recover and recapture those lost sounds, even for just an instant. They remind me of mankind’s primary endeavor, from birth to death, to reuse the materials available to him and her over and over, in order to communicate and connect with one another.
Designed to be mobile sculptures, these chimes have yet another connotation for me, which is their similarity to hanging mobile toys over babies’ cribs. Much of Tardu’s work awakens a childlike and playful excitement in most people. Children also loved his work. But even though these pieces were conceived as wind chimes, in order for these mobiles to revolve and make sound, a storm would be necessary as opposed to wind, or rather the baby swinging at them would have to be Gargantuan. Maybe these were the toys of a baby of gigantic proportions, coping with immense powers, unable to make a ripple in his surroundings, and thus, who had to grow up the moment he was born and leave the campsite.
When I think of Tardu’s life and works, a very familiar image of him pops into my head. Tardu, amidst huge trees, scraps and piles of metal, with his head down, is searching for something in vain, with an occasional pat on the two sides of his shorts, almost lamenting while circling around. These moments were times when he was inflicted with the suffocating pains of creation, when he was venturing towards the depths of creativity. Who knows, maybe at the bottom of it all, the basic driving force for his art was a sense of great desperation, terror and catastrophe. And thus, all his materials needed to be intemperately weighty and powerful.
Tardu’s art, sculpture and the changes he made to his life in his last years transformed his journey into the Odyssey of a mortal and humble hero, who returns home. Together with his wife, Faika Ergüder Kuman, they rebuilt the house in Kozlu, so that the new one would envelope the prior version. The new house was a symbol of his past and present finally becoming integrated into a whole. The studio was placed in the inner courtyard. In their life in Istanbul, they made new arrangements that gave room for Tardu’s art to come through. I believe, after this point, it became possible for Tardu to present his creations to people as works of art. No more would a “piece” of himself be severed. Even if his pieces were to make contact with the outside world, there was now a strong, immovable center of gravity that allowed them to remain whole. This meant that his anticipation of catastrophe could finally rest.
One of his new pieces I came across when I paid a visit to the renewed studio comes to my mind. Hanging in the empty space of the high-ceilinged, cavernous courtyard, a form made of roller chain. To me, it was a map. Ever so delicate, ever so volatile, and yet sturdy. The road taken is no longer an unbridled drift but a drawn up map. Tardu seemed to contain the distracting empty space and limited its boundaries into a map. When I saw this work, I was thrilled. It showed me that a striking, creative breakthrough was taking place not only in his inner world but also in his art.
And then, another piece of his: a tree made of construction iron and machine parts. “The Tree of Life” or maybe “The Tree of Beauty,” which you cannot take your eyes off of and to which you cannot help but smile.
And lastly, two nebulous sculptures made of iron pipes. It is almost as if he reached out, captured the cosmic essence and handed it to us. I believe these to be his best work. They convey how much he was changing and evolving as an artist and that he was filled with the promise of new work to come. They also remind me how much in command Tardu was of material because the simplicity and brilliance of his craftsmanship can mislead the viewer into thinking that the pieces can be made easily. The materials he used carried the footprints of their past. Tardu possessed the ability to craft the material without eliminating its past life but also to prevent the new form from being eclipsed by past imprints. I believe this, in and of itself, is statement enough to say that Tardu was a true artist.
A very loved friend and a very precious artist lived through this world. We were witnesses. It gives me great joy to think that the witnesses will be ever increasing with coming exhibitions.
Translated by Canan Ergüder