“All my life I have been the secondary memory, somehow.” This is one way Istanbul-based artist Hera Buyuktasciyan describes herself; another is as a story-teller. For the purposes of her creative practice, she prefers this combined identity, for it enables her to channel the power of memory while also freeing her to play with the memory’s basic components, to isolate certain elements and boil it down to its signifying essence. “When you tell the story it’s not your story, it’s someone else’s story, so you don’t carry the responsibility of the whole thing,” she explains.
As a memory storage unit, Buyuktasciyan is the repository for an awful lot of pain. There is no way around this fact: coming from a family that is Greek on one side and Armenian on the other, her family history bears the imprint of the pain and terror suffered by Turkey’s minority populations throughout the twentieth century. Buyuktasciyan describes how, throughout her childhood, her Armenian grandmother and her grandmother’s best friends, a group of five women, would gather weekly and retell the same stories of their painful past, indelibly marked by their experience of the Armenian genocide. “From their childhood up until they died,” she recalls, “they would come together to have coffee. And every week, without exception, they used to share the same story with the same words, same sentences. This was really amazing me a lot. It’s not the story but the way they did the storytelling. It’s like it’s stuck in their mind, and the memory is a kind of instrument, which is playing non-stop in the mind.”
Ha Za Vu Zu is an artist collective, comprised of seven members, which has been working together since 2005. While the group’s practice ranges from installations to videos to all manner of objects—books, flags, banners, mutated disco balls, assorted ephemera—in my view, Ha Za Vu Zu’s particular specialty is performances that play on the thin boundary between performer and audience. Many of their projects, such as “Cut the Flow,” “Crying Performance,” and their performances as a musical ensemble, utilize seemingly simple tools and techniques that almost any audience member could also use, so that viewers can enter and participate in the performance. For example, in “Crying Performance,” the group provides stimulus for tears—onions, lemons, sad, sappy music—and invites audience members to join them in a group cry. In “Cut the Flow,” the group walks down a street arm-in-arm with members of the public, temporarily cutting off the flow of traffic. And when the group performs together as a musical ensemble, they bring their own songs or fragments of songs, but after an hour or so of performing they vacate the stage and turn their instruments over to the audience. For the rest of the performance (which in my experience lasts much longer than the initial ‘set’), the group members move back and forth between audience and stage, chatting with friends and relaxing for a while before returning to the stage to jam with whomever is playing. By instigating the spontaneous formation of new modes of collective action and experience, such performances offer audience members the opportunity to imagine new social orders, new roles for themselves, and alternative modes of political engagement.
When I was working on Turkish and Other Delights, people would often tell me about artists who were born in Turkey but who now lived in other countries, recommeding that I try to contact them for interviews. I understood their point well: like gender, place of birth is not destiny; you could be born into one culture or society, but feel yourself more at home in another. Or maybe you move for practical purposes—for example, for educational reasons—and stay as networks grow and harden. All identities are hybrid, nationality included. What happens to an artists’ practice—Turkish or otherwise—when they relocate to other countries? How do the interests and concerns developed as a result of one’s early experiences mutate, develop, grow and change as a result of establishing life in a new cultural context? The answer is of course dependent on the individual, the intersection of their particular personality type, their life experiences, their pre-existing matrix of identities.
I first met and interviewed conceptual artist Serkan Ozkaya in 2008, when he installed a version of his piece A Sudden Gust of Wind at the (now closed) Boots Contemporary Art Space in St. Louis, MO; at the time he was based in Istanbul, though traveling almost constantly to cities in Europe, Asia and the U.S. for exhibitions. When I first arrived in Turkey in 2010, I did a second interview with him in Istanbul; shortly thereafter, he relocated to New York, where he now lives and works.
Learning a new language in another country is like listening to a radio that is stuck on a single very static-y station. In the beginning, the chatter of daily life is pure noise, its meaning lost in transmission from the speakers’ mouths to your ear. But as the weeks progress and you learn more and more, words start to break through the static; phrases become recognizable; meaning is still elusive, but sometimes rough ideas can be pieced together from the proximity of one known word to another. As larger parts of conversations begin to filter through the fuzz, conversations between neighbors suddenly become comprehensible; while sitting on your balcony at dusk, instead of hearing static, you realize you are accidently listening to them discuss their weekend plans, or the impending visit of relatives.
The above description encapsulates my experience this summer, which I have spent living in Istanbul and studying Turkish. I arrived to Istanbul in mid-June, having left almost exactly one year ago following the completion of a Fulbright grant. During my Fulbright year I wrote a column for the Art21 blog titled Turkish and Other Delights, which examined practices of contemporary art in Turkey. During the nearly eight months I spent traveling through Anatolia to research and write that column, I was overwhelmed by the support I received from artists, curators, and gallerists, who opened their studios, homes and practices to me and shared their time and their stories. Any time an artist takes the time to sit down and talk with you about their work, it is a gift; but as the Art21 series is virtually unknown in Turkey, people’s willingness to believe that my enterprise was legitimate was an even greater act of faith.
If Şener Özmen (the subject of last month’s Turkish and Other Delights post) is the godfather of Diyarbakır’s contemporary art community, then his long-time collaborateur, artist Cengiz Tekin, is its prankster, its Puck, and possibly (though this is pure speculation) its Keith Richards. He exudes a sly, crackling energy, walks with a fast gait just this side of nervous, and is constantly grinning, cracking jokes, and generally entertaining those around him. Despite the considerable language barrier between us (his English was definitely better than my Turkish, but then again my Turkish is limited to ordering takeout and buying groceries and bus tickets), Tekin was, along with Özmen, an engaging and endlessly generous host during my stay in Diyarbakır. I will never forget the two-hour bus ride we spent entertaining ourselves by going through a children’s Turkish-English textbook/dictionary at random, laughing hysterically at its bizarre contextualizing sentences for such essential vocabulary words as “lobster,” “beach ball,” and “criminal.”
Unsurprisingly, this spirit and humor spills into Tekin’s art, where seemingly typical, unremarkable people, locations, and situations are staged and tweaked by the artist to reveal the underlying violence, trauma, instability, and uncertainty that remains the reality for the Kurds of southeastern Turkey. Often they capture moments just before or after a violent act has taken place, but it is never clear what exactly happened (or is about to happen), why the act took place, or the identity of the victim or perpetrator. For example, in Tekin’s 2007 photograph, Natürmort (Still Life), a man lies splayed in a field of wheat, his face obscured by the stalks. Dressed in blue, his attire mirrors the fiery sky that looms above the field, making him seem like a piece of the heavens dropped to the earth. The gun in his limp hand implies that a shoot-out or stand-off of some kind has just transpired–or could it be a suicide? Is the angle of the gun, still cocked and pointed up, a coincidence of the way he fell? Or is he still alive and playing dead in order to ambush his foe, or escape further fighting?
Likewise, in his 2009 essay, “The Stranger,” critic Süreyyya Evren questions the unnatural angle of the neck belonging to a man sandwiched between a giant stack of blankets and pillows in the 2003 photograph Untitled (Press) (one a series of similar images Tekin created involving a human figure inserted into such stacks of bedding), wondering if he is even “really alive? Or faking death like some animals do to survive?” Evren sees Tekin’s photographs as giving voice to “the Stranger,” who, he argues, is
“crucial in the construction of Turkish national identity, and who has been in this position since the beginning of the Turkish Republic. This ‘privilege’ of being considered as ‘the Stranger’ is given to people who are categorized as ‘others within ourselves.’ These strangers, who originate from ‘us’–the Ottoman Empire–and who on various political grounds played an important role as the other for the new Turkish Republic, are the ones who in the national imagination supposedly represent the biggest threat (the ethnic side of this spectrum contains most prominently Armenians, Kurds and Jewish immigrants, and Arabs of various origins).”
While preparing to travel to Diyarbakır, the largest city in southeastern Turkey, I discovered that telling Turkish people who live outside of that region that you’re going to visit Diyarbakır is akin to telling an average suburban American you’re going to hang out in an inner city housing project or along the wall dividing Israel and Palestine. Their eyes grow big, there’s a lot of gasping and “ooooh”ing, and they ask you, incredulously, “why would you want to go to Diyarbakır? It’s very dangerous there, you know.” Some treated it a bit like I was going on safari–a worthwhile, possibly exotic and educational, endeavor, as long as I had the proper guidance–and protection. Because Diyarbakır is not only the largest city in southeastern Turkey but also the capital of Kurdish culture in Turkey and the epicenter of a significant amount of violence throughout the 1980s and 1990s, inevitably the news of my travels sparked conversation about “the Kurdish question”–that is, the question of what freedoms and rights ethnic Kurds living in Turkey should be granted. For example, since the founding of the Republic, teaching Kurdish in schools and printing or broadcasting media in Kurdish has been outlawed, and celebration of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, was forbidden. In the past five years some of these restrictions have been eased, but the subject remains controversial, with many über-nationalistic Turks remaining opposed to the reforms.
So why would I want to travel to Diyarbakır? The art scene in Turkey is famously concentrated in Istanbul–what interest could a formally war-torn and politically unstable region of the country hold for a yabancı (foreigner)? In fact, Diyarbakır has produced some of the most active, intelligent, and influential figures in contemporary Turkish art. These would include artist and curator Halil Altındere, Berat Isik, Ahmet Öğüt (who, along with Banu Cennetoğlu, represented Turkey at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009) as well as Suat Öğüt and Mehmet Öğüt, Erkan Özgen, and Cengiz Tekin. (Fikret Atay, another well-known Kurdish artist, actually hails from Batman, a smaller city located about two hours from Diyarbakır.) All of these artists have exhibited extensively both throughout Turkey and internationally. But the godfather of the Diyarbakır art community is undoubtedly Şener Özmen. For the past twenty years, Özmen has worked not only as an artist but also as a poet, art critic, translator, and teacher. He collaborates constantly with his fellow Diyarbakır-based artists, has nurtured a new generation of artists, produces texts for exhibition catalogues, designs covers for Lîs Publishing (a prominent Kurdish language publishing house based in Diyarbakır), writes fiction and poetry, and supports the work of the Diyarbakır Arts Centre. In an essay included in the recently published monograph A Sener Ozmen Book, critic Süreyyya Evren describes him as “an artist who cannot relax.” When I visited Diyarbakır, I was honored that Özmen took the time from his busy professional and personal life (he is also a father and husband) to serve, along with Cengiz Tekin, as an attentive and wildly entertaining host. At one point, while we were riding a dolmuş (mini-bus) from Diyarbakır to have breakfast at Hasankeyf, a historical site located on the Tigris River (which, sadly, is likely to be destroyed in the near future by a hydroelectric dam project), Özmen casually remarked that this was the first day off from work that he had ever taken. It sounds like hyperbole, but given his extraordinary output, I am inclined to believe this was true.
A small black and white newspaper photograph hangs on the wall of Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s studio, located in an old warehouse in Istanbul’s Karaköy district. The photograph is crowd shot, taken from above, and thus mostly of the tops of people’s heads. It is from the 9th Istanbul Biennial, in 2005. “That’s me,” she says, pointing to one of the tiny figures in the crowd. The Biennial was the first large-scale “art event” that Çavuşoğlu had ever attended, and she points to this moment as the point at which she realized she wanted to be an artist, to be a part of the community represented by the Biennial. Though she had completed her BFA in Cinema and Television at Istanbul’s Marmara University the year before and had already completed one of her earliest works, Dominance of Shadow (a project in which the poster for a made-up film was posted on rented billboards throughout Istanbul) and even participated in a group show at Platform Garanti titled That from a long way off looks like flies, she was not yet working full-time as an artist or even thinking of herself as such. Attending the Biennial changed all that.
In the nearly six years that have passed since this turning point, Çavuşoğlu has pursued her career at a breakneck pace, establishing herself as one of the most intellectually stimulating and active members of a new generation of young Istanbul-based artists, most of whom were born either in the years leading up to or directly following the 1980 military coup. Though they work in a variety of styles and media, these young artists, much like the generation of Turkish artists that proceeds them, all have at least one foot planted firmly in the field of conceptual art and continue to explore questions located at the intersection of art, everyday life, and politics in the tradition of artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Joseph Beuys, and the Paris-based, Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis. While rooted firmly in the political realities (and surrealities) of life in Turkey, the many opportunities, made available to them at the early stages of their development, to participate in residencies and exhibitions throughout Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, has enabled this generation to consider the conflicts and contradictions that characterize their locally specific experience through a broader lens that connects the local to the global flow of capital, labor, bodies, information, and ideas.
PiST///Interdisciplinary Art Space is storefront gallery space and artist project co-directed by artists Didem Özbek and Osman Bozkurt. Opened in 2006, PiST/// is located in Istanbul’s Pangaltı neighborhood, a frenetic, working class area located adjacent to posh Nişantaşı and one metro stop from crowded, chaotic Taksim Square. Despite its proximity to these areas, Pangalti feels like a different world, and even Istanbullus who live nearby confess to to rarely heading into that part of town. “It’s so far away!” an acquaintance who lives in Tophane exclaimed when I mentioned my planned visit to interview Özbek and Bozkurt. When I reminded him of just how close it was, he seems surprised. “I guess you’re right,” he responded thoughtfully. “But it seems very far.”
In many ways, PiST/// does feel miles away from Tophane’s plucky commercial spaces and Istiklal’s larger galleries, standing shoulder to shoulder with newer institutions such as Arter and the just-opened SALT. Its isolation within the institutional geography of the city is indicative of Özbek’s and Bozkurt’s dedication to critiquing the status quo of the professional art community. However, PiST/// is more than a “cube,” more than four walls and a roof which enclose objects or events. It’s a set of practices, an experiment in relationships, collaboration, business models, and professional endeavors. “PiST/// is not an exhibition space” they explain, but rather a medium of “experience exchange,” a means by which individuals with the same interests and concerns, engaged in the same kind of work, can share knowledge, resources, and experiences so that no one has to reinvent the wheel and when the tide rises in one place, boats all over the world rise together. Yes, things happen in PiST///–lectures, screenings, discussions, and, indeed, exhibitions–but these activities are only a portion of what “PiST///” truly means for its directors.
Burak Arıkan is a busy guy. When we met in Istanbul two months ago to discuss his work, he had recently returned to the city from a net art conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was preparing to leave for a human rights conference in Senegal the next day, and already had upcoming trips to China and Mongolia scheduled. In addition to his own art practice, which explores the aesthetics of data and networks as a creative medium, Arıkan conducts workshops, teaching students both how to conceptualize their own visual networks and to use the complex programs that render those networks visible, and is also active with various human rights organizations in Turkey. Most recently, he has been busy preparing new work for the Hüseyin Alptekin retrospective that will serve as the inaugural exhibition at SALT, opening on April 9th, that uses his visual mapping technique to explore aspects of Alptekin’s work and biography.
Arıkan’s work takes many forms and extends all the way down from the final, exhibited objects–digital prints, videos–to the hand-crafted electronics and complex software programs that generate those objects. For nearly seven years, his primary project been capturing and making visible the social, political, and economic networks in which all people are embedded and which provide the basic infrastructure of human society. Sometimes the subject of these works are specific communities, such as 2010′s “Antakya Bienniel Artists Network,” which, by mapping the dynamics between individual artists participating in that exhibitions–who had exhibited in the past with whom, how many exhibitions they had participated in over the course of their careers–created a portrait of both that event and the Turkish contemporary art community generally.
In talking to dozens of artists, curators, and critics over the past few months, over and over I have heard the same term used by those located within the community to criticize Turkish art: didactic. Merriam-Webster defines didactic as “intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment;” synonyms include “sermonic,” “moralizing” and, “preachy.” Undoubtedly this sentiment is in part a reaction against much of the work produced in Turkey during the 1990s that dealt explicitly with issues related to the intersection of Turkish identity, culture, and politics. If in retrospect the manner in which some work addressed these topics seems heavy-handed, it could be argued that this practice mirrored the heavy-handed way in which the Turkish government was combating dissident elements of society during this period, particularly in regards to its armed conflict with Kurdish nationalist groups in the southeastern region of the country during the early and mid-1990s.
In 2011 there is no longer an open military conflict within Turkey’s borders, but Turkish culture and politics remain as complex and indecipherable as ever. This is a country fraught by shadow governments (both real and imagined), conspiracies, and hidden agendas. Turks never seem to take anything the government does at face value; there is always the assumption of incomplete information. Like an underwater oil leak, this opacity in Turkish political life filters out into the wider society, impacting not only the way individuals view and treat each other, but the way they think about themselves.
The task of making sense of the daily experience of living within such a convoluted political culture has been taken up by a new generation of artists who are exploring these topics on a more micro level and in a more personal way. This new approach is exemplified in Yeni Eğlenme ve Dinlenme Biçimleri/New Forms of Rest and Entertainment, the current exhibition of drawings by Nazım Hikmet Richard Dikbaş, on display at Istanbul’s Galeri NON through the end of this week. Dikbaş specializes in finely etched, comic-like portraits that capture the thoughts of anonymous characters in medias res as they meditate on moments of conflict, vulnerability, defeat, and alienation. Alternatively sympathetic and satirical, he shows a deep sensitivity to his characters’ basic humanity even as he pokes fun at their shallow insecurities and petty, self-centered obsessions.