This text was originally written for the 1998 exhibition, İskorpit: Recent Art from Turkey, House of World Cultures, Berlin and the Badishcer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe.
“Every critical affirmation contains, on the one hand, a recognition of the value of the work which occasions it and on the other hand an affirmation of its own legitimacy. All critics declare not only their judgement of the work, but also their claim to the right to talk about it and judge it. In short, they take part in a struggle for the monopoly of a legitimate discourse about the work of art, and consequently in the production of the value of the work of art.”
Pierre Bourdieu (1)
Let’s face it, Turkey has never been a high profile place in contemporary culture. At a discussion when I was exasperated by the disregard for contemporary art in Turkey in the early nineties, the curator Bruce Ferguson wittily answered: “Turkey manages the impossible, it accomplishes an institutional disappearance act. And, as we all know, only strong fictions produce strong cultures.” (2) This gloriously paranoid act of self-erasure has its serious ramifications on the artists (in this exhibition) as well. They constitute a minority and a weak link as part of the contemporary culture of Turkey. They are a diversified group in age, gender and approach. Despite a dismissive provincial market, paralyzing institutions, and an undiscerning media, these artists have been able to articulate critical ruptures in their works. In more ways then one, the exhibition provides thematic and structural alliances between the older generations and the emergent ones, and reflects a situation that goes unnoticed at “home” and as such this project hardly meets the “standards” of what makes an artist important in Turkey!
One of the reasons for Turkey’s institutional disappearance is predicated on the enjoyment of the relative comforts of self-isolation. The local, unconvertible intellectual’s proximity to a state apparatus that does not even legitimize him/her, his/her servicing a middle-class of bureaucratic origins and its statist lineage, and a new monied class whose only claim to being bourgeois is a density of wealth, produced its characteristics subjects. Thanks to the deepening of the crisis of institutions that have not been able to adopt to the changing conditions, there is now a complete and healthy divorce between the provincial and the “glocal”.
The contemporary production has integrated itself into the Euroamerican circuit, and is being integrated by it. The integration has been provided by the Istanbul Biennial and less than a handful of independent curators and writers. The Biennial has become the index, but also the most organized institution of guidance and patronage, and by default a monopoly.
THE END OF THE POLITICS OF EXPORT?
If only a minority of the artists in the exhibition exhibit in Turkey (3) are they for export, is there such a concept any longer as export, and if there is, what are the motivations (4) of the importers? Some artists may be in global circulation, and there may be more interest in their work “outside,” but that does not help move a leaf “inside”. Hence, there is no symbolic or actual benefit to them in where they live. Secondly, the artists in circulation produce a kind of work that is culturally and geographically specific, much more so than the works targeted for the provincial market. They have nothing to do with cosmopolitan or uncritical ethno-centric production. They are urban and revisionist.
DIASPORA AT HOME
Two conditions of destiny are most appropriate here; One is a reinvigorated regionalism. Regionalism is about a revision of geography and history of terms which had been postulated by the “West,” as well as questioning the subsumption of these terms by the “locals.” Two, there is an ongoing resistance to those who attempt to empower and legitimize a discussion of the emergent situations. The diasporan at home (and abroad) is at a remove from “international styles,” ethno-narcissism, and various upgrades of traditional images in modern media. The diasporan artist operates from an urban position, the work is “glocal” as far as an inter-cultural legibility is only one of the readings of the work.
Occasionally, I zap across local channels that relay some the most violent news programs. It may be good for the ratings, but as a sporadic viewer, I am flabber-gasted. I watch regular police beatings, heads bashed in, people being dragged by their hair across the streets, and brutality in general. I sometimes feel I live in a collective dementia to which I certainly belong. Hence is the reason of Bülent Şangar’s “tableaux de violence” from all walks of life, in mock photographic scenes that confuse the victim with the victimized.
Television aside, how is it possible for an artist from Turkey to escape the hegemony of the everyday, the demented newspapers, the psychotic bus drivers, the slick liars with summer tans, the evil the Right has done, and the grand fraudulent system in which one is placed and which one is part of? In Turkey, the
hegemony of the daily politics is such that it invades and traumatizes every part of one’s life, from language, to dress and the organization of the body. Thus, it is inevitable that most of the work in this exhibition is permeated with the “political” most often than not in covert forms: Hale Tenger’s “The School of Sikimden Aşşa Kasımpaşa”, Gülsün Karamustafa’s “Stage”, Halil Altındere’s stamps of the disappeared people some of whom were under custody... . Serkan Özkaya’s daily inquiries of the status of art, Füsun Onur’ s everyday objects embedded with memory, Ayşe Erkmen’s site and situation-specific neo-conceptual works are works that escape the terror of the daily politics and provide a cordon sanitaire.
What started as an authentic movement, among a number of distinct artists in Turkey could have almost been a movement of mutual attitudes: A critical example is Hale Tenger whose work in the Third Istanbul Biennial in 1992 prompted a court case on the grounds of “defacing the flag,” from which she was acquitted a year later. Sarkis, despite all the odds of being a diasporan at a time when the so-called centers had a very geographical narrow focus on what constitutes contemporary art, made history that later artists such as Sefa Sağlam, who is not in this exhibition, are greatly indebted to. None of these artists work with any reference to previous modern art in Turkey, and present a break with the past. The work is civilian in that not only does it not align itself with powers or institutions, but is also critical of them.
Of the group, the rest have been active since the mid-eighties such Ayşe Erkmen, Füsun Onur and Gülsün Karamustafa. They are
followed by a younger generation that came into prominence after 1989 such as Hüseyin Alptekin, İskender Yediler, Hale Tenger, Aydan Murtezaoğlu, Bülent Şangar. Approaching middle age, these artists who have been active for the last decade, have entered new ground and intensified the crisis. They are the trailblazers and the casualties of contemporary art in Turkey. Finally the youngest in the group show further diversification such as Serkan Özkaya, Ebru Özseçen, Kutluğ Ataman, Halil Altındere and Neriman Polat. However, they are all interconnected in ways that have nothing to do with other ages. Some of the common factors are issues of gender and representation, violence taking place in all aspects of life, exile/displacement and the new urban cohabitation, and finally language, history and memory. The use of unprivileged, everyday materials, metaphoric objects, simple technologies are endemic. These works are urban. Urbanity undoes the conventional expectations of local authenticity, because the local becomes embedded in structure instead of the content or the visual. Thus, the works are more legible by
The tide has turned, and lately in contemporary art in Turkey, there is a new structure which is at its core anti-visual, which disfavors montage and modernist cultural-appropriation. Tradition is made present through a structural understanding rather than a visual transfer. Tradition and contemporaneity involve a contradiction, that cannot be solved by bracketing historical modes in the name of high culture. In fact, Hüseyin Alptekin’s reflections on intercultural hybridization; Ebru Özseçen’s constructions of gender customs; Gülsün Karamustafa’s inquiries into the new cultures displaced, intercity and inner city nomadisms; Aydan Murtezağlu’s inquiries into institutions of space are all works that invented new visual language for the articulations of these situations. Some have engaged themselves in the expressions of irrevocable loss: Sarkis from very early on (“My home land is my memory”) ; Gülsün Karamustafa with her delicate evocations of exile, Vahap Avsar (who is not in the exhibition) with his Dervish sculptures rotating furiously on record players; Aydan Murtezaoğlu, whose figures become an index for a typology of the Turkish Republic’s institutionalized women. They all represent a minority in a culture that stubbornly refuses to offer a revisionist perspective of her histories.
BREACH THEN BOND
Finally, a number of the artists in the exhibition indicate possibilities out of the everyday: Serkan Özkaya reconfigures each day the meanings and the ontology of art and its objecthood with infinite perversity. Kutluğ Ataman’s film “semiha b. unplugged” that swept the scene signals a liberated reconsideration of memory the premise of which is not predicated conflict and historical negotiation. İskender Yediler manipulates “art” with eminent humor, and Neriman Polat obfuscates with unforced poetics her phenomenological photographs and videos.
Now breach and bond
at the same time.
1. Pierre Bordieu, The Field of Cultural Production, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 35-36.
2. Mentioned by Carlos Basualdo at the “Union of the Imaginary” discussions on the Internet, 1998. Likewise, at a discussion with Paulo Colombo, the curator underlined that “you cannot have great art without a great audience”.
3. Most of the production of artists such as Sarkis, Ayşe Erkmen, Hale Tenger, Gülsün Karamusta, İskender Yediler, Ebru Özseçen, İskender Yediler, and others have been accessible in exhibitions abroad. Most of the works, some site and situation specific, others not so, have not been seen in Turkey.
4. It may well be that there is reciprocity between the exporter’s projection of what an importer desires, and the importers projection of what the exporter should desire. This issues is yet to be discussed in detail.