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Confronting the Work in Progress: An Experiment on Engagement with Contemporary Art

by Kocabag, Gunes, MA

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fantasies’6. His own experience of being a gay man in Turkey is reflected in his works
problematizing gender identities through characters like Ceyhan in Never My Soul or
Demet in Women Who Wear Wigs. He looks for characters that he himself can relate to at
a personal level, thus most of his characters are chosen from his own social sphere. The
intimacy between the artist and his characters is an important characteristic of his works;
however, the works are never on the characters per se, but the mechanics of the
construction of these characters. His films are processes through which the characters are
created through their testimonies.
The notions of identity and truth have lost credibility as master narratives have come to
an end7. In Ataman’s work, the stability and autonomy of the characters are always left in
ambiguity. One finds oneself challenged by the question of how to relate to these
characters: as “real” people or as constructs of the artist? His work focuses not on the
delivery of truth, but the construction of multiple truths.8 He sees this construction in the
nature of communication. ‘It is embedded in the nature of all communication, myth,
mythology, be it verbal-­‐oral history, be it art, film making, news-­‐ it is all the same thing’.9
The use of documentary style and the effect of this choice on the perceived “reality” of
the subject presented in the work is a critical point in Ataman’s work. Most of his pieces
are based on talking head interviews of people recounting their experiences on a certain


Emre Baykal, ‘The Object of Obsession as a Reflection of the Self and Its Metamorphosis in Ataman’s Work’, in You Tell
Me About Yourself Anyway, ed. Rene Block, (Yapikredi Publications, 2004), p.54.


TJ Demos, ‘Kutlug Ataman: The Art of Story Telling’, in The Enemy Inside Me (Exhibition Catalogue), ed. Esin
Eskinat,( Istanbul Modern, 2011), p. 35.


The notion of multiple truths in terms of identities resonates with McKim Mariotts’s discussion of the “dividual” as a
fluid, composite and divisible personhood, as opposed t the indivisible, integrated, self-­‐developing individual Western
person. See Mariott’s Constructing an Indian Ethnosociology in India Through Hindu Categories (1990) for a detailed
discussion. Also see Strathern (1988) on dividuals and partible persons. Strathern discusses personhood in the
Melanesian context and asserts that contrary to Western individuality, Melanesian personhood is created through
relations to the others and is extended through the continuity between people and objects. Thus it is not possible to
talk about a fixed identity but a fluid one that is constructed through and in relation to others.


Ataman quoted from Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Interview with Kutluğ Ataman’, in Kutluğ Ataman—Mesopotamian
Dramaturgies (Milan: Foundazione Maxxi, 2010), p.66.


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topic. As the truthfulness of the characters as well as the experiences they recount is a
point of unease in these works, which puts the viewer in doubt as to how to respond to
what is being said, the work confronts the viewer to make a choice, whether to believe or
not. However, the question is not one of whether the films are true to the characters or
not, but of whether there is a reference point at all in relation to which we can discuss
Ataman expresses his approach as: ‘I don’t make documentaries. I use what you call
documentary, raw reality as an ingredient in order to make a comment about our
reconstruction of reality and how we fabricate what we call reality.’10 This thin line
between documentary and fiction apparent in Ataman’s works and his emphasis on the
constructedness of “reality” resonates with discussions on the indexicality in
photographic images. As Rosalind Kraus puts it ‘Every photograph is the result of a
physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface’11. Barthes12 puts
a similar emphasis on the photographic image as an index of what has been, emphasizing
the photograph’s ability to freeze the moment of exposure and preserve it as a singular
‘body’ as opposed to the generality of the ‘corpus’, corpus here referring to the “reality”
outside the photographic frame. I would however argue that this notion of singularity of
the photographic image should not be taken epistemologically. The formal singularity of
the image does not entail a singularity of its perception as there still remains a potential
multiplicity emerging through the beholder’s engagement with the image. This
multiplicity prevailing at the level of the beholder will be discussed more below in relation
to the works of Eco and Bourriaud.


Ibid, p.60.


Rosalind Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America’, in October, Vol:3 (Spring, 1977), p.75.


Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida—Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (Vintage Books: London,
1993), p.4.


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Christopher Pinney13, evaluating the body -­‐ corpus duality in the context of Indian portrait
photography, asserts that in these photographic portraits the event of the photograph
becomes a distinct world on its own. The power of these images does not lie in their
effect of reality but in the ensemble of extraordinary poses, settings and accessories
exposed in the shot, which have integrity within the single frame. What matters in these
images is not the fit between the world created in the photograph and the wider world
(the corpus) but the fitness within the world of the photograph.
The work of Thomas Demand provides a case of interest when discussing the body-­‐corpus
distinction in photographic images. Demand’s work is based on making card board
models of actual places, mostly crime scenes, based on images obtained from reports in
the mass media. He then takes colour photographs of these which are hardly
distinguishable from the mass media images except from the little traces Demand leaves
behind such as marks of glue or rough edges at some part of the models, telephones
without buttons or scattered papers without writing on them. A point stressed by many
commentators on Demand’s work is the viewer’s two stage response to these images. 14
The viewer first sees the images as cold and abstract but unexceptional. As a second stage

though he/she starts realizing that something is wrong with the image and comes to
recognize it as a construction. Demand’s photographs bear indexical relationships to their
paper models, however what becomes the issue in his work is not the link between the
photograph and the paper model but the model and the real-­‐world source. Thus his work
takes the nature of the photographic event as its problem rather than the nature of the
photograph. In this respect Ataman’s work works in a similar line with Demand’s.


Christopher Pinney, ‘Coming Out Better’, in Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 years of Photography from India,
Pakistan and Bangladesh, ed. Kirsty Ogg, (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2009), p.23.


Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, (Yale University Press, 2008), p.264.


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Ataman’s work replaces the photographic image with the video image and the card board
models with the constructed identities. Again when the viewer is confronted with
Ataman’s work his/her first reaction is to watch these images as unexceptional talking
head interviews. However after a while the work engages the viewer at a second level,
creating a feeling of unease and oddness in relation to the characters. The question then
becomes not the link between the image of the character in the film and the filmic event
corresponding to it, but the link between the filmic event and the wider world behind it.
Thus what is problematized is not the distinction between the body and the corpus but
the stability of the corpus itself.
The Open Work
The reason behind my choice for Ataman’s work as a case study is neither the formal
qualities of his work, nor its specific social, political readings within the Turkish context.
What makes Ataman’s work of interest for the purpose of this study is its ambiguity and
the multiplicity of readings it enables. The duration of these lengthy portraits of
individuals or communities, which often present the subjects performing an endless loop
of speech, vary from two to forty hours. This makes it impossible for the viewer to receive
the work as a whole. The audience has to do its own editing through the selection of the
bits they watch. Thus, no two viewers can have the exact same experience. Neither can a
viewer who comes back to the work have the same experience as before. This
characteristic of Ataman’s work can be discussed more in relation to Eco’s idea of ‘work in
motion’15, moving freely between a multiplicity of different interpretations; thus making
each interpretation only one among the possible many.


Umberto Eco, The Open Work, translated by Anna Cancogni, (Hudchinson Radius, 1989), p.ix-­‐x.


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Eco uses the notion of open work to explain the difference between traditional and
modern art. The method of traditional art was to direct the receiver to receive the work
in a certain way whereas modern art remains deliberately and systematically ambiguous,
containing a great variety of potential meanings and moving between a multiplicity of
different interpretations. 16 Eco discusses Baroque art as a break point at which,
influenced by a new vision of cosmos introduced by Copernican theory and Kepler’s
discovery of elliptical paths, the position of the circle as the classical symbol of cosmic
perfection was called into question. The openness of Baroque form as opposed to its
preceding Cartesian perspectivalism marks a new scientific awareness; the tactile being
replaced by the visual and emphasis shifting from essence to appearance. Martin Jay17, on
a similar line, discusses Baroque form as the third phase of scopic regimes of modernity
following Cartesian Perspectivalism and the Art of Describing characterized by Dutch
seventeenth-­‐century art. ‘In opposition to the lucid, linear, solid, fixed, planimetric, closed
form of Renaissance...the Baroque was painterly, recessional, soft focused, multiple and
Eco19 argues that modern art has developed to be open as the open form is a reflection of
contemporary times. Building on the idea that art represents our experience of the world,
the multiplicity of meanings and the emphasis on different interpretations is what is most
suitable for today’s world as opposed to classic times. Arguing for Contemporary art as an
epistemological metaphor, Eco states:


Ibid, x.


Martin Jay, ‘Scopic Regimes of Modernity’, in Vision and Visuality, (Bay Press, 1988), pp.3-­‐23.






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The discontinuity of phenomena has called into question the possibility of a
unified, definitive image of our universe; arts suggests a way for us to see the
world in which we live, and by seeing it, accept it and integrate it into our
sensibility. The open work assumes the task of giving us an image of discontinuity.
It does not narrate it, it is it’.20
The emphasis made on the multiplicity of possible interpretations brings to mind Barthes’
announcement of the death of the author. Developing his argument over literary criticism,
Barthes21 argues that the birth of the reader brings the death of the author. Traditional
literary criticism found resolution of the work in identifying the author behind it, however
the author is just a vehicle through which language emerges; and it is the reader who
reduces the multiplicity of meanings and fixes the text.
However, Eco asserts that the multiplicity of interpretative positions does not free the
reader from the Author. The possibility of numerous different personal interpretations
remains within the code which has already been organized by the author. ‘The author is
the one who proposed a number of possibilities which had already been rationally
organized, oriented, and endowed with specifications for proper development.’22
Returning to the work of Ataman, the artist uses multiple screen installations in which
images compete with each other for the attention of the viewer. Through the mixing and
blending of individual voices, his works form ‘a soundscape of overlapping voices that
makes it difficult to locate yourself’23. This multiplicity of information is what gives


Ibid, 90.


Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image-­‐Music-­‐Text, essays selected and translated by S.Heath, Fontana,
(London, 1977).


Eco, 19.


Stuart Commer, talk given at Istanbul Modern as part of the Identity and Geography talk series in conjunction with
The Enemy Inside Me exhibition.


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ambiguity to the meaning of the works and makes them open to the interpretation of the
viewer. The audience needs to actively engage with the work to filter certain parts of the
field of visuals and sound he is presented with; and blend the bits he/she grabs to form
his/her own impression of the work. This engagement between the work and the
audience is created through an open structure through which the author allows the
audience to navigate.

Relational Aesthetics
Nicolas Bourriaud’24 asserts that the passive receiver pursuing a solely ocular engagement
with the art work needs to be replaced by an interlocutor who makes the art work
complete through his/her engagement with it. This new type of art form demanding an
active interlocutor, works at the level of human interactions and its social context, rather
than an independent and private symbolic space 25 . Referring to this new form as
relational art, Bourriaud goes on to argue that ‘it is no longer possible to regard the
contemporary work as a space to be walked through...but as a period of time to be lived
through.26 In this sense, the consumption of art becomes an experience taking place over
the time period of engagement with the work, rather than an instant exposure. Thomas
Docherty27 on the other hand discusses a denial of the temporal dimension in art
criticism and explains this denial with a will to stabilize and singularize the art work due
to a fear on the side of the critic to lose his/her subjectivity.


Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, (Les Presses du reel,


Ibid, 14.


Ibid, 15.


Thomas Docherty, Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation, (Clarendon Press, 1996).


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Docherty’s take on modern criticism will be discussed further in this study. However,
returning to the notion of relationality, Bourriaud28 asserts that the idea of relationality is
not unique to modern art, but in fact the total art history can be read as a history of
successive production of relations. While older art forms produced relations between
humankind and deities, and then humankind and objects, modern art has been focusing
on inter-­‐human relationships as can be observed through artistic activities since the early
90s. Bourriaud however distinguishes what he calls relational art works from works
which demand solely ocular participation. The work of Felix Gonzalez-­‐Torres provides a
base for his discussion. Gonzalez-­‐Torres’ work titled Portrait of Ross in LA (1991) presents
a pile of candies at one corner of the exhibition floor. Ross was Gonzalez-­‐Torres’s lover,
who died of AIDS. When Ross was first diagnosed, his doctor told him his ideal weight was
155 pounds. Every day, the candy is weighed and 155 pounds is placed out. The visitors
are invited to take candies away from the pile. During the day as visitors take the candies
away the weight of the pile diminishes metaphorically relating to Ross’ weight and his
health. Thus, in this work, the active, bodily participation of the visitors makes the art
The space defined by Gonzalez-­‐Torres’ worked out in inter-­‐subjectivity,
in the emotional, behavioural and historical response given by the beholder to the
experience proposed. The encounter with the work gives rise not so much to a
space but to a time span.29
In Ataman’s work, although the work demands engagement at an ocular level, this is not
a straight forward passive engagement. The combination of multiple images and sounds


Bourriaud, 28.


Ibid, 59.


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and the effect of the bodily position of the audience within the installation on the form of
the work, gives Ataman’s work its relational quality. The audience is expected to move
through the space of these works, experiencing the work from different positions,
recreating the work throughout the whole experience. Bourriaud explains this new type
of relationality as a reaction to modernity through inventing new ways of being together
and forms of interaction. Modernity’s critique of collective alienation and the
predominance of the community over the individual, finds its opposition through art as a
new form of plurality based on relations created through these new art works. Thus art
develops as a response to and as a symptom of the times.

Art as a Symptom
Hasan Bulent Kahraman 30 discusses Ataman’s works as a symptom of Turkey’s
modernization process. Kahraman argues that Turkey’s modernization has been a radical
top down process starting from Ottoman times. The driving force behind Turkish
modernization was not a desire for enlightenment but was the salvation of the state. Thus
the idea of the individual which formed the core of western modernization was only
applicable as long as the individual submitted to the collective will.31 Tradition was totally
rejected in order to make a new start for the modern Turkish state. However, in time,
possibly as a reaction to forms of globalization, a concept of alternative modernization
has come to the fore putting emphasis on local values. For the last 50 years a new
multiplicity is being discovered, which as Kahraman states, can be detected from
symptoms such as the rise of Islam and a return to tradition, which are the result of the


Hasan Bulent Kahraman, ‘Notes on a Bewildered Modernization’, in Maxxi Exhibition Catalogue, (Electa, 2010).


Ibid, 42.


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politics of identity, recognition and difference. However, this multiplicity is not in the
form of a synthesis but in one of eclectic union.
Now the preference assigned to “both this and that” has started to take the place
of the previous conception of “this or that” and of a bewilderment focused on
Westernization. The construction of a new identity, new memory, new sense of
belonging, is part of this process...The subject of the mimesis, by now, is no longer
nature but society and persons, directly.32
As a symptom of Turkey’s modernization process, Ataman’s work can be taken to reflect
these multiplicities and contradictions. Its focus on the instability of identities as well as
individual identities adding up to form eclectic portraits of communities provide a fertile
ground for social and political analysis. However, Ataman himself states that his position
is not necessarily a political one. His works are about perception and everyday life. They
are not statements on certain political issues but are ‘about the experience, the nature of
the narrative and how it is constructed’.


Building on the theoretical ground laid out above, I planned a small intervention to see
how the real life “interlocutors” receive Ataman’s works. I asked five acquaintances to
visit an exhibition of Ataman’s with me to observe their reactions and get their opinions
on the works. These five people, whom I will refer to as informants, were not previously
aware of the exhibition and saw it on my request. It was the first time they were seeing


Ibid, 46.


Ataman quoted from Hans Ulrich Obrist, 64.


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