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

by Kocabag, Gunes, MA


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any work by the artist. They all had different backgrounds and occupations however they
can all be identified as upper middle class young Turks.
Betul, a 28 years old woman, is a painter who has exhibited her work both inside and
outside Turkey. She was initially trained as a ceramic artist, but then took on painting and
now has her own studio in Istanbul. She is a young, modern Turkish woman; however
when one has a chat with her she reveals herself to be quite sensitive about traditional
values. She lives with her mother, is not conservative but a Kemalist34 who believes in
laicism and the necessity to keep in line with the reforms of Ataturk.
Damla, a 35 years old woman, has studied genetic engineering and is now a marine
biologist. She lives in Portugal at the moment however due to her profession she travels a
lot and changes her country of residence every couple of years. She is not specifically
interested either in politics or in art, however she likes seeing exhibitions, taking
photographs, reading books and following popular culture as most middle class Turks do.
Cuneyt is a 32 years old man. He has studied management and law, has lived in London
and Berlin, has done his travelling and is now back in Turkey. He is working on his PhD on
management at the moment and is managing his own small office where he gives private
lessons to kids who are preparing for the university entrance exams. He told me that he is
not interested in art at. He was quite reluctant to see the exhibition insisting that there
were many better things to do in Istanbul on a sunny day as it was; however he did look
interested in what he saw once we were in.
Tansu is a 25 years old man who is studying his Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering.
He is very into music and has his own band. They play in some small bars in Istanbul. In

34

Kemalist is a term referring to the followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

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general he is a very analytical and critical person, who does not hold back from expressing
opinion. He has taken some modules on contemporary art during his studies and was
quite enthusiastic to see the exhibition.
Nihal is a 31 years old woman who has a degree in economics. She is half Turkish half
Kurdish and is sensitive to political issues. She comes from a lower middle class family and
has had some hard time economically, however at the moment she is working as a
manager for an international company and is living a comfortable life. Although claiming
to be interested in art she doesn’t have the habit of visiting exhibitions and was especially
reluctant to see an exhibition of video art.

The Face of Modern Turkey
The exhibition The Enemy Inside Me, to which I took my informants was at the Istanbul
Modern Museum, which is the first private Museum of Modern Art in Turkey. The
museum was founded in December 2004 by Eczacibasi, one of Turkey’s biggest
corporations, in an 8000 square meters dry cargo warehouse. It is considered the face of
modern Turkey and receives government and press support. The exhibits include
permanent collections of Turkish art from the beginning of the establishment of the
republic as well as temporary exhibitions of Turkish and international artists. It is
receiving a minimum of 2500 visitors on Thursdays which has free entrance for Turkish
residents. Levent Calikoglu, the head curator of the museum, asserts that the audience
visiting the museum is mostly ‘ordinary people who are interested in art, who do not go
to art galleries but only experience it with occasional museum visits’ 35 . Thus the
exhibitions receive a wide audience not limited by the select art circuit.

35

Personal correspondence.

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The Enemy Inside Me was a retrospective of Kutlug Ataman’s works spanning a period of
fifteen years; and was on between November 2010 and March 2011. It was the first big
solo exhibition of the artist in his home country. It has had 205.425 visitors during the
time it was on. As stated by Levent Calikoglu, ‘this exhibition could only have been
possible within a museum setting like Istanbul Modern’36. According to Calikoglu, one
reason Ataman’s work has not been exhibited much in Turkey until now was the lack of
an institution that would be able to support the work technically and have the authority
to stand behind the work’s strong content. To understand this claim, we need to look
more into the art context in Turkey.
With the founding of the modern Turkish Republic37 art was seen as a tool to reinforce
Turkey’s modern identity. It was a project of the republic to create artist groups whose
works were modelled on western art. However, in the second half of the century, and
especially the 1990s, alternative, innovative art practices and the notion of curatorship
emerged.38 However, still today, there isn’t yet a network of art institutions that would be
recognized at the level of its western models. Government support to current art
practices is insufficient and it is the private sector that enables the few number of
galleries and museums to keep going.
Beral Madra39 marks a gap between high culture and popular culture. High culture,
according to Madra, has started developing in Turkey in the last 150 years, however has
been forced to negotiate with popular culture in order to reach the masses. ‘A substitute

36

Personal correspondence.

37

The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Modernization was embraced as a
means to establish a new western identity for the republic. See Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey,
London, New York, Oxford University Press, 2001.

38

Halil Altindere and Sureyya Evren, ‘Who Reads a User Manual Anyway’ in User’s Manual: Contemporary Art In Turkey
1986-­‐2006, ed. Halil Altindere and Sureyya Evren, (Art-­‐Ist, 2007).

39

Beral Madra, ‘Visual Art as a Field of Complication, in User’s Manual: Contemporary Art In Turkey 1986-­‐2006, ed. Halil
Altindere and Sureyya Evren, (Art-­‐Ist, 2007), p.28.

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culture containing arabesque, kitsch and high doses of consumer culture was established
as a replacement for the high culture.’ 40 As modernism gave way to post-­‐modernism in
Turkey, high culture was forced to compromise to consumer culture to be able to stay in
the scene.
This break between high and popular culture, and the lack of establishment in Turkey’s
art market, on the other hand in the 2000s started developing into a potential for creative
acts unrestrained by the art market, which distinguished itself from the art supported by
state ideology. Vasif Kortun states that in the Turkish art context there is a distinction
between “current art” and “contemporary art”.
Unlike contemporary art and artists, current art and artists do not draw attention
to the modern republic project. This is a break in the intermix/transition between
modern and contemporary...Current art does not work on drafting a future; it is
involved with ‘here’ and ‘now’...
41
According to Aysegul Sonmez 42 , the current artists would be recognized by their
individualities as opposed to the artists defined by their group identities in the republican
art movement. However, these individual artists had to make the fight their own to get
their work acknowledged as Art. Art started developing in small alternative venues, which
due to lack of backing from the nation state have constantly been forced to justify their
doings against the preconception of art as a source of suspicion and resistance to the
establishment. It was common practice until the opening of Garanti Platform Gallery in
2001 that galleries and art spaces would have security checks at their doors. Court

40

Ibid, 29.

41

Kortun quoted in Aysegul Sonmez, ‘Current Art in Turkey’, in User’s Manual: Contemporary Art In Turkey 1986-­‐2006,
ed. Halil Altindere and Sureyya Evren, (Art-­‐Ist, 2007), p.136.

42

Ibid.

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hearings relating to art works were quite common and the 2005 Istanbul Biennial was
overshadowed by court hearings on the content of the catalogues and some of the
exhibited works43.
Returning to Calikoglu’s statement that Ataman’s exhibition would have only been
possible in an institution like Istanbul Modern, it is the context of this huge museum,
regarded as the face of modern Turkey and is supported by the state and media, that
provides justification and acceptation to the content such as stories of abusive policemen,
sexually explicit images and displacedness of Armenian identity.

The Enemy Inside Me
There were eleven works in the exhibition, each of which had a sheet of helper text
available providing brief information on the piece. The first work that greets the visitor on
entrance of the floor was Paradise (2006), which was a work consisting of twenty four
LCD screens arranged in a semi circle, one of them being in the middle of the circle. The
piece in the middle was replaced by another one every day. Each screen showed an
individual resident of Orange County of Southern California defining their dream like lives.
The “paradise on earth” identity attributed to the place they live shapes the individual
narratives of these people and the notion of paradise becomes an irony leaving the
viewer with questions rather than answers as in most of Ataman’s work. Some of my
informants, however found it difficult to relate to this work, stating that the culture was
so strange to them that they couldn’t feel any affinity to what was being said. The irony

43

During the 9th Istanbul Biennale in 2005, the catalogues for a photography exhibition curated by Halil Altindere were
confiscated because of some images by the artist Murat Tosyali that were supposedly assaulting the Turkish army. The
hearings didn’t result in any convictions. In 2006 the art journal Kaos GL was taken to court for publishing a work by the
painter Taner Ceylan depicting a homosexual scene. The hearings started with the claim that the image wasn't an art
piece and the journal was banned from distributing the issue in case. The work had previously been exhibited at the
2003 Istanbul Biennial and at Art Basel in 2006.

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behind the title of the work was not grasped by most of them. However, the work still
succeeded in raising the intended questions on the truthfulness of the notion of paradise,
which took the form of criticizing the artist for the choice of the title:
I don’t think this is right. I don’t think all people there live in this earthly paradise.
There are people trying to survive there as well...there are cab drivers,
construction workers. They live in this paradise but don’t live like that. And all
these people, just because they live in Orange County, they feel like they need to
act happy. I don’t understand why this needs to be called “paradise”. It’s fake.
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Figure 2: Paradise (2006)

Moving on from Paradise, one confronts It’s A Vicious Circle (2002), a twelve screen
installation with the face of a Jamaican immigrant in close up, talking about his
experiences as a foreigner living in Berlin. Each screen has the same image, though in
some cases a bit distorted or in different colour tones. As the screens are arranged in a
circle, the subject is positioned in confrontation to itself and becomes at the same time
the receiver of his own speech. ‘While complaining about the difficulties of being an

44

Cuneyt interview.

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immigrant, the fact that he caricaturizes and generalizes the society he lives in actually
reveals that he himself has entered the vicious circle of racism which he protests.45 This
endless loop of one man recounting incidents of racism posits the viewer outside the
circle, feeling a need to respond but not being able to. The work demands a response and
confronts the audience at a subjective level; however my informants were puzzled on
how to respond to this work. All perceived the work as a critique of racism but were
puzzled by the arrangement of the screens and the, at times paranoiac, accounts of the
subject’s experiences.
I do understand what he is trying to say, but I don’t understand why this is
arranged like this and why this guy is talking on and on and on... I think it is about
the individual and the society affecting each other. This guy...how he is against
racism, but he is part of that society...he has become part of that society. I don’t
know, I somehow find this very pessimistic, very depressing.
46

Figure 3: It’s A Vicious Circle (2002)

45

Exhibition helper text.

46

Nihal interview.

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The next piece titled Turkish Delight features the artist himself dancing, dressed as a belly
dancer with makeup and a wig. His dance figures are exaggerated repetitions of clichés
and his face has an expression of disinterestedness, chewing a gum at the same time. The
work touches upon notions of the Western gaze towards the other and projects back the
Western conception of the orient in this exaggerated form.
Identity is a jacket...People you never see will make it and you wear it. Identity is
something other than you, outside of you. It is a question of perception. You can
be aware of it and manipulate it, play with it, amplify it or mask it for infinite
reasons.47

Figure 4: Turkish Delight (2007)

47

Ana Finel Honigman, ‘What the Structure Defines: An Interview with Kutlug Ataman’, in Art Journal, Vol:63, No:1,
(Spring, 2004), p.82.

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Emre Baykal evaluates this as ‘accentuation as a strategy to deconstruct an ideology’48.
Through his accentuation of the belly dancer, Ataman turns it into a parody, leaving the
decision to the audience on what to make of this flawed version of a familiar image.49
Beaulieu and Roberts50 mark the challenge for West to make sense of such counter

narratives and alternative images made in dialogue with Western culture. Zeynep Celik
addresses the same dilemma stating that ‘as the voices of certain alterities, kept silent by
the valorised culture, begins to enter the dialogue, they complicate the meanings and
contextual fabrics of the art objects and disrupt inherited historiographic legacies’51.
Turkish Delight provides a good example to this through its commentary on its own
stereotype rooted in the Western gaze.
The helper text accompanying the piece explained the work as a reversal of the western
gaze, however there were various different interpretations from my informants. One
interpretation was that the piece was making fun of the orient and that the artist was
expressing his affinity to the west through his parody of an oriental cliché52. Another
informant, Betul, took the piece completely personal, identifying with it as an artist.
This is amazing. It is absurd, but that’s not the matter. I so wish I could be a bit like
him. I know this text here says other things, but this work made me think of lots of

48

Emre Baykal, ‘The Portrait of The Artist as Turkish Delight’, in You Tell Me About Yourself Anyway, (Yapikredi
Publications, 2004), p.12.

49

This notion of ‘accentuation as a strategy for deconstruction’ resonates with Bell Hooks’ ‘notion of perverse re-­‐
enactment’. Discussing the fear generated by whiteness in black imagination, Bell talks about Toni Morrison’s novel
Beloved, in which a mother, on fear of having her children suffer the terror of whiteness, chooses to inflict the terror
herself by killing them.

50

Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts, ‘Orientalism’s Interlocutors’ in Orientalism’s Interlocutors, ed. Jill Beaulieu and Mary
Roberts, (Duke University Press, 2002), p.2.

51

Zeynep Celik, ‘Speaking Back To Orientalist Discourse’, in Orientalism’s Interlocutors, ed. Jill. Beaulieu and Mary
Roberts, (Duke University Press, 2002), p.4.

52

Cuneyt interview.

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other things about myself. How close and reserved I am. You really need to be in
peace with yourself to make a piece like this.53
Women Who Wear Wigs was a four screen installation showing four women, who all
wear or have worn a wig in some period of their lives. The four screens were presented in
a line with sound coming through the wall opposite each screen. However, as the sounds
were not coming through headphones, but being delivered to ambient, it was not
possible to completely isolate oneself from the rest of the interviews while trying to focus
on one. The women talk about the reasons they wear the wig: Melek Ulagay spent her life
in disguise during the 70s due to her political activities; Nevval Sevindi was a journalist
who used the wig to regain her femininity by concealing her hair loss that came as a result
of Chemotherapy; the third screen, which was just a black screen as the person preferred
to hide her identity, was of a university student who was not allowed to enter school with
her headscarf due to the headscarf ban in Turkey, and thus had to wear a wig instead; the
last subject, Demet Demir, was a transvestite activist who used the wig when her hair was
cut by the police to prevent her from undertaking sex work. ‘Rather than trying to render
and get a picture of reality, Ataman’s work highlights the modification and multiplication
of it by human beings.’54 All these stories evolving around the same object, the wig, blend
together to form a larger portrait of a society that exercises authority over its members in
different forms. Ataman describes this work as four frames blending to form a fifth. The
fifth frame is different for each viewer as ‘reality does not exist independent from us, but
is formed separately in each person’s perception.’55

53

Betul interview.

54

Emre Baykal, ‘From Feature Film to a Portraiture of the Century’, in You Tell Me About Yourself Anyway, ed. Rene
Block, (Yapikredi Publications, 2004), p.23.

55

Ataman quoted from Ozlem Altinok, ‘Identities We Wear on Our Heads: Interview with Kutlug Ataman’, in Cumhuriyet,
March 14, 2002.

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