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

by Kocabag, Gunes, MA

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Most of my informants however found this work very puzzling saying they could not
concentrate on a single story, getting distracted by the others. The critiques of the work
focused mostly on the way it was displayed, suggesting each piece should have had
headphones. This, as I later discovered, was due to them watching these pieces as
fragments of documentary. Thus they wanted to understand what was going on in each
story. Still, the notion of constructing identities came up in all informants’ responses and
this piece was considered especially relevant in the context of Turkey, expressing
comments on social pressure and the society’s impetus to mould the individual. Thus the
piece acted as an agent provocateur through which people verbalized their thoughts on
tensions in the society

Figure 5: Women Who Wear Wigs

Stefan’s Room was a five screen installation whose subject was a young German man
obsessed with raising and preserving moths. The screens were arranged in different
angles floating in mid-­‐air and the viewer was invited to sit in the middle space surrounded


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by the screens. On one screen we see Stefan Naumann telling us the story of his thirty
thousand butterflies which he preserves in his home, while on the other four screens we
see images of the moths, butterflies, the poisons he uses to kill and preserve them.

Figure 6: Stefan's Room (2004)

In the same area with Stefan’s Room, we saw The Four Seasons of Veronica Read, which
was a four screen installation in which the screens were arranged in a square leaving the
viewer outside. On each screen we hear Veronica talking about her obsession of raising
Hippeastrum flower bulbs, with each season projected on a different screen. The
arrangements of the screens as a closed, regular geometry reflect the mental state of this
woman trapped within her own fantasy. ‘As an extension of her identity, the
metamorphosis of the flower bulbs she has devoted herself to both in a scientific and
maternal manner, creates a transformation in her character as well. 57


Exhibition helper text.


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Stefan’s Room and The Four Seasons of Veronica Read, both dealing with people whose
obsessions have become ‘metaphorical embodiments of their identities’58, confront the
audience at a personal level, provoking a response to the story behind these obsessions.

Figure 7: Four Seasons of Veronica Read (2004)

Ataman 59 relates his work to Rachel Whitehead’s in the sense that a presence is
expressed through absence. In these two pieces the works are not informative accounts
of moths or Hippeastrum bulbs (although the ongoing narrative seems to be that), but
what lies behind these endless accounts, which is pertaining to the nature of these two
characters. One of my informants, Nihal, who was in the process of divorce, was very
affected by Veronica Read’s Four Seasons as her own perception of the work was shaped
by her personal state of mind; whereas most other informants found the same work not
very interesting and not very relevant.


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.56.


Ataman quoted from Ana Finel Honigman, ‘What the Structure Defines: An Interview with Kutlug Ataman’, in Art
Journal, Vol:63, No:1, (Spring, 2004), p.81.


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I find this exhibition really depressing in general. Especially this Veronica
character... something as beautiful as flowers has become her prison; she has
closed herself to people. I find this extremely sad...even sadder than the least there is hope there, but this woman is done’s all
those flower lonely, how sad. I could sit and watch this
forever...feeling the deep sadness.60
In a separate room was 99 Names, consisting of five screens positioned in different angles.
The bottom of the first screen rested on the floor as the other four screens were each
elevated higher than the previous one. On each screen we see a seated man rocking back
and forth with his eyes closed. The movement in the first screen is very slow, but the
rhythm gets higher and higher as we progress to the last screen which is almost flying in
the air. In this final stage ‘the stability of the figure’s memory, and therefore of his
identity, remains indistinct; the character has surrendered utterly to this act and is
undergoing an out-­‐of-­‐body experience.’61


Nihal interview.


Exhibition helper text.


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Figure 8: 99 Names (2002)
The interpretation of this work again varied considerably from individual to individual.
Nihal, who said she has had experiences of similar trance states, interpreted the work as a
disappearance of identity, the individual getting rid of his identity like a sleeve. On the
other hand, Cuneyt interpreted the work as a parody of Aczimendi head bangers62 and
found it disturbing both for the viewer and for the people who might be practicing that
I think for most of these works, he is using these stereotypes of people and I don’t
find this very ethical. I mean there are people practicing these things and I don’t
know how I would feel if it was me being an Aczimendi and seeing this piece here.


Aczimendism is a religious order followed by a small minority in Turkey. They are known for their stance against
secularism and democracy, particular black clothing and religious ceremonies involving head banging.


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I think I would be extremely disturbed of seeing this. I think he (the artist) is
intentionally using these radical images...exploiting them almost.63
The notion of exploitation is an interesting one in relation to Ataman’s works. One could
say he was exploiting the weaknesses of these characters if these were factual films or
reality shows. However the ambiguity of whether or not these characters actually exist as
they are presented to us and the fact that they are presented within the context of an art
gallery makes this accusation hard to support. The fact that Cuneyt brings this point up
however tells us something about his way of engaging with these characters. Even though
he expresses his doubts on the genuinely of these characters he is confused about how to
react to the explicitness of the works. Should he treat them as real people and thus be
concerned about their personal rights? Or should he see them as just fictive characters
stemming from the artists’ mind?
In another room was Beggars, consisting of seven screens which at first gave the
impression of black and white photographs. However, on closer look one notices the
movement of smoke coming from the tip of a cigarette or a slight trembling of a hand.
These are life size moving images of beggars, looking you in the eye, some of which are
“real”, but some are actors, as stated in the helper text. As stated by one informant, the
statement that some of the beggars are actors creates a feeling of alienation and puts you
off from identifying with the subjects or feeling pity for them. ‘The artist has been very
clever in this one...because otherwise this might have turned into a kitsch demagogy.’64
Another piece was Never My Soul, which was probably the most controversial and
confrontational piece in the exhibition. Never My Soul consisted of six TV screens


Cuneyt interview.


Nihal interview.


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arranged in a living room like atmosphere, with velvet sofas dimly illuminated. The
entrance was marked with a +15 sign. “Never my Soul” is a cliché phrase often used in
Turkish cinema which the good girl says to her rapist, meaning “You can take my body,
but never my soul”. On the screens we see Ceyhan Firat, a transvestite who is pretending
to be Turkan Soray, the diva of Turkish cinema. On each screen Ceyhan is recounting a
different story about her life. We see her talking, dressing, undressing, acting, having a
bath, having sex, having a dialysis treatment at the hospital... Often her “boyfriend” Jessie
is in the shot as well, though the actual relationship is an enigma, as she at times says he
is just an extra in the film. We hear her stories of being abused as a child and a young
boy/girl. At the hospital she is neither admitted to the men’s nor the women’s ward and
ends up with a bed in the storage cabinet. At times she is in conversation with Ataman,
acknowledging the event of filming.
This work is not a straight forward documentation of Ceyhan’s life. After interviewing
Ceyhan, Ataman transcribed her words, and then had her memorize and re-­‐perform her
“script” in front of the camera, which he then spliced together with her original interview,
drawing together the initial “documentary” recording and her subsequent performance
of that account. The artist explains this choice as an effort to a create parallax view, ‘a
formal expression of her parallel situation, a woman who is also a man with a penis’.65
Clues of this arrangement are left in the work such as instances when Ceyhan tells Jessie

to stop messing around because they have a lot of script to go through that day. However,
this information is never explicitly presented to the viewer and is not included in the
helper texts; thus the viewer has to make his own decision as to the elements of truth
versus staging in the work.


Kutlug Ataman, A Thousand Words: Kutlug Ataman on his Work, Art Forum, February 2003.


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In the talk he gave at Istanbul Modern during the exhibition, Stuart Comer66 referred to
Ataman’s work as a descendant of Andy Warhol’s video pieces. Playing with the notions
of presence and absence, identities shifting, changing evolving over time, the characters
in Ataman’s works present themselves as synthetic products of the perception of ‘the
viewer as a participator’67. Mark Prince, referring to Never My Soul states that Ceyhan is
protected by ‘the theatrical distance of her performance.68 Comparing Never My Soul
with Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, Prince states that:
In both films the victim is transformed into a heroine by the camera’s unrelenting
attention; in both, real-­‐time film making, a realist device, is belied by the theatrical
behaviour of the protagonists. For Ataman, as for Warhol, the subject’s image is a
facade. Unlike Warhol, however, he knowingly presents that surface as vulnerable
to being shattered by human suffering, even if the emotional crisis is ultimately
revealed as merely another form of rhetoric.69


Film Curator of London’s Tate Modern Museum.


From Stuart Comer’s talk at Istanbul Modern (Feb 18




Mark Prince, Ataman’s Logos, in Art in America, February 2011.


Ibid, 89.


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Figure 9: Never My Soul (2001)
What the viewer sees in this work is altered by which of the six screens he/she chooses to
watch. Most informants watched several different bits and the common discussion after
this piece was on the necessity of the explicit content. Most informants found the content
disturbing, one even to the degree of leaving the room at that point.
Why should I have to watch this. I don’t know this person...I’m not interested.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is a bad person, or that these subjects
shouldn’t be dealt with, but I am blocked when I see those images of genitals and I
leave. Maybe there was an interesting story behind it but I couldn’t stay and
watch. This is my personal reaction of course.70
On the other hand, most informants, while agreeing that the work was disturbing,
thought the sharpness of what they saw would make them remember the work and think
about it more than they would were it a milder representation. Also, as intended by the


Betul interview.


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artist, the extreme theatricality of the character succeeded in raising questions in the
audience as to the genuineness of what is seen.
One other issue worth noting is the dependency between the audience’s personal
experiences and the level they can relate to the work. It is less puzzling for people if they
can match things with experiences that they have had or witnessed in their own lives. In
both Women Who Wear Wigs and Never My Soul, the parts where the characters talk
about health problems, i.e. the chemotherapy in the case of Nevval Sevindi and the
dialysis treatment in the case of Ceyhan, were the parts that the informants expressed
that they could relate to the characters most and perceive them as other human beings. It
is much easier to relate to a woman who is having a dialysis treatment, than to a person
with an extreme condition of gender identity.
Another piece, Testimony was a single screen video with Ataman’s nanny as its subject.
The Armenian identity of the nanny was kept secret from her all her life, since she came
to Ataman’s family as a baby. Now she has severe memory loss due to Alzheimer disease
and this makes the efforts by Ataman futile when he tries to get her to remember the
past by showing her pictures of the family. The notion of the Armenian Genocide71 being
a critical issue within the context of Turkey, the nanny’s memory loss creates a testimony
for the Turkish society’s difficulty to deal with its own past. ‘The transience of memory
and history reworks and reshapes both the individual and collective identity’.72 This point
was appreciated by most informants; however Cuneyt again raised the question of


The forced deportation of Armenians under Ottoman Rule after the First World War. Most Armenians were deported
to Syrian deserts and most of the deaths happened during the deportation journey due to lack of food, diseases and
hard weather conditions. The number of deaths is accounted to be between 1 million to 1.5 million. Modern Turkey
denies the use of the word genocide for the events that took place and referencing Armenian genocide in Turkey risks
controversial reactions and at times prosecution.


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