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

by Kocabag, Gunes, MA

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the whole picture, however, following O’Hanlon, language still accommodates a type of
knowledge even though this knowledge is not exclusive or of exegetic quality. Discussing
a treatment by the Gnau people given to someone diagnosed as suffering from an attack
by the Panu’et spirit, Lewis argues that the whole sensuous experience of the ritual is very
different than any verbal or visual account of it.
Anthropology needs to explain things within context. Even if the facts were clear, they
would still need to be interpreted within the right frame work. If a performer in a ritual
explains the actions performed not as a treatment but as a sacrifice to God for sins, the
anthropologist still needs to explain why they persist in the notion of sacrifice but not the
healing potential of the plants used. ‘You may say they are ignorant or irrational, but
some of that irrationality depends on your decision about how to categorize their action
and the motives you have attributed to them.103
On the other hand, Christopher Wright104 argues that anthropology, while focusing on
context and the relation to other aspects of social life, sacrifices from the experience, the
immersion into the event. Wright discusses the work of Cameron Jamie, who is an artist
originally from San Fernando Valley in California. Jamie left home after an earthquake in
1994, and now lives in Paris. As part of his project titled Goat Project, he goes back to his
home town every year to do performances with just one or no witness. He then asks an
illustrator to illustrate the testimonials from these witnesses and these illustrations are
what is left of the pieces. As Wright states, ‘ The three stage process, performance, eye
witness account and subsequent illustration, mirrors some of the dilemmas also faced by


Ibid, 419.


Christopher Wright, ‘In The Thick of It: Notes on Observation and Context’, in Between Art and Anthropology, ed.
Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, (Berg Publishers, 2005).


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anthropologists concerned with documenting ritual performances.’ 105 It reveals the
process of separation from the original performance. Through the translation of the
information from the experience to verbalization to documentation, the account of the
event is being altered and transformed. Some of the information is filtered first through
the selective perception of the witnesses and then through the interpretations and
expressions of the illustrator; while at the same time the meaning of the work loses its
possible alterations and becomes less ambiguous. It could be argued that this restriction
would apply to any kind of information transfer in which a sensuous experience is being
transformed into a discourse.

To bring the discussion back to art, I would like to consider Lyotard’s discussion of figural
versus discursive modes. Resonating with the impediment of direct translation between
experience and its documentation, Lyotard problematizes the position attributed to art as
a counter force to religion, humanity and politics. Positioning art as a critical force against
politics implies assigning art the same discursive position as politics. Thus he sees art as
ontologically outside of critical discourse. Lyotard keeps a radical distance between the
aesthetic and the political; however at the same time problematizes the distinction
between figure and discourse. He criticizes Hegelian dialectics’ attempts to overcome the
distance between discourse and figure, and marks the impossibility of this attempt. We
can only attempt to transform the sensible into discursive mode, but that is bound to fail
as discussed above. The figural, being within and without discourse, is an alterity within


Ibid, 68.


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language. The task of critical philosophy should then be to keep the discourse open to
uncertainties and complications of sensible experience.
Moving in the opposite direction from the Hegelian dialectic, the sensible here
negates and assumes the discursive into itself, and it does not raise it to a higher
level, it does push it into a different realm. This “anti” or even “negative dialectic”,
a dialectic working against itself in a paradoxical fashion, does not have as its end
the overcoming of difference and the establishment of identity, but rather the
overcoming of identity and the ‘figuring’ of otherness. 106

A for Libidinal
What Lyotard looks for is a non-­‐visual notion of figure through which desire is realized. He
does not confine the figural realm with painting or visual arts, but treats it as a field of felt
intensities rather than communicated meanings. Thus a poem could be more figural than
a painting even though it is expressed through language. Referring to Art as figure at the
level of a matrix, Lyotard states that Art...
... is not only not seen, but is no more visible than readable. It does not belong to
plastic space, nor textual space either; it is difference itself, and as such, it doesn’t
at all tolerate being put in the form of an opposition…Discourse, image and form
all miss it equally because it resides in all three spaces together. The works of any
individual are never more than the offshoots of this matrix.107


David Carroll, Paraesthetics : Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida , (Methuen, 1987), p.36.


Lyotard, discourse, figure, (278-­‐9) (?)


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Building on the theories of Freud108, Lyotad sees the sensible as freed from the limitations
of consciousness. However, once you try to make the matrix readable you lose the link to
the unconscious. Thus Lyotard sees art as functioning in the libidinal field. While
Adorno109 positions Art as a manifestation of critical thinking and sees dissipation of
subjectivity as a defeat, for Lyotad the arbitrary, fragmented, irrational, non-­‐dialectical
within art forms its libidinal dimension; and the open, unformed, characteristics of the
libidinal is what gives art its critical potential.
The notion of libidinal resonates with Eco’s emphasis on the emotive function. Eco
distinguishes between referential function which points at something well defined and
verifiable and emotive function which aims at provoking certain reactions in the recipient,
stimulating associations and promoting response behaviours that go well beyond the
mere recognition of a referent, of a message.110 Thus the libidinal works at an emotive
level, through the subconscious, denying any possibility to be turned into a referential
Alehandro del Pino Valesco 111, in his account of a presentation given by Sarat Maharaj,
quotes Maharaj on the impossibility of a complete translation:
We cannot obviate the great ontological paradox that this human activity
(translation) contains; it must generate something that is as much as possible like
the original source, but if it fully achieves this, it can turn into that original and
then it is no longer a translation.112


Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, London, Routledge, 2001, 90


Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton, (London Routledge ,1990).


Eco, The Open Work, 29.


Alehandro del Pino Valesco, ‘Summary of an Unknown Object in Uncountable Dimensions: Visual Arts as Knowledge
Production in the Retinal Arena, a presentation by Sarat Maharaj’ in On knowledge production : a critical reader in
contemporary art, ed. Maria Hlavajova, Jill Winder, Binna Choi, (Utrecht BAK, 2008), p.138.


Maharaj quoted from del Pino Valesco, 138.


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As Isadora Duncan answered to someone who asked her the meaning of the dance she
performed: 'If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it'.113
Every medium works with its own internal logic and any translation is articulating a

difference. Sarat Maharaj
114 discusses this issue over a distinction between visual arts as
knowledge production and discursive knowledge systems, such as philosophy, science or
social theory. The knowledge embedded in visual arts, in order to be transferred into the
domain of discourse, needs to be translated from visual, sensuous data into language.
Thus Maharaj marks art as a disrupter of direct mapping of meanings and states that its
‘feel-­‐think-­‐know antenna’115 is quite different from discursive modalities. Lutticken116
asserts that contrary to scientific and scholarly knowledge artistic knowledge production

is considered to have a weakness of failing to meet a questionable standard; however this
exact weakness might be the strength of artistic knowledge. In his catalogue essay for
Documenta 11, Maharaj discusses a type of visual arts which is a domain of sensuous,
intuitive knowledge, which is outside the rationality and logic of discourse, and even a
‘shredder-­‐pulper of ready-­‐made theory’117. This idea reminiscent of Lyotard’s stress on
art’s libidinal dimension, asserts art as almost non knowledge, not in the sense of
ignorance, but in the sense of indeterminacy. Maharaj uses the term avidya to refer to
the type of knowledge embedded in visual arts. This is not a cancellation of systematic
knowledge but a neutralization of it.
These modalities enable both “other” ways of knowing and ways of knowing
“otherness”. They are counter-­‐epistemological gear-­‐ “xeno-­‐equipment” rigged out


O’Hanlon, 587.


Sarat Maharaj, ‘Xeno-­‐Epistemics: Makeshift Kit for Sounding Visual Art as Knowledge production and the Retinal
Regimes’, in Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition Catalogue, p. 71.


Ibid, 71.


Sven Lutticken, ‘Unknown Knowns: On Symptoms in Contemporary Art’ in On Knowledge Production: A Critical
Reader in Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Hlavajova, Jill Winder and Binna Choi, Bak: Utrecht, 2008.


Ibid, 71.


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for attracting, conducting, taking on difference-­‐ for clocking the “foreign, unknown,

De-­‐regulation and the Anxiety of the Subject
In Ataman’s Woman Who Wear Wigs, the individual narratives of each character could be
considered as literal knowledge on these four characters. However, the interlacing of
these narratives and the way the artist installs the screens and sound turns it into a
knowledge that cannot be filtered into a rational, linear narrative, but which can only be
perceived through the sensuous experience of the multiplicity of images and overlaying
cacophony of sounds. The way these narratives are presented deliberately reduces the
determinacy of the meaning of each story as the viewing/listening is constantly disrupted
by the work itself. And thus the work becomes something more than these individual
stories. Irit Rogoff119 states that the reason Ataman’s work is interesting is because it
produces narratives and subjects which didn’t exist prior to it; and this is precisely the
reason his work is not documentary, but art. Because of the way in which the subjects in
these videos embody complex forms of incompatible meanings and through the
interlacing of individual subjects, Ataman creates ‘creolised subjects ‘challenging the
viewer. The puzzling nature of his work is how to relate to being addressed. It demands a
response. This challenge ‘deregulates’ the experience of the art work making it
ambiguous who has the right to define and categorize it and how it can become a
participatory mode.120 Discussing one of Ataman’s works, Kuba121, Rogoff states that the
work provides:


Ibid, 72.


Irit Rogoff, ‘De-­‐Regulation with the Work of Kutlug Ataman’, in Third Text, Vol. 23, Issue 2,( March 2009), p.167.


Ibid, 165.


This work was not included in Ataman’s retrospective, but has been explained more in Chapter:1.


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A zone of de-­‐regulated experience…”demands a mode of listening that cannot
simply be explained by knowing more about the miseries of what it is to be a poor
Kurd within the Turkish megalopolis. Rather it dares us to listen differently,
speculatively, not emphatically, to spatialize and to imagine space when that
much grief and discontent and sheer bloody language is enfolded in its midst...If
we were to leave Kuba with some notion that we knew something about Kurdish
migrants into Istanbul or about ghettosized ethnic communities-­‐ we would have
failed it. If, however, we open up some speculation about how to listen, how to
hear this, if we understand that what is being addressed is the limited categories,
and TROPES that we think in, then that address has indeed taken place.122
This idea of the work daring the audience to assume a new way of engagement with it
demands the audience to drop guards and submit to the work; and thus requires a
willingness and cooperation on part of the audience; or else results in an anxiety of not
being able to or willing to meet the challenge. Thomas Docherty123 argues that modern
criticism begins with an anxiety about its object, which is a response to a fear of
otherness. He traces the foundation of this type of criticism to the thinking of Descartes
that prioritizes the subject. In this mode of thought the objective world is only possible as
a referent of the conscious subject and any denial of this would lead to a metaphorical
death of the subject.124 This was later challenged by materialist perspectives, an example
of which is Pierre Bourdieu’s work which shifts priority to the object and its effect on the
subject. This shift, according to Docherty, triggers a terror of the loss of autonomy and
dependence on the other, the object, the alterity. The result is a history of criticism based


Rogoff, 178.


Docherty, Alterities.


Ibid, 3.


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on the construction of identity and the taming125 of the other. Docherty argues that
criticism needs to find a way to address the other without reducing it to a terrifying
Modern criticism is based on the premises that the object-­‐ and alterity as such-­‐ is
a scandal perpetrated on the interests of the subject; it is based on a philosophy
of identity which is inimical to a real engagement with alterity.126
Bourdieu’s127 assertion that popular aesthetics is based on an affirmation of continuity
between art and life accounts for a similar discomfort on part of the subject confronted
with a challenge to this position. Refusing to distance the art work from the ethos that
shapes their everyday perception, the working class in Bourdieu’s experiment displays a
‘refusal of the refusal’. This reaction is one of confusion, sometimes almost a ‘panic
mingled with revolt’.
I don’t think any of these are art128. Everything that provokes me to think isn’t art.
I think about these stuff in my daily life...I don’t need this guy to explain...I’m just
telling this because we’re in front of this piece now, but I mean it for the whole
exhibition...I don’t need this guy to tell me that racism is bad. It’s something any
sane thinking person would say. Tell me something new.129
Thus Tansu takes what he has seen as a reflection on real life, supporting Bourdieu’s
argument that popular aesthetics seeks a continuation between art and life. He refuses to
acknowledge the works as art as he refuses to respond to the works by adapting his way


Susan Sontag (1967) discusses interpretation of art works as a way to tame the work of art, making it manageable
and comfortable as opposed to real art’s capacity to make us nervous.


Docherty, 1.


Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Translated by. Richard Nice, Routledge,
London, 1984.p. 32-­‐3


Tansu uses a slang sentence here which I could only translate in this simple form.


Tansu interview.


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of engaging with the work. He stands his ground as the subject and refuses the object’s
generative potential on his subjectivity. This resonates with Docherty’s assertion that
modern criticism tries to stabilize the object and mark it by its singularity. It refuses to
acknowledge that the object differs not only from us, but also from itself as there is a
temporal dimension to the object as well. Rather than a singular, present time object that
is ‘an aspect of the subject’s singularity’130, Docherty discusses an instantaneous object,
changing and evolving in time together with the subject. Ataman’s work takes this
problem as its core. The subjects in his films are constantly challenging the viewer
subjects to readjust their thoughts on what they are seeing as well as their own selves. By
problematizing the notion of identity through the identities of the characters, Ataman is
threatening the subject’s own integrity. However, the viewer subject defends its own
integrity against this attack by engaging a critique of the work as a singular object.
It is interesting actually...I could have walked out of this room without seeing that
scene and I would have had a different understanding of this person. It would be is missing anyway cause I cannot stay here to watch all of these
screens, so I will never get to know the whole story of this character.131
Despite the instability and fluidity of the work, Cuneyt attributes this instability not to the
work itself but to the discrepancy in his interaction with the work. Thus the subject places
itself as the autonomous reference point taming the object of art and marks the work as
“missing” rather than facing the threatening autonomy of the work itself.
I would argue on the other hand that the art context provides a zone of tolerance to a
different kind of anxiety. Images, words, sounds that would be conceived as a source of


Docherty, 12.


Cuneyt on Never My Soul.


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threat in the context of daily life, become manageable and almost an entertainment
within the safe zone of the art gallery.
The beggars in this work are embodiments of inherently political and suppressed
feelings such as “conformity” with those alike and “denial” of those who are
different...When the act of looking at the other(s) is performed in “safety” through
the inanimate representational images on the screens, it is possible to be free
from the deterrent feelings of fear, reservation, doubt and anxiety in the
interaction with the “stranger”.132
Returning to Calikoglu’s argument that Ataman’s exhibition could only have been possible
within a Museum like Istanbul Modern, the context of art provides a sterile and fertile
ground to make visible that cannot be seen, make heard that cannot be said. It is
confrontational but safe. The art context, while providing a sterile ground to confront
certain issues, never actually neutralizes these issues but makes the confrontation
justifiable and manageable.


In this study I have discussed approaches to contemporary art, which refer to an art
whose creation does not end at the hands of the artist, but is an ongoing process
extending through its apprehension by its audience. This open, instable art of the age is
constantly created and recreated by its audience, however its meaning can never be fixed
as it functions at a libidinal field, denies exegesis and is an autonomous system that
cannot be fully translated into any language. It can be verbalized but cannot be explained.


Exhibition helper text.


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