Document Text (Pages 61-69) Back to Document

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

by Kocabag, Gunes, MA

Page 61

I have then tried to validate these theories through my small intervention, observing how
people uninformed by these theories engage with an exhibition of contemporary art. For
this small intervention I spent five days at Ataman’s exhibition, taking different people
along with me each day. During these five days, watching Ataman’s videos over and over
again, picking up stories from a different point each time, I feel that my engagement with
this exhibition has been at a more intimate level than my informants.
133 I almost feel as if
the characters in those videos have been my social sphere for a few days. At times I had
to suppress an urge to guide my informants on how to view the works. Just as someone
was leaving the room, I wanted to stop them to tell they are missing the most interesting
part; or when they were “misunderstanding” a piece because they hadn’t seen the rest of
it I wanted to defend the work or “clarify the meaning”. Thus, despite my emphasis on
the ideas of the open work, and the impossibility of a fixed meaning, I still could not
restrain myself from filtering all the possible meanings the work could have had into a
coherent whole and having “my understanding” of the work. Though I could not and dare
not say what any work meant, I still had things to say about it, which I believe reflected a
knowledge of myself as the audience as well as the work itself.
As Eco states, modern art has developed to be open as a symptom of modern times. Thus,
this idea of instability of the art work can be thought of as a reflection of Postmodern
thought problematizing the “objective truth” and meta-­‐narratives. However how much
relevance do these paradigms have for masses uninformed by these discussions taking
place mostly within academic or intellectual circles?


Nelson Goodman (1978) talks about how after spending an hour or so in an exhibition of abstract painting
everything tends to square off into geometric patches, movements, colours and transforms our world through
exemplification and expression. P.105)


Page 62

In the specific case of Turkey, where I have conducted my little experiment, modern art
has developed as part of Turkey’s planned modernization process. As discussed by
Kahraman, Turkey’s modernization was a top down process to back up the project of the
new republic, and contemporary art flourished within this context of fortifying the
modern, western identity of Turkey. However, following Kortun’s distinction between
contemporary art and current art in Turkey, current art has departed from this framework
defined by modernization and has taken a more critical take on the present rather than
drafting a future. It has become more experimental both in terms of the media it uses and
in terms of its statements. This current art, diverging from the state promoted
contemporary art, can be taken as a symptom of a “Turkish post-­‐modernization”,
however the question I wanted to ask was whether this symptom also finds reflection in
the way the audience engages with the work.
I do not want to make strong statements here as this topic deserves a separate study of
its own. However, having spent most of my adult life in Turkey, based on my own
experience and observations, I would assume that most middle class, modern Turks are
formatted within the republican project. In Turkey “truth” still exists. There is still history
and narratives and meanings. If a statement is uttered, its meaning is stabilized and it
bears its utmost weight on its speaker. The still unstable balance between tradition and
modernism, religion and secularism, totalitarianism and democracy makes uncertainty
and ambiguity difficult to support in the social consciousness of Turkey. Kahraman134
defines postmodernism as a line of thought in which the present state of Western

societies is questioned in terms of cultural values and the consciousness created through


Hasan Bulent Kahraman, Postmodernite ile Modernite Arasinda Turkiye: 1980 Sonrasi Zihinsel, Toplumsal, Siyasal
Donusum, (Agora Press, 2002).


Page 63

these values. He uses the term contemporization anachronism for the time lapse in
Turkey's borrowing of social and political paradigms from the West, not being able to
produce them originally at the time of need. I would argue that these imports introduce
enforced changes in the social consciousness, which gives rise to a shyness and aversion
to follow alternative, critical lines of thought.
Evaluating this assumption within the context of art, the open work would not be the
most easily comprehended form of art in Turkey. As discussed in relation to the work of
Demand, as well as Ataman, these works engage the viewer in two stages: an initial stage
where the viewer takes the work literally, on face value; and a second level where the
work makes the viewer uneasy about his/her first impression and incites alternative
readings. In my experiment however, people tended to engage with the work at the first
level, then get confused and bewildered by the contradictions within the work. At this
point, instead of changing the way they think of the work and address this alterity within
the work, they preferred to either stabilize a literal meaning and move on, or to denounce
the work and refuse to acknowledge it as art. Bourdieu135 notes the difficulty in obtaining
working class people’s judgements on formal innovations because they feel left outside
the logic of productions of these works. In the cases I have observed however, I do not
believe the people’s reactions to be due to a feeling of being left outside the logic of
production of the works, but to a reluctance to engage in a deeper criticism of the work. I
have observed a tension in my informants due to being in an Art context and having to
verbalize their thoughts on the works. Because they expected the works to have fixed
meanings, they were very conscious about expressing the right meaning for the work and
in cases where the work made it impossible for a fixed meaning, refusal was the way out.


Bourdieu, 33.


Page 64

This reluctance to a critical engagement with the work was not limited to my informants,
but also was visible in the lack of critical analysis of the exhibition in the media. Apart
from the catalogue essays and academic text which were mostly authored by non-­‐Turkish
academicians, I could hardly find any critical essays on the exhibition. The newspapers
and art magazines mostly repeated the press release and were informative rather than
critical. Ekrem Kahraman stresses a similar disjuncture stating that ‘there is no art
criticism in Turkey, but promotion writing’.136 Returning to Docherty’s argument that
modern criticism is marked by an anxiety about its object, a fear of otherness, the case of
the Turkish art context proves an extreme case for the anxiety about this “other” form of
art and how to engage with it without jeopardizing the integrity of the critique/subject.
This lack of critical material in the press makes it difficult for the exhibition goer to have
an informed experience of the work. Thus the audience is left with their own
unconditioned experience of the works and once they are confronted with a question on
what they think about the work, their comments are very much informed by their own
personal background.
On the other hand, having argued for a difficulty of exegesis for art works, I must also
note the discrepancy in my method. Asking my informants to verbalize their thoughts on
these works has required them to map their sensuous experience onto the domain of
language. However, as has been discussed above in this study, this type of direct mapping
is not compatible with the feel-­‐think-­‐know137 perception of art works. However, what I
intended to discover was not an exegetic account of the works, but how these people
responded to the works. I would here stress O’Hanlon’s distinction between exegesis and


Ekrem Kahraman, ‘Turkiye’de Sanat Elestirisi Uzerine’, in Anadolu Sanat Dergisi, Vol: 14, No: 113, Autumn 2003.


Maharaj, 71.


Page 65

verbalization, and argue that the responses uttered in reaction to these works reflect a
knowledge pertaining to the audience itself. Following Strathern’s argument that the way
in which a person responds to a taboo or regulation shows that person to be the kind of
kinsman or kinswoman he/she is, I would argue that the way a person responds to an art
work shows that person to be the type of person he/she is. Just as art is a symptom of
the times, the response it provokes is also a symptom of the time, the social, cultural,
political context within which the art event is taking place.
In the case of Ataman’s works, the emphasis I have made throughout my discussion has
been not on the meaning of these works, but on the questions they pose, the issues they
problematize and the discussions they provoke. This type of art, of which Ataman’s work
is an example, is about posing questions rather than giving answers. It is about confusing
and challenging the audience to transform/deregulate their experience to engage with
these questions. I suggest that the reason behind my informants’ confusion was their
attempt to pinpoint what the artist wanted to say. However, this wasn’t the right
question to ask as the artist wasn’t trying to say anything, but to get people to say
something, providing the art work as a medium. The open work in this sense is an agent
provocateur, provoking its audience to take a position and contribute to the making of
the work from this position. Through its potential to function outside rationality, it blocks
the audience at a point and challenges him/her to take a critical stance. The degree to
which the audience meets this challenge varies, but following Lyotard's idea of art
functioning at the libidinal level, I would argue that an encounter with an art work
articulates a change in the viewer through the strain it imposes whether consciously or
unconsciously. It is a subtly imposed exercise on critical thinking transforming the subject
without notice. This, I would argue, is the source of the open work’s critical potential.

Page 66


Altindere, Halil and Evren, Sureyya, ‘Who Reads a User Manual Anyway’, in User’s
Manual: Contemporary Art In Turkey 1986-­‐2006, ed. H. Altindere and S.Evren, (Art-­‐Ist,
Altinok, Ozlem, ‘Identities We Wear on Our Heads: Interview with Kutlug Ataman’, in
Cumhuriyet, (March 14, 2002).
Ataman, Kutlug, ‘A Thousand Words: Kutlug Ataman on his Work’, in Art Forum,
(February, 2003).
Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image-­‐Music-­‐Text, essays selected and
translated by S.Heath, (Fontana,London, 1977).
Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida—Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard
Howard (Vintage Books: London, 1993).
Baykal, Emre, You Tell Me About Yourself Anyway, series editor Rene Block, (YapiKredi,
Benjamin, Walter, 1931, ‘A Little History of Photography’, in Selected Writings, Vol. 2,
Part.2, ed. Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, (Belknap: Harward University
Press, 1999).
Beaulieu, Jill and Roberts, Mary, ‘Orientalism’s Interlocutors’ in Orientalism’s
Interlocutors, ed. Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts, (Duke University Press, 2002).
Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by.
Richard Nice, (Routledge, London, 1984).
Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics, translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza
Woods, (Les Presses du reel, 2002).
Carroll, David, Paraesthetics : Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida , (Methuen, 1987).
Celik, Zeynep, ‘Speaking Back To Orientalist Discourse’, in Orientalism’s Interlocutors, ed.
Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts, (Duke University Press, 2002).

Page 67

Csordas, Tomas, J., ‘Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology’, in Ethos, Vol. 18, No. 1.
(March 1990), pp. 5-­‐47.
Demos, TJ, ‘Kutlug Ataman: The Art of Story Telling’, in The Enemy Inside Me Exhibition
Catalogue, ed. Esin Eskinat, (Istanbul Modern, 2011), pp. 30-­‐6.
Docherty, Thomas, Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation, (Clarendon Press: Oxford,
Eco, Umberto, A Theory of Semantics, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).

The Open Work, translated by Anna Cancogni, (Hudchinson Radius, 1989).
Fried, Michael, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, (Yale University Press,
Forge, Anthony, ‘Learning to see in New Guinea’ in Socialization: the approach from social
anthropology, ed. Philip.Mayer, (Tavistock, 1970).

‘Art and Environment in the Sepik’, in Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological
Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, (1965), pp. 23-­‐31.
Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo, (London: Routledge, 2001).
Geertz, Clifford, ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in The
interpretation of cultures: selected essays, (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
Gell, Alfred, Art and Agency, (Oxford University Press, 1998).
Goodman, Nelson, Ways of World Making, (Harvester Press, 1978)
hooks, bell, ‘Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination’, in Cultural Studies, ed.
Lawrence Grossberg, (London: Routledge, 1992), pp.338-­‐43.
Honigman, Ana Finel, ‘What the Structure Defines: An Interview with Kutlug Ataman’, in
Art Journal, Vol:63, No:1, (Spring, 2004), pp. 79-­‐86.
Jay, Martin, ‘Scopic Regimes of Modernity’, in Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, (Seattle,
Kahraman, Hasan Bulent, ‘Notes on a Bewildered Modernization’, in Maxxi Exhibition
Catalogue, (Electa: Rome, 2010).

Postmodernite ile Modernite Arasinda Turkiye: 1980 Sonrasi Zihinsel, Toplumsal,
Siyasal Donusum, (Agora Press: Istanbul, 2002).
Kahraman, Ekrem, ‘Turkiye’de Sanat Elestirisi Uzerine’, Anadolu Sanat Dergisi, Vol: 14, No:
113, (Autumn 2003).


Page 68

Krauss, Rosalind, ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America’, in October, Vol:3 (Spring,
1977), pp. 68-­‐81.
Lewis, Bernard, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Lewis, Gilbert, ‘The Look of Magic’, in Man, New Series, Vol. 21, No. 3, (September, 1986),
pp. 414-­‐ 437.
Losche, Diane, ‘The Sepik Gaze: Iconographic Interpretation of Abelam Form’, in Social
Analysis’ 38, (Oxford: New York: Berghahn Books, 1995).
Lutticken, Sven, ‘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).
Madra, Beral, ‘Visual Art as a Filed of Complication’, in User’s Manual: Contemporary Art
In Turkey 1986-­‐2006, ed. Halil Altindere and Sureyya Evren, (Art-­‐Ist, 2007).
Maharaj, Sarat, ‘Xeno-­‐Epistemics:Makeshift Kit for Sounding Visual Art as Knowledge
production and the Retinal Regimes’, in Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition Catalogue,
ed. Okwui Enwezor, (Documenta and Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs, 2002)
Mariott, McKim, ‘On Constructing an Indian Ethnosociology’ in Contributions to Indian
Sociology, Vol. 25(2), (1991), pp.295-­‐308.
Morphy, Howard, ‘From Dull to Brilliant’, in Man, New Series, Vol. 24, No.1, (Mar., 1989),
pp. 21-­‐40.
O’Hanlon, Michael, ‘Unstable Images and Second Skins: Artefacts, Exegesis and
Assessments in the New Guinea Highlands, in Man, New Series, Vol. 27, No.3, (Sep, 1992),
Obrist, Hans Ulrich, ‘Interview with Kutluğ Ataman’, in Kutluğ Ataman—Mesopotamian
Dramaturgies (Milan: Foundazione Maxxi, 2010).
Pinney, Christopher, ‘Coming Out Better’, in Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 years of
Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, ed. Kirsty Ogg, (Whitechapel Art
Gallery, 2009).
Prince, Mark , ‘Ataman’s Logos’, in Art in America, (February 2011), pp.83-­‐89.
Rogoff, Irit, ‘De-­‐Regulation with the Work of Kutlug Ataman’, in Third Text, Vol. 23, Issue,
2, (March 2009), pp. 165-­‐179.
Sonmez, Aysegul, ‘Current Art in Turkey’, in User’s Manual: Contemporary Art In Turkey
1986-­‐2006, ed. Halil Altindere and Sureyya Evren, (Art-­‐Ist, 2007).
Sontag, Susan, ‘Against Interpretation’ in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (Eyre &
Spottiswoode, 1967).


Page 69

Strathern, Marilyn, Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society
in Melanesia, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

‘Artefacts of History: Events and the Interpretation of Images’, in Culture and History
in the Pacific, ed. Jukka Siikala, (Helsinki: The Finnish Anthropological Society, 1990), pp.
Theodor, W., Adorno, Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton, (London :Routledge
Del Pino Valesco, Alehandro, ‘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).
Volk, Gregory, ‘Captivating Strangers’, in Art In America, (February 2005), pp.84-­‐140.
Wagner, Roy, Asiwinarons: Ethos, Image and Social Power among the Usen Barok of New
Ireland, (Princeton University Press, 1986)
Wright, Christopher, ‘The thick of it: Notes on Observation and Context’, in Between Art
and Anthropology, ed. Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, (Berg Publishers, 2005).


© 2009 All Rights Reserved.