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

by Kocabag, Gunes, MA


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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?

133

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)

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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

134

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

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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.

135

Bourdieu, 33.

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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

136

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

137

Maharaj, 71.

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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.
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