Sunday, June 18, 2006

Unfolding Geographies [ENG]

[Bu metin IRWIN sanat topluğunun inisayitifinde gerçekleştirilen East Art Map projesinin 2006 Mart'ında yayımlanan kataloğunda yer aldı]

Academic investigations into the concept of Balkanism have coincided with the recent interest of core-European art institutions in the contemporary art practice of the Balkans. This is the last in a chain of geographic framings that referred to the eastern wing of Europe as an unsurprising sideeffect of the expansion of the European Union eastwards. While contributing to the ongoing deconstruction of the historical development of the Western gaze, these studies also hinted at the ways in which Balkanist ideology was employed in the region to brand some neighbouring cultures or lower classes as inferior, and subsequently claiming a superior (national or class-based) character. Another form of the Balkanist ideology seems to me to have surfaced as a temporal and strategic identity construct, as a means of self-empowerment, of attracting the attention of the privileged Other.

While criticising the naïve postulation that the Balkans is a cultural synthesis composed by an exemplary course of hybridisation, Suzana Milevska proposes the concept of the ‘neither’ in order underline the varying cultural formations, elements, and the agonisms and antagonisms between them that set up the rich heterogeneity of the region. [1] Yet, the same character of being ‘neither’ can be applied to other geographies that have been branded by the foolish clichés of the Euro-centrics as ‘the bridge between continents’, ‘the cradle of civilisations’, ‘the Paris of the East’ and so on. Without doubt, the term neither doesn’t designate a geographic localism or regionalism that might lead to essentialist calls for partition and unity, but it evokes the possibility of a smooth surface that would allow us to denaturalise borders, connect regions, join the ongoing conversations and journeys between them and open up new routes and cartographies instead of reproducing some old maps.

In 1998, Gülsün Karamustafa, one of the forerunners of the contemporary art scene built up in Istanbul in the last two decades, came up with a work that was based on an illustration from the sixteenth century. The image she employed in her Presentation of An Early Representation was borrowed from a chronicle commissioned for the court of a German princedom, and it depicted a group of Ottoman slave dealers inspecting some newly acquired, enslaved women. The group of well-dressed women on the left, who were apparently of European decent, were strongly contrasted with the silhouette-like figure of the naked black woman on the opposite side. For Karamustafa, the rhetorical demonisation of the dealers here and the contemptuous oversimplification of the black figure were both indicators of the Eurocentric gaze representing its Others through a prism of ideological deformation, and anticipating the classic imagery of the nineteenth century. During a presentation held in Istanbul at that time, the correlation Karamustafa had proposed was found problematic. According to the critical perspective raised by the audience, the depiction of the Ottoman men was rather an accurate reflection of the period, which posited the expanding Ottoman forces of the time as the ‘absolute Other’ threatening the potency of the male European self and the existence of Christianity on the continent.

While reading Edward Said's book Orientalism years ago, through the eyes of a fresh-minded BA student, I recall my impatience to relate Said's articulate account to my own knowledge of history, which had naturally been formed by the perspective of Ottoman-Turkish historiography. My expectations when immersing myself into the text as a reader were constantly let down -I even felt somewhat excluded. I could not understand how there could be such scarce mention of the Ottomans when they were perhaps the fundamental element in forming the word ‘Orient’; so few references to the Ottoman State system, which still maintained some authority over Middle Eastern geography throughout the nineteenth century that Said focused on? He was too Arab-centric perhaps –or could it be that he was looking only at geographies colonised by the European forces? The word ‘colonised’ had to be the answer. [2]

The strands within the Turkish intelligentsia that are associate with Anglo-American academia have examined the ways to incorporate the wide range of achievements of post-colonial studies to the Turkish specificity. One motivation for this endeavour was about how to articulate a critical approach to developments around the current negotiations for EU membership and how to articulate a position that would be empathetic to the non-Western world. What remained problematic was that this hasty levelling between Turkey and the surrounding geographies that experienced a direct colonisation by the imperialist powers of Europe in the past could easily hide the fact that Turkey had inherited the experience of being a colonial power and not being a colonised geography. This careless slip has recently had serious complications in managing a rapprochement with the forgotten memories of the Ottoman imperial past –the Armenian tragedy of 1915 in particular. A further danger of this problematic anamnesis, which binds contemporary Turkey to the Third World in the absence of an experience of colonisation, is about drawing too close to the leftist versions of nationalism. These hint at the historical synchrony between the Leninist and Kemalist revolutions, thereby assuming a common denominator of anti-imperialism in them, and transposing this ideological deduction to the current affairs by projecting a Euro-asian pact against the EU. In the worst case this might mean dreams of a Pan-Turkic alter-empire stretching towards the eastern limits of Central Asia. The strategy of appropriating the role of the victim might easily slip into the reactionary and essentialist forms of self-empowerment.

After Presentation of an Early Representation, Gülsün Karamustafa produced other works that related to the iconography of classic Orientalism. Yet, being cautious about the possibility of false calls of sensitivity for the subaltern, she didn’t persist on the political positioning of the initial piece. On the contrary, she re-appropriated the products of the nineteenth century male European gaze using techniques of decomposition and multiplication. She also pursued a strategy of personal distancing from and disidentification with the depicted Istanbul women of the time, underlining the sheer fantastical character of the paintings (since the colonial power could not reach the capital of the falling empire and penetrate the harems of the city) and played with the aristocratic nature attributed to the women of the Polis (upper class citizens of Istanbul being served by female servants from other geographies). Here the apparent twist of complicity with the master gaze , paradoxically produced an open field for manoeuvre and flexibility in identifying with historical ruptures and continuities –being Ottoman, Istanbullu, Turkish, communist dissenter, figurative painter, conceptual artist, mother and more singularities yet to come.

There is another reason behind this introduction. The people that have made the discursive field of contemporary art in Turkey have experienced a certain heartbreak in relation to the East Art Map project. It is clear from the explanations of the project that the word East here signifies the eastern wing of what the maps conceive as the continent of Europe that had experienced the administration of varying forms of state socialism. And it is obvious that during that time, the post-War period, Turkey belonged to another political climate that oscillated between capitalistic democracies and military interventions, a fault line that ran along the northern coasts of the Mediterranean. Yet, it is also clear, I presume, that the word East actually designates nothing, it is arbitrary to the extent that it can be fictionalised and made flexible to frame any non-Western territory. The list of artists enlisted in East Art Map, kept exclusively to a group of ex-socialist nation-states, is composed of people who have frequently collaborated with figures from the country of Turkey for more than fifteen years. This has happened not only within the context of representational XL exhibitions organised by core-European art institutions but also through a series of recent projects that managed a serious level of transversality and conversation. So, the outsider position wonders –why this particular and somewhat outdated, exclusivism right now? Instead of dealing with the over-elaborated rupture experienced with the fall of the Soviet Union, could we not simply move to reflect upon the next, fresh and approaching trauma, discuss the social dynamics of the present and future and experiment on alternative mappings? History is not given –please help to construct it! Yet, it has already been constructed for a while, perhaps there is a need to recognise this and push history forward. Of course it might be that my perspective has been shaped by a context that doesn’t have the luxury of designing a therapeutic procedure of abreactions, a context that is addicted to constant and unfurling crises.

After two exhibitions that anachronistically claimed a universal and internationalist character, the third Istanbul Biennial in 1992 took the risk of positing the event onto its own geography and postulating a regional ground. The motivations of Vasıf Kortun, the curator of the show, in inviting artists and curators from neighbouring countries, particularly from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia was about facilitating the articulation of an alternative political stance within the local (and socialist) intellectual environment paralysed after the collapse of the Socialist bloc, to ruminate on the social energies that had been released in the Balkans, the Black Sea circle, and Caucasus , and speculate about the consequences of this emerging flux on the city of Istanbul which had set out to become a metropolitan hub within the region. The third biennial also set out to differentiate the local contemporary art practices from the hegemony of provincial modernism. The occasion to meet artists from neighbouring countries who shared similar artistic concerns, economic limitations, criticism towards paternalistic state power, ironic or humorous attitudes, willingness to integrate into the global flux persuaded artists from Istanbul to claim a regional belonging that was liberating from the stifling autism of the local. These openings -the individuation of contemporary art practice and the conversation within countries and regions- were also reinforced in the following biennial curated by René Block in1995.

The extension of the geographic perspective also had an effect on the content of the works –for example in the works of Hale Tenger, who had produced strongly critical installations that had operated as national allegories (such as The School of Sikimden Aşşa Kasımpaşa 1990, Down Up 1992, and I Know People Like These II 1992 -the latter was exhibited in the third biennial and afterwards the artist was sued for insulting the Turkish flag), groundbreaking works that initiated a process of politicisation in the Istanbul art scene. In her work Decent Deathwatch: Bosnia-Herzegovinia 1993, Tenger again constructed an atmospheric environment linked to a tense political agenda. The installation was composed of hundreds of glass jars containing press clippings and stills from TV programmes about the tragedy in Bosnia and an edited sound composition playing extracts from interviews the artist did with Bosnian refugees who were hosted in camps in Turkish Thrace.

If Tenger’s step towards commenting about a conflict that shook the world at that time was an indication of the strengthening self-confidence of artists in Istanbul to talk about events on the regional and global scale [3] , it was also exemplifying the historical undercurrents that bind Turkish society to the Balkans. The political maps of twentieth century nation-states have had a visual and cognitive impact of naturalising the current borders and linking them to the corresponding ethnicities. Yet, even a hundred years later, people of later generations maintain a shady belonging to the territories left by their ancestors as a consequence of mutual population exchanges, mass immigrations, and other conditions of diaspora. The loss of the Balkan territory, in which the whole modernist project of the late Ottomans was fully operated, and which accommodated the intellectual élite of the empire, and the following immigration of millions of people to Anatolia created serious traumas with social consequences still to be felt. During the Republican era people of Rumelian descent became integrated into more liberal and modern segments of society [4], and the traces of this invisible and unspoken social continuity can also be seen within the contemporary art field. For example, Gülsün Karamustafa’s double screen video work The Settler 2003, comments on the tragedies of the nationalist wars and the resulting mutual emigrations at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Karamustafa has also dealt with current issues related to the region. In Mystic Transport, her piece in the third Istanbul Biennial, she designed wheeled metal bins that could be freely moved on the ground of the exhibition space by the audience. The mobility of the bins and the colourful duvets placed in them were meant to function as visual metaphors of social displacement. The subject of inner migration from eastern provinces to the developed cities in the west of the country on a massive scale and the consequent cultural and political implications of this phenomenon have been intensively analysed by socialist intellectuals from the 1980s onwards. The shift of focus from the classic category of the proletariat to the newcomers to the big cities within the visual arts was most clearly exemplified in the works of Karamustafa. Yet, in Mystic Transport the geography of displacement strategically remained unspecified in order to take account of the emerging mobility between the ex-socialist terrain and Turkey. The two most visible social occurrences of these new movements, small-scale commerce of the lower classes, popularly named as ‘luggage trade’, and the prostitution traffic, were combined in her later project, Objects of Desire, 100 Dollar Limit 1998-2001. The performance-based work was based on buying cheap goods from the street markets of Istanbul, for a symbolic amount of 100 US dollars, the usual fee charged by a foreign prostitute working in Turkey, carrying these goods in basic plastic luggage to some West European countries and selling them at the openings of the exhibitions to which she was invited . Another observable occurrence of circulation within the urban space of the region were the children coming from Romania and Moldavia, mostly accompanied by their parents, to play music on the streets of Istanbul for money. The poignant stories of these children who had leave Turkey after three months of permitted residence, only to be replaced by others, was recorded in The Stairs 2001, another work by Karamustafa.

An affirmative take on the accelerated energies between neighbouring countries can be found in the works of Hüseyin Alptekin. In a series of photographs brought together under the title Capacity 1998, Alptekin presented an alternative mapping of Istanbul, a collection of street plates from hotels that were named after other cities. Some of them had such names as Paris, Viyana, Milano, Amsterdam, names that attempt to appropriate some glamour from wealthy Europe. Others like Berlin, Wiesbaden, Sydney, Canada, were presumably linked to the personal life stories of the hotel owners, some past experience as Gastarbeiters. Some other city names on the panels like Sarajevo, Zagreb, Bakü reflected Istanbul’s attachment to neighbouring countries and the existing network of small businesses. In extreme cases, extravagant names such as Rio, Tibet, Tanca, Copacabana, revealed fantasies of the owners, whohad, most probably, never visited these cities. The word ‘capacity’ was inscribed onto the rectangular arrangement of photographs using cheap and kitsch neon bulbs hinting at the actual and potential transversalities hosted in the growing city of Istanbul.

The integration of the Turkish economy into the global circulation of capital in the last two decades, and the following economic and structural expansion of Istanbul has led the city to claim back its historic centrality within its surroundings. The reassessment of history has brought hidden or forgotten mythologies to the surface. Sea Elephant Travel Agency, a project initiated by Alptekin, utilised one of the old fictions about the city – Jules Verne’s relatively neglected novel of Keraban the Stubborn. The main protagonist of the story, Keraban, is a tobacco merchant based in Istanbul. His agent Van Mitten arrives in the city from Rotterdam for a short visit. As a gesture of generosity, Keraban invites him to a dinner in a prestigious restaurant in Üsküdar, a district on the Asiatic coastline of the Bosporus. When they reach the seaside they find out that the Sultan has recently issued a tax for crossing the sea by boat. Although it is a negligible amount Keraban makes a big fuss and refuses to pay. Still eager to keep his promise he comes up with a solution: to travel along the Black Sea coast to get to Üsküdar. The rest of the novel narrates their adventurous journey. Sea Elephant Travel Agency set out to restage this journey by organising a boat trip following the same route, travelling to the port cities of Varna, Constanta, Odessa, Sevastapol, Yalta, Rostov, Novossibrsk, Sochi and Batum, and circulating the people on board who came from varying disciplines such as art, literature, science, history and so on. The concept of this utopian project, which was complicated to organise, was later hijacked by an art institution that managed to secure larger resources. Nevertheless, I presume the personality of Alptekin, his own journeys around the region and other countries, the relationships he built, the networks he facilitated, the mythologies he conjured up has produced as much, if not more affect, as a project with a large budget.

The younger generation of artists have shared the interest of their forerunners in keeping contact with artists from the ex-socialist topography. They needed other practices for comparison and inspiration, to have proof of the validity of their own practices; and they connected with the works of people of similar age, status and habitat. An exceptional case, in this sense, was the understanding, or andersverstehen, of the work of Alexander Brener –he was taken rather as a father figure or a model. The first reference to him appeared in a project by Serkan Özkaya, whose works at that time were based on ironic repetitions of renowned performances. He submitted, for example, a proposal to the Berlin Senate to cover the Reichstag with a sheet as an artwork. Similar to this humorous enactment of the ‘art fool’, pretending to be ignorant of Christo’s famous performance, Özkaya sent a proposal to the administration of MoMA, asking permission to spray a dollar sign on Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, which was in the collection of the museum. This was a proposed restaging of the famous action by Brener on a Malevich painting in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1997. Naturally, he received a harsh, chastising reply from MoMA telling him to adopt inspirational models other than Brener. Later, Özkaya realised the project on a replica of the Mondrian painting. This wasn’t the end of the project.

Around that time, Esat Tekand, a relatively established painter from the earlier generation, was painting well-known performances, actions and happenings of the neo-avantgarde from the 1970s. His cynical gesture was based on a fatalistic reading of postmodernism and his pessimist conclusion about the impossibility of creating something new in art. Serkan Özkaya and Halil Altındere, an artist friend of his, visited Tekand’s second solo exhibition based on the same concept. Altındere pulled out a tin of spray paint and sprayed a dollar sign on Tekand’s painting that had transposed the photograph of the famous Joseph Beuys performance of I Like America and America Likes Me onto canvas. Not surprisingly a scandal broke out, Altındere was brought to court, and the contemporary art field was divided into two camps.

Altındere’s sympathisers thought this act might signal the approach of a daring attitude contrasting with the tameness that governed the local artistic field. Modern artists in Turkey had long been employed as public servants -their task was to facilitate and visualise the country’s (ultra-) modernisation project, enlighten the people, and integrate the newly built nation. From the 1960s onwards a certain autonomy was achieved and in the 1970s two different persona appeared in modern arts: the first was the bohemian, expressionist artist who had a certain critical stance towards politics yet was fully integrated into the Turkish art market; the second one was the courageous artist of the socialist realist creed, taking a position in the ongoing class war yet to a certain extent instrumentalising his/her artistic practice. A truly avant-garde stance, critical of hegemonic ideologies, political in an autonomous and anarchistic sense, experimental in the visual and formal qualities of their practice, and resistant to capitalism’s tools of recuperating artworks as consumable objects had never existed in Turkey. Perhaps this was the time.. On the other hand, those who were irritated by Altındere’s act, argued that it was merely a straightforward case of vandalism marked by a false claim of heroism that echoed the YBA generation.

Altındere and those that stood with him, including myself, launched a magazine to defend the act. The first issue of art-ist (June 1999) included a special dossier on Brener’s spraying act on the Malevich painting, and texts on a series of relatively established artists such as Oleg Kulig, Andres Serrano, Orlan and Stelarc, all of whom had provoked the art world in some way or another. Despite all financial obstacles, fluctuating performances and internal conflicts art-ist has managed to survive as the only independent contemporary art magazine from Turkey. The synergy of the 1998-9 season has understandably receded with time, but the affiliation with Alexander Brener remains constant. He and Barbara Schurz edited the ninth issue of the magazine published in November 2004, in which their negation of the field of art was radicalised with a call for an insurgent anarchism. After that everyone had to take their own route: Brener and Schurz unsurprisingly described the Istanbul art scene as a corrupted environment filled with a bunch of fucking collaborators and yet, art-ist had to return to the sphere of contemporary art.

Serkan Özkaya’s interest in Brener and other artists from the ex-socialist countries was based on his sympathy for developing ideas with extremely limited resources and keeping the physical end products in a negligible status in comparison with the idea at the outset. His video Demolish Serious Culture 2000, was an interview with Brener and Schurz recorded just after their intervention into the press conference for Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana. This irony of Özkaya’s strategy of remaining as a parasite on the creations of other artists sometimes resulted in a cynical position, as exemplified in his photograph entitled Russian Avantgarde: Fuck Your Cat 2000, in which he posed naked running after his cat at home.

In that context Halil Altındere’s sympathy related to the ways that a set of intellectual people in neighbouring countries, living in humble circumstances in comparison with the Western standards, were managing to mock the social and artistic hierarchies in between. Simple tricks, one-shot joke effects that aim to displace the conventions of politics and arts have been characteristics of his practice. And through the influence of art-ist magazine under his direction, and important exhibitions he curated such as I am Too Sad to Kill You (2003) he has left a mark on emerging artists from different cities, most remarkably the ones living in Diyarbakır.

The city of Diyarbakır, a cosmpolitan city in the past, in the last decade became a place of refuge for Kurdish people traumatised by the civil war between the Turkish army and the separatist guerrilla army, the PKK. The drastic rise in population following mass migration from the surrounding provinces in the South East Anatolia created a vibrant environment of social energy. In the midst of political pressure and deep economic poverty a group of young artists Şener Özmen, Erkan Özgen, Cengiz Tekin and Ahmet Öğüt saw the potential emancipation of expression in the field of contemporary art and set out to produce works with the most minimal resources -first narrations inscribed on notebooks, or caricature-like drawings, then video works, one of the most economically efficient media of recent years. Halil Altındere, originating from a town nearby, remained their role model.

Some resonances of the aesthetics of the Diyarbakır art scene can also be found in art practice in Kosova. The works of Sokol Beqiri, Erzen Shokololli and Mehmet Behluli were immediate responses to the trauma of 1999, but the following generation of artists including Albert Heta, Jakub Ferri, Driton Hajredini, Lulzim Zeqiri, Dren Maliqi and Alban Muja reached artistic maturity in a post-traumatic environment that was already involved in a process of normalisation. A state of living in a nation-in-process and under the landing gaze of the European art intelligentsia were the two common conditions shared by Kosova and Diyarbakır art scenes. The predominance of the use of video cameras, a strategically unclean style of shooting and editing, the (self-) enactment of a ‘naughty boy’ persona in the films, a playful and sometimes uncritical virility that doesn’t allow much space for female presence, a narcissistic occupation with possessing the status of an artist, the fantasy of levelling between the self and the Western art canon, an ethnographic gaze towards the surrounding locality that might run the risk of self-exoticisation are some of the characteristics I find in common between the two scenes.[5]

Contemporary art practice in Turkey, has always had a willingness to engage in a conversation with and take influences from neighbouring countries . But, this openness towards the outside has mainly been directed towards western neighbours, neglecting the countries of the South Caucasus and the Middle East. This might be due to the subconscious and élitist thinking that the Balkans is key to tying local and European experience together, or it could be due to the relatively higher level of development of the Balkans in artistic terms. Yet, new cartographies are waiting to be developed; new mappings that require effort and courage to experiment.

[1] From Milevska’s presentation at the seminar “South… East… Europe… Mediterranean” organised by Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Centre in Istanbul, 14-16 December 2003.
[2] The prioritised status attributed by the European intelligentsia to the Ottomans as the holder of power within the Orient is well analysed in these two works: Thierry Hentch, L’Orient Imaginaire, La Vision Politique Occidentale de l’est Méditerranéen, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1988; and Alain Grosrichard, The Sultan’s Court, European Fantasies of the East, Verso, London 1998.
[3] A video installation by her, from a later date, Cross Section 1996. gives an idea about the widening range of her political scope. In the piece, composed of two video projections screened on two sides of the same screen Tenger is shown from back and front. She tells of the difficulties she experienced during the procedures for getting a visa for Fortress Europe, and how she, as an artist and someone from the upper middle class, was relatively privileged in these procedures in comparison with someone from Turkey’s lower classes . One of Tenger’s recollections in relation to Decent Deathwatch: Bosnia-Herzegovinia is worth quoting here. She recalls, “…the strangest, and most unexpected reaction came from a West European lady in the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly. The moment she realised what the subject of the work was, she asked me sharply why it wasn’t the Kurds, and stormed out without waiting for the answer.” Mission Impossible 1990-6, Interview with Hale Tenger by Vasıf Kortun, Galeri Nev, Istanbul 1997.
[4] Also several conspiracy theories have been produced against them by different ideologies. The ultra-nationalist movement of the 1930s put the people of Rumelia in the category of prime suspects for betrayal. Recently some paranoid ‘national leftists’ detected a hegemonic caste composed of a group of people who had some ancestors who were Jewish converts immigrated from Thessalonica.
[5] One difference might be the extent of using national(ist) symbolism. Whereas the Kosovar artists frequently employ signifiers, such as the icon of the double-headed eagle, the colours of black and red, the national anthem of Albania; the artists from Diyarbakır are reluctant to accommodate direct references to Kurdish nationalism. This self-limitation might be the result of the still ongoing pressure on the geography or it might be due to respect paid to the strongly anti-nationalist stance of the Istanbul art scene. I also have to add that the use of national(ist) symbolism in the Kosovar art scene functions as a strategy of individual self-empowerment, a self-positioning as the Neue Wilden coming from the periphery and stunning the Europeans, rather than a direct identification with the national cause –these artists are occasionally accused of treason for their collaborations with artists from Belgrade. In that sense it is interesting to see both artistic environments claiming to be ‘the new avant-gardes of Europe’, a status supposedly attached to them by two important European curators.


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