A Brief Overlook of the Recent Past: On Testimonies and Production
‘Because: If we are alive and have not committed suicide it is not due to the magnitude of meaning, it is due to our having fallen into life itself and a cheeky curiosity to know where a pained obstinacy will take one; what is more, starting each new day bears no other meaning than the wish to see the shadow of a personal position cast on the larger society as a bitter curse.’
Işık Ergüden, The Anarchy of Silence (1)
The End of an Era
Two important events took place in the first half of 2010s. The first of these two events was significant for the world at large: In 2010, 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi attempted to end his life by setting fire to his body in Tunisia. He was a vegetable vendor. It was said that his was an attempt to protest the local police who wanted to take down his vegetable stall, slapping and humiliating him.(2) Could Bouazizi possibly know that his act triggered large societal conflicts in the geographies known as MENA, the Middle East, Magrib, Mesapotamia and Khorasan? I do not know. The protests that gained momentum with cries for change of regime in the countries that reside in the aforementioned regions snowballed into large scale armed conflicts in Syria, Tunisia, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, and in some instances into wars and occupations with the participation of other countries. These wars have divided and continued, growing more complicated in time, and they continue still, but are slowly evolving into new forms.
The other significant event was my work titled From Guantanamo to Ar-Raqqah being included in the GYF-6 exhibition in 2015. It is evident that this event is not nearly as important as Bouazizi’s momentous self-immolation, but I must note that it is an important experience in my personal storyline. During those days when societal quakes were experienced in dramatic fashion, I had just received my bachelor’s degree and lived in Tarlabaşı, trying to produce art, struggling to make money through various jobs and to pay my rent. Being invited to this exhibition organized by Zilberman Gallery to commemorate the 10th year of GYF has provided the opportunity for me to think and write on this –very– recent past that is right behind us. I also believe that a lot of people in Turkey who I currently observe from afar feel as though they are at the end of an era. This feeling of taking stock, of defining what has been experienced, is triggering a desire in me to create shared stories of common experiences.
The Second Half of 2000s, the Istanbul I Experienced
I was extremely excited when I first moved to Istanbul from Antalya to begin my studies at the Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts, Department of Painting. Finally I was overcoming this feeling that accompanied my life in Antalya that continually said ‘There is so much that is happening in Istanbul, and I am missing all of it’, I was getting the chance to become a part of whatever that was going on, and the opportunity of being a ‘subject’ in this ongoing flow. The image of Istanbul I had in my mind was largely informed by illustrated accounts of Kemal Aratan, Galip Tekin and Bülent Üstün, along with Öküz and Hayvan magazines, and last but not least, Şebek Heavy Metal Fanzin. It was as if Istanbul was the center of the world where all social and political action was going on. Uncanny lives were led in the mysterious back streets of Beyoğlu, Metallica was performing in the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, Köprüaltı Keman was the background for incredible evenings, comic artists were busy working overnight in their offices, meanwhile I was away from all of this! But finally, I was finally getting rid of this sense of isolation created by Istanbul constituting the sole arts and culture capital of the country, and I was moving to Istanbul with a legitimate reason. I believe this early period in Istanbul was marked by a feeling of provinciality that I observed in many artists who moved to Istanbul later in life. For the likes of me, Istanbul was not the primary habitat one was born into, it was a chaotic, partly mysticized ‘immigration destination’ one simply had to hold onto, a place you did not know ‘whether you would be allowed in’. The Istanbul I was a part and witness of in the second part of 2000s was a city where the trees on the Istiklal Street had just been cut down, where Siya Siyabend and Alatav played in the Tunnel area, where tobacco sellers of Kadıköy entered our lives due to the massive increase of cigarette prices, where we tried to disseminate our zines in bookshops, concerts and cafes; it was an Istanbul that best materialized in the Tarlabaşı Boulevard, the cheap tea shops of Beşiktaş and Beyoğlu, as well as fixed menu restaurants. In the days when different factions of oppositions came together in Kadıköy, Beşiktaş, Okmeydanı and Tarlabaşı, when acquaintances, communication and civil organizations among the students from different universities were alive, when they transformed and were transformed in return, various paths were being tread and tried including the Tekel Workers Strike, IMF protests, November 6 gatherings to Pride parades. These days, which were simultaneously infiltrated and informed by the presence of social media in our lives, the act of being present in an event was only slowly being replaced by the act of sharing it on Twitter.
’There have been times when the question “What is an image?” was a matter of some urgency.’
W.J.Thomas Mitchell (3)
Following my graduation from university, like many of my friends from my generation, I too was expecting to take my place in the exhibitions organized for young artists, piquing the interest of a gallery in Istanbul, being proposed a solo show and represented by a gallery, and thus continuing my life in this way. No one had promised any of this was going to happen. But the machinations and implications of this world that we had opened our eyes in hinted at a chronology of this nature, or at least we saw it this way with the eyes we had at the time. But time clearly showed that the likelihood of any of this happening for most of us was merely a naïve wish. Many of the people I shared my time with, discussed art with and liked the works of, continue their lives as advertising officials, fine arts tutors for university exams, or painting teachers today. I do not even hear from a good number of them. I do not encounter any news that leads me to believe that they continue to make art. Up until 2013, I was making ‘stencil’s, ‘sticker’s and pirate ‘installation’s in public spaces using an alias, creating videos mostly using ‘ready-made’ news and advertisement footage and trying to disseminate them online. I vividly remember having –unlike now– such tangible objectives as finding connections between touch screens and the streets, being able to carry over acquaintances and dialogues from one area to another, as well as mobilizing and agitating people. Aside from these relatively palpable aims, I was also piqued by the images of violence we see on the screen, I was trying to think more on the types of relationships we form with these images. The idea of researching the role these images played on mass culture and mechanisms of power, and being able to have an effect on the relationship the masses formed with the truth by way of images through emergently intervening with the images of current political agenda in Turkey, was exciting for me. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were becoming incrementally more politicized, different critiques of political authorities were beginning to be articulated from various groups and subjects, all side by side. When we arrived at 2013, I believe the Gezi Park protests which for so many people had seemingly boiled over suddenly had this previously described, rich background. I still feel rather shaken to be able to write about and truly understand the Gezi days, about what we went through and accomplished. As far as I have observed, people who experience these sorts of turbulences from the inside need a lengthy sort of digestion period to be able to ruminate and speak on the experience. Especially if we are talking about periods the likes of which we have not experienced but only read in history books, where established structures are shaken —or crumbling—. In this context, I find it valuable that far fewer works of art than I originally anticipated have been produced about Gezi in the Turkish art scene since 2013. This fact may be related to notions of unease, censorship and self-censorship, and this may very well be the case for some. But I do not want to continue without noting that I see a period of resilience and gestation regarding this era. Along with the rest of the population, I too have been accompanied by feelings of a lack of trust, fragility and rootlessness since the Gezi days, along with an unmistakeable sense of ‘So what now? What is next? Was this it?’; these feelings have been distinct motifs in my life ever since. Re-reading an interview I gave immediately after the coup attempt in 2016, I feel as though many years have passed since I responded to the question of how I planned to continue my artistic production in the near future:
“…It’s too soon to comment on it yet, but one of the things I have been able to witness even now has been that I have become much more motivated to become mobilized in my artistic production. I had been preparing myself for the most sordid scenarios for some time, and this motivation is not new to me. However, I see these scenarios becoming more real step by step, and intuition is leaving its place to tangible attempts. I suppose I will fully adopt a lifestyle and a method of artistic production that is far away from being settled, one that is portable and touch-and-go for all intents and purposes.”
Like a considerable portion of the world population, the state of not having a home, being nomadic and hybrid is a way of life and not a postmodern title to read and discuss for me and so many people around me. This political tension that has become incrementally more and more palpable even in the most intimate areas of life, the questions regarding feelings of value triggered by financial struggles, the country-wide ‘state of emergency’ that has become the ordinary way of life, along with this uninterrupted turbulence, have become prevalent in the entire mood of 2016 and the years that followed. I have been worried and continue to worry that each exhibition(5) that my works have been a part of is the last one in my lifetime, and about the prospect of not knowing that this is the case.
Now: For What?
The period that was sparked by Muhammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation seems to be on its way out with the conflicts in Syria changing in nature and dying out. Bouazizi died in 2011. He is no longer among friends and loved ones. The head of state in Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left the country and continues his life in Saudi Arabia, as far as I know. Osama Bin Laden was killed by US tactical and intelligence forces in Abottabad in 2011. Hosni Mobarak resigned from his leadership position in Egypt in 2011. His successor, Mohammad Mursi, recently died of a heart attack in the courtroom where he was being tried. An emerging definition of a ‘new era’ in Turkey is a point of discussion, as far as I witness it from afar these days. I, on the other hand, must confess that I find myself riddled with such questions as ‘what is the impact of the art that I produce? what is the impact that I produce?’ these days where I am struggling to complete my MA thesis and produce new works. I suppose one of the commonalities between producing art and being alive is that they both simply become futile unless they are injected with meaning. The issues of supporting young artists and facilitating their visibility have become prominent topics of discussion in the periods of Turkey’s art scene that I have been able to witness. I, unlike experienced individuals and institutions, do not have an effective system to propose on this issue. Sadly, I am also unable to suggest a solution, prescription, or a tangible course of action for artists who are younger than me. It is unquestionably good to keep alive the feeling, struggle and anticipation that ‘a better system’ is possible. However, I also feel that it is imperative to discuss this issue in its aspects that are not immediately apparent. As an individual who produces art, I have had to generate a feeling of worth completely by my own account. Let’s assume that you are a young artist and that the society you live in does not seem to offer much to younger artists, and that societal dynamics are not set up in a way that will facilitate the purchase of your works. You are not receiving offers; collectors are not fighting over your works. What is supposed to happen then? How will you establish your sense of self-worth? If you do not have anything to rely on but your career, frankly, things are looking dire. I was able to generate this feeling mostly when I was able to experience an exhibition my works were a part of, by myself, after the exhibition was installed and in the final moments of solitude before it was open to viewers, when I was finally able to feel that I had produced something of worth. I found myself resorting to the most romantic means of generating motivation, reading about the lives of artists from the past who died destitute and in solitary circumstances yet are enthusiastically appreciated today; I found myself fully empathizing with them. I found myself completely alone with seemingly the most clichéd methods of reviving my motivation when I thought of Rembrandt who died in poverty following his golden years, of Caravaggio who simply could not catch a peaceful break and die in secure retirement, of Saint Just who awaited his execution in complete solitude, or when I was visiting the grave of Max Stirner ‘who was never given his due’. Is that necessarily bad? Perhaps this whole quest for meaning is merely a cheeky reason to continue to produce, perhaps it is a cry and need for attention. For instance, the last scene of the film The Unforgettable Director of Love Films illustrates this in the kindest of manners. As the main character of the film, a director of romantic genre films who is experiencing a deep loss of self-worth after a series of professional failures, is preparing to set himself on fire after wrapping his body in rolls of his films, the phone rings. The caller is a producer who worked with him in the past and who is now asking him to do what he does best, again, which is to make a love film. The director immediately forgets the idea of suicide as he begins discussing the prospect of a new offer. The ‘unforgettable director of love films’ seems to have shelved the idea of ending his own life, perhaps for now. All of his ‘existential woes’ seem to have evaporated with the idea of a new film. Each new project, exhibition, interview, conversation, has served the function of this phone call for me. If we move past the systematic problems and speak in the terms delineated by Joseph Campbell’s rhetoric(6), it seems to me that a young person who is producing art must first produce answers to the question of how far the ‘hero’ is willing to cover the path he set out on. The prospect of a young artist piquing the interest of an institution, collection or collector is dependent on so many things, and these things may never actualize. In light of this, in a country that is built on such shaky grounds where the political system itself is dubiously sustainable and where institutions find it difficult to project their vision to five years down the line, I believe any artist who firmly believes that they will be able to continue their existence with the support of institutions is naïve at best. At this particular juncture, I believe it is incredibly important to remember again the importance of collective thinking, creating and sharing practices.
Perhaps, the generation I am a part of has experienced, and continues to experience, its greatest successes and failures on this aspect. Life, for the atomized artist, is transformed into a series of struggles to leave a good portfolio for a future retrospective which he so hopes will take place posthumously. At least this is precisely what I have experienced; I found myself completely alone with my portfolio at times. I would like to both remember and remind everyone that the soundest form of emotional strength we need in order to continue to make art is hidden in not only the invaluable projects involving young artists, but also the collective interims which momentarily sparkle and go out, which leave the faintest of trails not unlike a comet, which find it so difficult to become ‘official’, and which, perhaps, were only made possible by saying ‘here, now, and altogether!’ and will only be remembered by the ones who experienced in from the inside. The power of standing alongside, creating together, converging and separating, must simply not be forgotten. I am fully aware that this essay, which I intend to conclude here, runs the risk of crudely historicizing and mysticizing a certain period, as is often the case with ‘1968’, and jeopardizing the reduction of a complicated and multi-faceted process down to a single personal account. But it was simply not possible to write a text of this sort without taking these risks. This essay, then, will be quietly awaiting the day it will contribute to the data for a study or a research undertaken on the artists of Istanbul in the 2010s, silently biding its time in each of its printed or online copies to be accessed again.
Hasan Özgür Top
1 Ergüden Işık. Sessizliğin Anarşisi. 2008. https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=https://anarcho- copy.org/free/sessizligin-anarsisi.pdf (Last accessed: 19.06.2019)
2 “Man dies after setting himself on fire in Saudi Arabia” BBC. 23 Ocak 2011. BBC Web. 5 January 2011. https://www.bbc.com/news/ world-middle-east-12260465
3 Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986.
4 Kırmacı, Ş. “Hiç Bir Şey Eskisi Gibi Olmayacak”, İstanbul Art News, Temmuz 2016.
5 I am mainly using the term ‘exhibition’ to address all forms of artistic expression in order not to crowd the text.
6 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton Univ. Press, 2004.