This article was published in Art Asia Pacific Almanac, 2019.
*This interview is published on Borusan Contemporary Blog.
** This is an attempt to understand what is going on between me and Léonie Guyer’s works, exhibited at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. I sent an e-mail to my long-term colleague, Mine Kaplangi, every day, keeping Léonie’s works on my mind as a portal to look into the world. Following the suggestions of Léonie—various forms of thinking hidden in the exhibition space—I imagined these emails as an invitation for a dialogue rather than a monologue, manifesting the possibility of unlimited ways for love and care, in the format of sharing in this unique case.
** Published on the blog of the Wattis Institute.
* This review is published in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art | Duke University Press / November 2018.
*This review is published in ArtAsiaPacific:
Presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and curated by Eungie Joo, Etel Adnan’s “New Work” marks the Paris-based artist’s stateside return. Adnan, who is also a poet and essayist, was born in Beirut in 1925, but spent a significant part of her life in Paris and San Francisco, such that exile became part of her existence. She once said in an interview: “I like the sea and I like the mountains. I am assimilated into Western culture [. . .] but I am also very attached to the Muslim world [. . .] There is a duality in my life as in my thinking.” The 16 works in the show demonstrated the significance of visual abstraction to Adnan as a means of respite from language, which she experienced to be restrictive due to her upbringing—she was born to a Greek mother and a Syrian father (a highranking Ottoman officer), educated in French in Lebanon, and exposed to Turkish and Greek at home—as well as her subsequent life between cultures.
Liberated from the dictates of language, through which she struggled to express herself, her compositions offer a generous, poetic space for viewers to navigate freely. Among the exhibits was one of Adnan’s most recent tapestries, titled Explosion Florale (1968/2018), which echoed her earliest tapestry design, executed by Hal Painter in the late 1960s. Also on display were abstract paintings of oranges, yellows, greens and blues that reflect the sky of California. These are the palettes apparent at dusk—when melancholia and serenity collide and it is arguably most difficult to be away from home. The compositions in all of these works loosely evoke the movements of tree branches on hillsides, and the rising and setting of the sun. They embody both the transience of life and the steadfast presence of nature.
The untitled paintings also all bear a triangular motif that represents Mount Tamalpais, the subject of Adnan’s lifelong obsession, which began when she moved to Sausalito in California in the 1970s. Not only did she repeatedly draw the mountain from the windows of her home, she used it as a reference point for her philosophical thoughts, as is apparent in her seminal book on the links between nature and art, Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986). In the publication, Adnan hints at the almost supernatural attraction that she felt to the mountain, which was not only a hideaway for her, but the center of her orbit, her lover, and the protector of her memories. “The natural pyramidal shape of the mountain became embedded in her whole being,” writes Simone Fattal—Adnan’s partner, sculptor and publisher—in her 2002 essay “On Perception: Etel Adnan’s Visual Art.”
Perhaps it was no coincidence that after viewing Adnan’s show, I felt an earthquake. It was in the middle of the night and when I woke up, I spent hours scouring the news for information about the disaster. There was no trace of it ever happening. No one else had felt it. It had been exactly 24 days after my permanent move from Istanbul to San Francisco. I asked myself: Were Adnan’s images the reason behind my illusory earthquake? What happens when the land beneath us moves? When the earth—containing the cumulative memories of the universe, non-human habitants and archeological heritage—shakes, does it bring us closer to “home”?
It is no surprise to me that according to geoscientists, there is a blind thrust fault, lying beneath Mount Tamalpais.
Etel Adnan’s “New Work” is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until January 6, 2019.
* Commissioned by Borusan Contemporary, to read the conversation: https://www.borusancontemporary.com/en/blog-conversations-rudolf-frieling_818
Guest Curator of West Coast Visions: Artists from the SFMOMA Media Arts Collection presented at Borusan Contemporary in 2014
Inviting a curator to an institution’s collection could mean various things: A dialogue or a monologue—emptying all the existing narratives to define them with new meanings or reshuffling them around. These collaborations require horizontal allies and generosity from both sides—an attempt to find the undercommons in a world of broken relationships.
Borusan Contemporary has invited seven curators in the last six years to its ever-growing collection of new media art to unlock these probabilities. This series of conversations is a curious response to this cultivating network of associations and relationships, marked with site-specificity and temporality, in a city that is always in flux.– Naz Cuguoğlu
Naz Cuguoğlu: When you were developing the concept and intuition behind the exhibition West Coast Visions: Artists from the SFMOMA Media Arts Collection, what were the major motivations, concerns and/ or curiosities behind the selection of the works?
Rudolf Frieling: Museum collections tend to struggle with an inherent contradiction: They collect works to be exhibited so the public can view them but the exposure to light, environments, and yes, even the public, can only harm the work in the long-run. In media arts, typically the opposite is true. The more often we install a work of variable media, i.e. a work based on changing technological conditions, the more we need to review its components to keep it alive and updated. It’s a simple preservation strategy but also the single most important reason for seeking opportunities to show works from our collection as often as possible. That said, there is obviously a desire to learn more about the relevance and content of works when placed in different contexts. It was such a pleasure to see historic and contemporary works come together at Borusan Contemporary because of its unique location and clearly quite different cultural context compared to San Francisco.
NC: Thinking about Borusan Contemporary’s architecture as the “Haunted House”, its proximity to a bridge and the sea which both connect and separate, how did the collection and physical space of Borusan Contemporary influence your curatorial decisions?
RF: The exhibition happened at a time when SFMOMA closed temporarily for its big expansion in 2013-2014. We were thus very interested in exploring ways of showing parts of the collection elsewhere. The fact that Borusan Contemporary’s collection has such a strong focus on media art was certainly a key factor, but even more so the space and location of the Haunted House. The proximity to the water, its traffic of boats and commercial ships, made me think of Doug Hall’s beautiful two-channel video installation Chrysopylae, which he had just premiered in a very similar setting underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the same location that featured so prominently in its visual narrative. Replacing this setting with the geographical twin situation of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge—also known as the Second Bosphorus Bridge—prompted the concept for the entire show. In the end, its placement inside the exhibition space—with the effect of conceptually penetrating the walls of the Haunted House to look out onto the outdoor scenery, only it was the Bay in San Francisco—was extremely suggestive. Another work, Bill Fontana’s Sound Sculpture with a Sequence of Level Crossing was then placed on the rooftop terrace fully exposed to the noisy soundscape of Istanbul. The views on that terrace are simply amazing and called for an artwork to be embedded into that scenery. It was actually the first time that the artist brought this installation, which he had shown previously only in an indoor gallery situation, back into its origin of an urban soundscape, taking it once again out of the protected museum space. Listening to trains passing among the sound of passing ships or cars as well as the occasional call to prayers was a truly transformative experience of this work. This is precisely the reason why it is so important to test the relevance or contemporary currency of a work in a different setting. The fact that trains didn’t “belong” there acoustically, ultimately led a neighbor to insist on the work to be shut down. Subsequently, we took that to heart at SFMOMA and reacted very sensitively to similar complaints in our neighborhood when we installed the work temporarily in our new outdoor environment of the expanded building in San Francisco.
In short, these two works led us to think about “place” and the displacement of the West of the US to the literal as well as metaphorical border between “West” and “East” in Turkey. The other works, Steina Vasulka’s multi-monitor installation The West, Bill Viola’s video of the The Reflecting Pool as well as Jeremy Blake’s Winchester Trilogy were selected in relation to this idea of the mythical “West” and of course to fit the available spaces.
Doug Hall, Chrysopylae, 2012
NC: In addition to the “place,” what else has been informing and transforming your work recently? Which books, films, exhibitions, and individuals have you been surrounding yourself with?
RF: I could speak of many influences, of course, but probably the single most defining factor is my first-hand experience of artworks that move and challenge me. Most recently, we were able to acquire and exhibit two moving image works that address in striking ways the experience of migration and an Afro-American reality. The first is John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea and the second is Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message and the Message Is Death. The complexities of these histories and narratives, reflected both in cinematic terms but also, in Jafa’s case, in part through the familiar aesthetics of online videos, powerfully addressed not only an emotional and political state of tensions particularly in Europe and the US over the last years but also touched so many different people in our audience that it made me even more aware of our urgent need to critically reflect on our life in these times of conflict. On a related note, have you seen Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman? The final minutes of this film are as groundbreaking as it gets in that regard within the tradition of cinema. The best “activist” film I have seen in a long time.
Bill Viola, The Reflection Pool, 1977-1979
NC: Although I have not watched Blackkklansman yet, I did see the works by Akomfrah and Jafa at the SFMOMA. Both works made me think about the potential of the institution to complicate the existing narratives, and to create a space for alternative ones that could be written by the community. It requires an awareness of the sociopolitical landscape within which the institution is rooted.
RF: Sociopolitical landscape absolutely influences and has influenced in the past my thinking and programming but I would also argue that it now affects the entire museum and the way we try to work on more meaningful connections to our various audiences and times. We need to tell different stories by different artists, stories pushed aside by the grand narratives of Western art, stories that challenge not only us in terms of its open-ended form and content but also inherently question our very definition of art. One of these examples is our upcoming exhibition “Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here” which I’m co-curating with two amazing colleagues, Dominic Willsdon, now director of the ICA at the University of Virginia in Richmond, and Lucía Sanromán, curator at large at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, our partner in this exhibition and direct neighbor across the street. We will be addressing the fact that contemporary art has been influenced not only by performative and media-based art over the last decades but also by socially engaged art or “social practice” as it is often called—a fact not reflected in most museum collections. Lacy is arguably the most influential pioneer of this form of art making outside the institutions and venues of art. The question I’m asking thus is: How can we work on a more complex, more nuanced, and richer representation of the history of contemporary art? I can relate to this form of art not only because artists like Lacy rely upon media-based installation formats in their attempt to reflect on the various uses of media in communities as well as in our society. More importantly, many of our current movements and social phenomena, from “MeToo” to “Black Lives Matter” resonate deeply with Lacy’s 40-plus years of socially engaged art. Sadly, the themes and issues are recurring.
Steina, Batı - West, 1983
NC: I watched The Roof is On Fire by Lacy recently, and also had the chance to meet her. Although I agree that the themes are recurring, the general context that surrounds them have changed. Nowadays, we are more careful with the questions of representation—who gets to talk about which community, and whether they have the right to do so. Lacy acknowledges this change. I appreciate the fact that the institutions take the “risk” to reflect on these complexities, and to find the right language to do so. Could you say a few words about some methodologies that you use?
RF: Indeed, contexts have changed and this has guided our concept of the show in many ways. For one, the title reflects this current moment and the collectivity of authorship. It’s not the right place to reflect on many issues more broadly, but let me just point to our fundamentally collaborative process in the development of the concept in close dialogue with the artist: it’s one exhibition in two quite different institutions, co-organizing and co-curating this project. While this is obviously a retrospective format, meaning we’ll have objects, photographs, films/videos as well as documents that speak to those past contexts and narratives, the approach has always been to find a representation of voices that is first and foremost an experience for the visitors. This line of thinking follows closely the artist’s own trajectory of “re-thinking” her own works. On a related note, though, we also wanted to focus on the current state of affairs in our country by inviting a series of youth organizations to provide a series of artistic and activist responses to the legacy of the Oakland Projects.
NC: How would you describe your curatorial vision?
RF: I try to find ways to help us be relevant for as many people as possible, to produce, collect, and exhibit works that are challenging as well as accessible, that are socially engaging but with a unique aesthetic experience. In this currently debated artificial juxtaposition of contemplation and experience, I’m advocating for a much more experiential program without sacrificing criticality for a simple spectacle. Primarily, I bring a sense of temporality and performance into the realm of fine arts. The museum that we need is a place for active engagement, agitation, activism—which can include contemplation, see the most recent exhibition “Sublime Seas: John Akomfrah and J.M.W. Turner” at SFMOMA where we brought a 19th century painting by Turner, The Deluge from Tate Britain, into a dialogue with the large-scale cinematic installation Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah. Ok, full disclosure, it was the artist’s idea, not mine but we embraced it as a radical way of deepening our sense of history in our museum. I doubt that you can call that a “vision” but it’s a foundation for making decisions on a daily basis.
NC: The questions about inclusion / exclusion, and accessibility are important issues to dwell on, especially in thinking about the growing inequalities in San Francisco, and the housing crisis. Could you tell us more about your day-to-day decisions? One way is creating collaborations and decentralizing the power—as in your Lacy show—but also recently the permanent collection was opened for the ones who were impacted by fire and smoke.
RF: We discuss this social and political situation in the Bay Area almost every day. It’s challenging to find responses that go beyond simple gestures like the one you mention in your question. It’s not easy to be nimble and spontaneous in such a huge organization like ours but we try to find ways to be even more connected to our communities. One way of doing that is to sustain a range of exhibitions and public programs that address the problems of our time, that provide criticality with an acute sense of keeping the program accessible. Ultimately, our public will want to see things in the museum to which they can relate. The histories of the artists in California are key to that vision, and so are the histories and cultures of Afro-Americans in the U.S., see the enormous feedback on Arthur Jafa, or the ground-breaking critical survey “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, which just opened at our museum. Last but not least, being a team-player in this institutional ecosystem of the larger Bay Area is also part of our DNA.
ABOUT THE CURATOR
Rudolf Frieling is a curator, educator, and scholar with an M.A. in Humanities from the Free University of Berlin and a Ph.D. from the University of Hildesheim, Germany. In 2006, he was appointed curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; from 1994–2006 he was curator and researcher at ZKM, Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany; curatorial projects prior to 2006 include the net art section of the Sao Paolo Biennale (2002) and Sound-Image (2003) in Mexico City; he was co-editor of multimedia and print publications from Media Art Action (1997), Media Art Interaction (2000), Media Art Net www.mediaartnet.org (2004–5), to 40yearsvideoart.de (2006); since 2006, he has curated for SFMOMA a series of survey shows around notions of collaboration, participation, and performativity: In Collaboration: Early Works from the Media Arts Collection (2008); The Art of Particiption: 1950 to Now (2008/2009); Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media (2012) as well as many monographic exhibitions with among others Douglas Gordon, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Sharon Lockhart, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Christian Marclay and Anthony McCall; he also collaborated on the SFMOMA presentation of Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (2010) and oversaw the SFMOMA exhibition William Kentridge: Five Themes (2009). Spearheading the notion of the museum as a producer, Frieling’s commissions for SFMOMA include Sylvie Blocher: Men In Gold (2007), Bill Fontana: Sonic Shadows (2010), Jim Campbell: Exploded Views (2011/2012) as well as Christian Jankowski: Silicon Valley Talks (2013). Frieling most recently curated Film as Place for the reopening of SFMOMA in 2016 and was co-curator of the retrospective Bruce Conner: It's All True (2016/2017).
*** This article is commissioned by Joan Mitchell Foundation, to read it on the foundation's website: http://joanmitchellfoundation.org/blog/how-to-build-and-maintain-a-relationship-with-a-curator-over-time
Naz Cuguoğlu is an Istanbul-based curator and art writer who consults with Joan Mitchell Foundation grant recipients as part of our ongoing Professional Development series. We asked Naz to share her take on how artists can build and maintain relationships with curators.
The relationship between the artist and the curator is like a long-distance love affair, sometimes marked with geographic separation and lack of face-to-face contact. As it is extra difficult to maintain these kinds of relationships, it requires even more love, care, and patience from both sides. While there is not one perfect, magical solution that anyone can offer to make this relationship work, there are multiple strategies that you can make use of to make it as healthy and sustainable as possible.
It takes two to tango.
The first step to building and maintaining an artist/curator relationship is accepting the fact that we both need each other, and that this is a mutually beneficial engagement. And when I say this, I do not mean that curators need artists to exhibit their works in their shows, and artists need curators to select, display, arrange, and preserve their artworks. I have no interest in repeating the long-existing discussion on who a curator really is, and whether we need them. I am more interested in highlighting the potential that this relationship between the artist and the curator has to offer at a time when we are going through intense political crises all around the world. I believe that it is even more urgent that we understand the importance of collaboration, in-depth dialogue, community, and exchanging ideas not only among society, but also between artists and curators. I believe that relationships between these two parties with different skills and approaches have a lot to offer for a better and hopeful future, through creating encounters between individuals with different perspectives, and eventually leading to a less polarized society.
Finding THE ONE(S).
There is no monogamy when it comes to the relationships between artists and curators—it is more about pursuing multiple relationships simultaneously, so we can only talk about finding THE ONEs. And, there is no online dating application for finding the right curators that would be the perfect fit for your artistic practice, and with whom you’d live happily ever after—at least not yet. For this reason, it is important that you create platforms for yourself to increase the chance to meet individuals with similar research and artistic interests. One way is very well-known, but sometimes underrated: being present at the openings and events where you can grow your network of curators. It is also always helpful to follow digital and published art magazines to be up-to-date and tuned into finding THE ONEs. In this way, rather than sending copy-paste e-mails with your portfolio, you can keep your e-mails as personal as possible, tailored to the individuals to whom you are reaching out, and it mostly works—if it does not, it is also important to acknowledge that it’s actually okay, and that it’d be pretty ambitious to expect this spark to take place for every encounter. I think intimacy, flexibility, and openness are the keys in finding THE ONEs, and you never know where this relationship might lead both of you. It might be interesting to stop thinking about the ultimate outcome of this relationship, which is regarded as “the exhibition” mostly, but also considering “the process,” which is itself full of potential for inspiration and change-making.
“You used to call me on my cell phone” Syndrome.
Once you have found THE ONEs, it is still important to keep in mind that, as with any relationship, the one between the artist and the curator requires time and effort. As we are living in the age of excessive information, it sometimes becomes difficult to keep each other updated, leaving the relationships to deteriorate through time. To prevent this, it is of course valuable to keep your website and social media accounts updated, and to send newsletters with news about your upcoming exhibitions and projects, ideally no more than once a month—too many newsletters can also be unpleasant. But what is more important is being aware that to build and maintain a relationship with a curator overtime might again mean more than that, if we can all try to keep things personal and intimate, leading to a more enriched dialogue and collaboration in the long run. To make this relationship sustainable, it is always worth taking the time to send private e-mails, inviting them to your studio, or to an ongoing exhibition, where you can engage in a more in-depth conversation about your practice.
We are all in this together.
You might be asking yourself: Why all this effort? The truth is, we are all in this together. I believe the future is collaboration, learning from each other, growing and healing together. Do we want to change certain things about the ongoing politics, or do we accept things as they are? If you are also an advocate of the former, I suggest focusing on the process, the intimate dialogue, the micro effect on an individual level, rather than the outcome, or the big art events where no one has the possibility to touch upon each other’s lives. It might be the right time to imagine an art world in which there is no hierarchy also between the artists and the curators, forming relationships in which we can formulate intimate dialogues, and experiment together, so that we can even sometimes make mistakes for the sake of our progress. There is a lot we can learn from each other if we can keep ourselves open, and invest in our relationships as lovers do.
*This review is published in Hyperallergic: https://hyperallergic.com/447649/galeri-nev-istanbul-we-do-not-know-this-to-be-so/
Making sense of death is a cultural mainstay, regardless of class or nationality, religion or race, gender or sexuality; most of us spend periods of time thinking about mourning, whether from inside or outside the process. But how it is done, approached, and thought about, varies pretty dramatically. The current exhibition on view at Galeri Nev Istanbul presents five artists, all from different places, each contending with how we mourn. Curator Pelin Uran’s emphasis on video work speaks to the issue’s ubiquitous nature and fuels tension among the different ways of externalizing grief.
The gallery is small, and you immediately walk into Alejandro Cesarco’s video work “Present Memory” (2009). Projected on the wall is an image of Cesarco’s father, taken just after he was diagnosed with cancer. Upon death, this footage of the father is projected into his empty study, and recording it again, creating an infinite space where different segments of time intersect. The image is strained, threadbare, so worn-out that it creates the feeling that we are following a ghost in a dream-like state. The fact that his father looks directly at the camera in a highly serious manner makes the audience feel that we are disturbing him, and have been brought here to help the artist to release his father’s ghost.
There are other moments in the show that reflect on the difficulty of dealing with loss. As in the case of Cesarco, who breaks the linearity of time to heal, the devastating characteristic of death echoes in a work by Barbad Golshiri, titled “Vanitas; a Reenactment” (2008–14). As a response to Italian collector, Claudia Gian Ferrari’s final days, Golshiri builds a metal cylindrical projector. The odd thing about the work is a piece of animal liver being cooked by the projector lamp and dripping blood onto the floor. These drops reference a Persian literary trope, tears. An image of the gallerist Ferrari lights the wall. She is distinguished by a snake-shaped ring and red hair, both recalling symbols of death. It is definitely not a work for everyone, for the ways it evokes extremely disturbing that feel uncomfortably personal.
The show creates confusing feelings of devastation and lightness, genesis and destruction, as death usually does. Acting as a debriefing session for these feelings, the rest of the works in the show suggest the importance of community support when dealing with grief, particularly so in Oreet Ashery’s video “Our Nurses” (2016). The work brings together four palliative nurses, who develop close relationships with their patients, and experience grief every day. Put together, the four talk about emotional burn-out, making me think about Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” in which she mentions that grief is like an illness with all the physical symptoms, and we need to talk about it to heal. You can feel the relief of these nurses through their movement. They dance in pairs, interrupting the work’s main narrative, as they mimic each other and laugh, randomly moving their hands, hips, and feet.
The neighboring video by Joanna Rajkowska “The Peterborough Child” (2012) shows another artist desperately searching for a platform to talk about her fear of loss. After her daughter was diagnosed with eye cancer, and inspired by the ruins of Peterborough, where she had just moved to, the artist works to build a fake archeological site, containing a hand-made skeleton of a baby girl. The video tells the story of this project using a male voice, creating a video collage of found and shot images. Although Rajkowska is hoping that this place would turn into a temple for mothers in this city, a place that suffers an extremely high infant mortality rate, the project was cancelled due to protests from the community. This work highlights the fact that it is not always easy to find community support for new grieving methods.
Presented in a separate room, The Propeller Group’s video titled “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music” (2014) showcases the benefits of community support. Separated from the other works in the show, this work creates an immersive experience for the audience to become part of the festivity of funeral traditions in Vietnam. As a musical journey, it merges documentary footage of funerals with re-enactments, creating a poetic language. The work develops around a transgender character and visualizes her passage from life to death. With performers hired for the funerals — fire eaters, snake handlers, singers — it makes a meaningful closing for the show, highlighting that death is not only loss, but provides an opportunity to celebrate life.
*This review is published in ArtAsiaPacific's May - June 2018 issue.
*This review is published in ArtAsiaPacific's September - October 2017 issue.
*This review is published in ArtAsiaPacific's September - October 2017 issue.
*This review is published in ArtAsiaPacific's November/December 2017 issue.
“How is everything in Istanbul?” That is the most frequent question I am confronted with nowadays, one that was aimed at me in Kassel, Venice or Basel. Though my response that follows is usually an awkward silence, this question hides implications of increased threats toward civic life and stricter censorship, which is true only to some extent. As stated by Elmgreen & Dragset, the artist duo and curators of the upcoming Istanbul Biennial in September, at one of the talks in Art Basel’s Conversations program, life continues in Istanbul with increased solidarity in a close-knit community, and artists are constantly working to develop alternative methodologies to overcome political obstacles. That is why the “Doublethink: Double Vision” exhibition, curated by Alistair Hicks at the Pera Museum, was a timely project that challenged our perception, focusing on how artists deal with repressive conditions.
The exhibition’s title alluded to George Orwell’s concept of “doublethink” from his novel 1984 (1949), defined as the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time. In Orwell’s Oceania, the idea is implemented by the state to control the thoughts of its citizens. This definition was challenged by Hicks; it inspired him to curate the show after he met Russian artist Pavel Pepperstein and ended up watching old movies in Arkadiy Nasonov’s flat on a cold Moscow night. Apparently, the two artists were trying to explain how it was possible to be funny in a time when communication was strictly censored. Pepperstein stated: “You probably think of doublethink as a negative concept. We in Russia think of it as just the beginning.”
In Istanbul, there is something familiar both in the use of humor as a tool of political protest, and in the belief that you can maintain contradictory ideas as an act of rebellion. Doublethink may have risen in the communist states, but “Big Brother” has taken many forms around the world, so populations in diverse lands have each developed their own coping mechanisms. In his catalog essay, Hicks highlights this radical change in thinking: “Today doublethink is our only hope, and artists from around the world are showing how to develop not just doublethink, but polythink.” The exhibition started with Moscow Conceptualists—whom the state did not acknowledge as artists, so they had to form a new way of communication—and showcased a new balance in thinking between text and image through the work of 34 artists from around the world.
For those who look closely, the exhibition suggested different artistic techniques for “polythinking” at a time when disguising the true meaning in any kind of expression is necessary to overcome censorship. Dead Weights (2013) by Ciprian Mureşan hides the artist’s satire of the Soviet Union in the form of a collection of prints set underneath a pile of art history books. Top Secret (1989–90) by Nedko Solakov is an index with 179 ink drawings in which the artist informs on himself, documenting how he collaborated with Bulgarian authorities. Whenever the Heart Skips a Beat (2012) by Raqs Media Collective is a video that features a clock engaging in word play—its hour hand eventually points to “Thresh” while its minute hand points to “Hold”—rather than fulfilling its function of showing time. Showing three books about Guantanamo Bay sewn shut with wire, Kader Attia’s Nothing Has Changed (2012) raises questions about governmental control on the access to knowledge.
“Doublethink: Double Vision” also offered an impressive lineup of Turkish artists. Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s neon work A Few Hours After the Revolution (2010) depicts a graffiti scrawl of “devrim” (“revolution” in Turkish) as modified by right-wingers whenever it appears on public walls, suggesting that censorship can create a new language. Made of moving wooden blocks, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s Letters from Lost Paradise (2015) investigates Lord Byron’s efforts to record the Armenian language, as homage to the artist’s grandmother who told her not to forsake her language if she does not want to lose her identity. Erdem Taşdelen’s set of 48 differently colored business cards reflects 48 different sides of his character, including “troubled idealist” and “hesitant pluralist.” In the video House of Letters (2015), Ali Kazma tells the story of writer Alberto Manguel’s library, regarding book repositories as stores for alternative ways of thinking.
Echoing Pepperstein’s statement that doublethink is only a starting point, this exhibition was an influential project in a world with Big Brother’s omnipresence. In the show, artists who are developing strategies to challenge narrow thinking demanded by authoritarian states offered many lessons that are useful in today’s social climate.
“Doublethink: Double Vision” is on view at the Pera Museum, Istanbul, until August 6, 2017.
* This review is published on ArtAsiaPacific:
“After all, the light in Büyükada is very beautiful. Especially in autumn, and in the mornings . . . My mother used to take me up Hristos Hill, when I was a child. There is a day when the storks leave the island. She had to spend that day up on Hristos. She would wake me up too, at six in the morning, and of course I was annoyed to be woken up so early. But that scene always affected me; the sun would just be rising between the pines, and the storks would take off . . .”
— Füreya Koral in conversation with Candeğer Furtun
One of Turkey’s pioneering artists in modern ceramics, Füreya Koral was born in 1910 in a house in Büyükada (Princes’ Islands), called as the “Island of Guests” at the time, hosting mostly local Greeks, as well as others sent into exile. From the house, one street led to the mosque, another to the church, and it was a place where Western and Ottoman traditions would mingle. As Koral mentions in her conversation with fellow ceramist Candeğer Furtun, it is difficult to predict what artistic inspirations may lead to, but having spent most summers on the Princes’ Islands, and still being struck by the sounds of storks, I can see the effect of the island on Koral’s practice. When I walk around and observe her works with bird motifs, I can hear their calls; in her studies of light, I can see the stained-glass windows of that house, with only slits of sunbeams cutting through the pines.
Koral’s works were mostly ignored or criticized during her lifetime, as she was a self-taught artist trying to push the limits of ceramics beyond its function. Her family background was also a major issue. Her grandfather Şakir Pasha and great uncle Cevat Pasha, who occupied important positions in the Ottoman Empire, were very interested in different mediums of art—calligraphy, photography and painting—and passed on the same passion to the next generations, including Koral’s aunts Fahrelnissa Zeid and Aliye Berger, the latter of whom was one of Turkey’s first contemporary engravers. As the Ottoman Empire fell, and a new Turkish Republic took its place, Koral and her family experienced difficulties during the transition. She married twice and made an effort to fit the figure of the ideal wife in modern Turkey, so she would only develop her art practice after she reached the age of 37, when she was admitted to a sanatorium in Switzerland to treat her tuberculosis. She opened her first solo show in Paris in 1951, and then at Istanbul’s Maya Gallery, one of Turkey’s first private contemporary art galleries.
The retrospective exhibition for Koral at Akaretler Sıraevler was titled “Füreya,” and using the artist’s first name in this way in the exhibition and catalog texts raised questions about whether a male artist would receive the same treatment. While mounting the show, the curators—Károly Aliotti, Nilüfer Şaşmazer and Farah Aksoy—used different methodologies to prevent the artist’s gender and family background from overshadowing her practice. The presentation was separated into two parts: her works were on the right, and archival materials about her life were on the left. The first room housing Koral’s works showed drawing studies and lithographs, giving visitors a good impression of what was ahead in the show. The presentation was organized like a spine, lining up the array of mediums and forms that Koral explored in her practice.
Seeing Koral’s works in many colors and forms exhibited together was like watching the artist trying to define her individual self. Ceramic works made during different periods of Koral’s life were shown on a large table in the second room. As the exhibition was organized mostly according to the forms incorporated by the artist in her creations—the Hittite sun, houses, abstract and geometric shapes, and more—pinpointing the exact chronological sequence of her works was impossible, but the presentation showed that the artist revisited the same symbols repeatedly throughout her career, forming a feeling of togetherness and consistency through time, as she contemporized traditional Hittite and Anatolian motifs.
Inspired by her visits to Europe and Mexico, Koral held a strong interest in art for the masses, and this belief was relayed in the next rooms. Her ambitious, large-scale works of wall tiles found their place on the facades of modern Turkey’s buildings in the 1960s, though she faced disapproval and objection from the cultural establishment as ceramics were regarded as functional items in daily life. Without a strong inclination to protect and preserve public art, some of these works no longer exist, leaving the curators with the only option of showing documentary photographs of the groundbreaking creations. At a smaller scale, this philosophy by Koral was also evident in a porcelain series meant to reach a broader section of society.
The exhibition closed with Koral’s last works, reflecting on her feelings of exclusion from Turkey’s new society. A collection of cube-shaped houses were inspired by the terraced residences and people passing by that she could see from her window. These works are different from her previous creations, in that organic forms gave way to straight edges and sharp corners, though the feeling of abstraction was maintained in figures of humans and birds appearing on the square and rectangular walls. The artist’s final work, Walking People (1992), is a sculptural installation made up of “hollow” human figures with empty eyes.
Koral was inspired by Hittite forms and Japanese lyricism, and admired the loaded simplicity of these traditions: “I have worked in two dimensions. I have worked in three dimensions. Now I am at the fourth dimension.” “Füreya” invited the visitors to walk through the life and practice of Koral, who not only inspired artists to follow in her footsteps, but also challenged the course of Turkish art history. And she has become timeless by quoting a poem by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, one of the most important representatives of modernism in Turkish literature: “I am neither within time/Nor completely outside of it.”
Füreya Koral’s retrospective is on view at Akaretler Sıraevler, Istanbul, until January 18, 2018.
*This review is published on ArtAsiaPacific:
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges
There is something inexplicable about libraries. It is something felt when entering the dusty space of an old book repository—the story of humankind’s passion for knowledge, as well as the archives that allow such wealth to be passed on. Although there have been setbacks—such as the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 48 BCE, or the many institutions that were damaged or destroyed during World War II—we remain fascinated by the act of reaching into past experiences to layer them with present conditions, and even make predictions about the future. We organize, read, interpret, and then create our own libraries.
At a broader scale, in political struggles, there is no doubt that books and the spaces they occupy play significant roles in the fight for independence. As public libraries are open to everyone, they naturally become centers of democratic ideals, highlighting their influence on social equality via free access to cultural heritage and useful information. As suggested in Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), totalitarian regimes favor neither books nor libraries, as they could easily become platforms for dissidents and intelligentsia to share information. The free flow of information threatens totalitarian rule, so despots manipulate knowledge and history by executing different forms of cultural genocide, including biblioclasms and the destruction of libraries. Nowadays, the control of public perception is practiced in the censorship of online and printed textual materials; in Turkey (as well as several other countries), access to certain information outlets, such as Wikipedia, has been banned. That was why a collective library was constructed during the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Similarly, but under much more dire circumstances, Darayya residents in Syria built a “secret library” last year, as a safe harbor for those who believe in freedom of speech and thought.
When the Collective Çukurcuma Curatorial Initiative received an invitation from the Berlin nonprofit art space Dzialdov to curate a show, we were still licking our wounds after a tough summer. Last year, more than 400 people were killed in major attacks throughout the country—the attack at Atatürk Airport on June 28, the attempted coup d’état on July 15, and a bombing outside a soccer stadium on December 10, to name a few. As the violence unfolded not only in Turkey, but also around the world, we learned that a book depository was being built at the presidential palace in Ankara, and that it was collecting rare books from public libraries all around the country, limiting access to their contents to a choice few individuals. As the shock wore off, we found inspiration instead, and remembered Foucault’s notion of the archive as “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.” We decided to build upon that idea and to construct our own archive-library in Berlin.
To shed light on the intensifying censorship that is taking place in Turkey and beyond, artists and researchers chimed in for the project. The main aim was to rethink the philosophical, sociological and political nature of books, at a time when the mere existence of certain texts was coming under threat. While conducting research on the political power of libraries, we came across Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, a library founded at the outset of the 8th century in Baghdad, where thousands of books from different regions—written in various languages and covering philosophy, art, science and history—were housed. Translators, researchers, stenographers and authors traveled from many corners of the world to Bayt al-Hikma every day to conduct research, discuss new ideas and record their conclusions. They translated the most important texts of the era into Arabic, Persian, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew, which made Bayt al-Hikma a center of learning and intellectual exploration, inspiring other libraries far and wide, including the Library of Alexandria, to do the same. Obsessed with these untold narratives, we decided to take Bayt al-Hikma as the core of our project, learning from its history to think of libraries not only as spaces to contain and preserve information, but also as centers of research where the exchange of knowledge takes place rapidly.
German art historian Aby Warburg’s (1866–1929) curatorial technique provided the general framework: rather than creating categories within the archive based on theme, we decided to focus on the possibilities that books could offer to the reader-audience by simply existing within the same space. Presented with no beginning, end or limit, the books not only shattered the hierarchy of information, but also invited the audience to form new relationships between fragments of preexisting data. When taken together with the second location of the exhibition, Berlin’s Stadtbibliothek Else-Ury—a library founded in the 1900s that was partially destroyed during the Second World War, and named after a woman whose books were censored—these new relationships promised new ways of understanding history.
Contemporary artists have tapped into similar concepts, referencing the social and cultural power of libraries in their artworks. In Infamous Library (2006/09) by Işıl Eğrikavuk, the artist recounts the fictional story of 12 people who were kidnapped in September 1980 by unidentified people, and held captive in a library for two years, highlighting the underestimated manipulative power of written materials by questioning our tendency to blindly believe in stories reported by media outlets. Turkish video artist Ali Kazma’s personal archive contains more than 8,000 photographs taken at libraries, bookshops, print houses and bookbinderies. In one image, we see the famous quote by Borges, imagining paradise as a library. An actual library of artist books was compiled for the “House of Wisdom” exhibition at Dzialdov. The audience was encouraged to read at a big common table in the middle of the exhibition space. These books were kept in their original languages, with no translations, as homage to Bayt al-Hikma. It was up to the visitors to decipher the texts for each other.
Artists from other parts of the world have also taken the destruction of books and libraries as a point of departure in their practice. In 2016, Wafaa Bilal installed 168:01 at the Art Gallery of Windsor, featuring a library of blank, white books. He was referring to one of the non-human casualties of the 2003 invasion of Iraq: the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost its entire book collection when looters set fire to its library. Deeply affected by this incident, and drawing inspiration from Bayt al-Hikma, which was destroyed by a Mongol siege in the 13th century, Bilal created a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter, titled “One Hundred Sixty-Eight Hours and One Second,” with the aim of replacing College’s book collection based on a wish list compiled by the faculty. Taking a different approach, Chinese painter Xie Xiaoze has been visiting libraries all over the world to paint worn, nearly disintegrated monographs to record the histories carried not only by their texts, but also the books’ physical bodies. Xie’s canvases tell the stories of violent incidents toward books directed by political authorities. For instance, by depicting half-burned Chinese books rescued from Japanese attacks during World War II, Xie questions the stability and resilience of history and cultural artifacts.
Even in the digital age, books and libraries—in physical form—remain important as vessels for cultural heritage, identity and history. Beyond that, libraries provide spaces for us to come together and share ideas, especially in locations where there is suppression of free expression. By inviting artists to build a new library in Berlin, or learning from the purpose and function of Bayt al-Hikma, we can revisit the revolutionary potential of libraries as venues of dialogue, organization and remembrance.
*This article is published on ArtAsiaPacific: