“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: