Aspects of Turkish contemporary art

Pilevneli Gallery, Istanbul (12th February – 24th March 2019)

Pilevneli Gallery
…and inside

The Pilevneli gallery is a remarkable place, without many equivalents around Europe. It allows to discover Turkish contemporary art in a huge space, perfectly suited to showing a large diversity of art forms from painting to installations, from video to performance, from the intimacy of drawings to the shout of much larger pieces. Recently built, the building has a strangely dated architecture, coming straight from the days of Esprit Nouveau in the 1920s… In short, very much in phase with the current regime, at least as far as it remaining non-religious dimension is concerned.

I visited in February this exhibition, which was a form of partial retrospective of young(ish) Turkish art, with perhaps thirty artists represented, each by several pieces, some of which of very good quality though none that could be termed visually or conceptually innovative, perhaps deliberately. All of Istanbul seemed to have gathered there, at least that part of it which is still susceptible of doing so. The curating mostly resulted in a relatively homogeneous cross-section of Turkish contemporary art, with a fairly common aesthetic approach and atmosphere. As a perhaps unnecessary add-on, several rooms were dedicated to the misfortunes of refugees, presumably not those which were put at sea or otherwise used by the regime as a geopolitical tool to soften Europeans… On these inflammable topics, sentimentalism is always best: a wrecked motorboat did the trick just fine.

One of the striking aspects of this generation is the often good quality of drawing: this is a visual world where the concept has not fully overtaken the execution, and where you do perceive a degree of actual academic training (sorry for these words which may sound horrible to some ears…) by the artist (see below from left to right works by Hakan Gürsotrak, Ergin Inan, and Metin Celik). Another striking feature of the exhibition is that – with the exception of some mildly erotic pieces – this was nothing disturbing or even naughty about this particular selection of Turkish art.

This article does not have the slightest ambition of being a comprehensive overview of Turkish contemporary art, which is quite a complex world by itself; a perfectly arbitrary choice of a few artists and works will therefore serve as a “method”.

Taner Ceylan

Unfortunately, there has not been so much literature in the English language about this scene since ’Unleashed: Contemporary Art from Turkey’, edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi in 2010, despite the vibrancy and diversity of this scene. However, the days when Taner Ceylan or Erinç Seymen, for instance, could show some fairly provocative pieces are perhaps on the wane. Control over society and all its forms of expression is indisputably much tighter than it was just about six or seven years ago, and the art on show each year at the Contemporary Istanbul art fair tends perhaps not towards the decorative, but the easy-to-see.

This should not imply that art must necessarily be disturbing: it would be a rather silly pretence. The urge to disturb probably has its roots both in the violence of market pressure to achieve visibility, and in the frustrations of artists often shaped by the mood of their time more than the reverse, and who thereby mistake the ills of the world for its truth. Scandal can be a strategy, as adequately pointed out by Maud Favre-Bully, while a genuine art work must somehow include the promise of a truth, or go somewhere along the path meant by Cézanne with its famous phrase: “I owe you the truth in painting”. The depth of the being itself, and the multiplicity of its manifestations, the raising of the spirit, mind or feelings above or beyond their current state, rather the mere awareness of social and environmental issues, has ceased to be explored to the same extent despite the many answers which could be found in such a journey.

Conversely, it is slightly odd to witness a quasi-absence of the violence, the travails, the contradictions, the hatreds, the shouts, the cravings of our times, so multiplied and reverberated by millions of voices through millions of channels. The paucity of the answers provided is impressive when compared to the endless shimmer of the questions asked…

Going back to Turkey, and to the Pilevneli show, I would suggest having a look at three works. Not because they necessarily deserve more consideration, but because they are more “talkative” about the condition of humans in today’s society.

First and foremost, let us have a look at the Child with Snail by Sinan Demirtaş. Sinan, who was born in 1966, studied at the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, like so many of the artists represented at the Pilevneli. Most of his exhibitions, whether solo or group, occurred in Istanbul or Ankara, with a limited exposure outside of the Turkish borders.  In Child with Snail, a large (123 x 252cm) drawing on paper, we see the head of a baby, or a very small child, observing intensely a snail which he touches with his right hand, and seems to hold by the tail, or somehow prevents from progressing. The intensity of the look, the intensity of the effort put by the child for what appears to be a most unimportant action, is particularly striking. Sinan is a master of the human body. He often appears as a painter of empty looks, sometimes of the appearance of despair, of purposelessness. The manner is close to hyperrealism, but the absence of any background against or from which the posture of the person may gain any meaning is a remarkable way to express dereliction. The work of Sinan Demirtas powerfully expresses condition of the human psyche at a loss, and from this perspective the contrast between the banality of the teasing of a snail on the one hand, as experienced by most children, and the sheer concentration which appears to be involved, rather than the innocent joy you would expect, conveys and idea of misdirection of attention. The idea that man is concentrating on trifle rather than what matters. Perhaps out of a choice of being alone, or the inability of being together : in many of Sinan Demirtaş’s drawings, the person is alone, abandoned in front of herself. In the same exhibition, one could point at the drawings of Ayşe Benzemiş where a similar form of abandonment is conveyed, though in a much more classical manner. Ismet Doğan captures the emptiness of the self with this image of an attractive girl seemingly contemplating her own beauty in a mirror where she only meets the face of ever-changing by-passers reflected in a small circular mirror which replaces the reflection of her own face. A mirror in the mirror, is this not the abolition of being and the metaphor of life in the arms of Facebook ?

The second example, of a very different nature, is Transformation by Mustafa Yüce. This pastel on emery paper, also of large dimensions (135 x 200cm), represents a naked young woman curled up in some kind of mud, but with a clean face and hair.

Mustafa Yuce

Mustafa Yüce, who was born in 1978 and educated at the Uludağ School of Fine Arts, has achieved a degree of notoriety with his large drawings or portraits in what is also a hyper-realistic vein, which he calls himself photorealism. After working as an art teacher for a number of years, he started a new, or rather additional, life as an artist under the impulse of political events and human miseries in the Middle East. He made in particular a series of portraits of Syrian refugees which are quite striking in their humanity, and all the more striking as the expressions of their faces reveal how events change people, leave their mark on the human soul, without any need to laboriously explain the hows and whys which are probably beyond the knowledge of the artist, and would be much weaker than the furrows left by life on the faces themselves. Transformation is different. Here we are faced with an image which irrepressibly conveys the memory of the words of Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God, where we are reminded of the Bronze Age myth: “the ground, the dust out of which the punished couple has been taken was, of course, the goddess Earth, deprived of her anthropomorphic features, yet retaining in her elemental aspect her function of furnishing the substance into which the new spouse, Yahweh, had breathed the breath of her children’s life. And they were to return to her, not to the father, in death. Like the Titans of the older faith, Adam and Eve were thus the children of the mother-goddess Earth. They had been one at first, as Adam; then split in two, as Adam and Eve… “The man”, we read, “called his wife’s name Eve because she was the mother of all living”… and Adam. Therefore, must have been her son as well as spouse: for the legend of the rib is clearly a patriarchal inversion of the earlier myth of the hero born from the goddess Earth, who returns to her to be reborn”. So perhaps, indeed, this is the face of Goddess Earth. We have been witnessing for a number of years now, both under the pressure of environmental challenges and of the waning of the patriarchal order, a veiled, symbolic return to the most ancient Bronze Age mythologies born precisely in the region where modern Turkey is located. This is quite another discussion, but here is all the same a powerful work that induces the mind to further travels.

Last perhaps, so as not to weary the reader, let us have a look at the work of Rasim Aksan, the youngest of the three as he was born in 1984. Here again the rendering is that of a hyper-realistic, pseudo-photographic image. The theme is, as often with Rasim Aksan, of exacerbated eroticism, although the works at Pilevneli do not represent the most boiling examples thereof. These works, which are acrylic airbrush and aquarelle on paper, are treated in this particular case as miniatures. Eroticism is the stuff of everything : publicity, innumerable internet sites, the way people project their own image on social media. One who does not attract desire, or arouse jealousy, only half exists, in perfect contradiction with the mainstream ideology of equal dignity of all, ugly and beautiful, elegant and vulgar, clever and thick, successful and failed. Of course the body of sublime women, or the flowers and fruits which are a metonymy of their sex, inevitably convene the evidence of the irresistible – or hardly resistible – power of desire. If these were mere photographs, they would be dismissed as the stuff of long-outdated Playboy magazine. This is certainly not the most fascinating examples of Mr Aksan’s work, as it was considerably more powerful visually when working on large scale details. But the fact that these are indeed paintings transforms them into questions. Questions about global connectivity and the shaping of the self: if everyone can now permanently watch everyone else through social media, shared selfies and the rest, but without really interacting with anybody in particular, how do we deal with our own image, which actually becomes our own self ? Can we tolerate a disconnect between the actual person and her image, and how do we need to act on our bodies to manage this self-to-image relationship ? Questions about justice: how do we live with ugliness, whether physical or of social condition ?  Questions about beauty, which from a glimpse of Harmony becomes a tool for success and self-healing. Questions about the fusion between person and product, as suggested by images which are close to those posted by call-girls.

In 2014, Mr. Aksan had a show at Galerist called “Narcissus”, exploring the – now unescapable – theme of selfies through the unexpected means of portraits of sheep and other animals, in addition to selfie-like images. One could contend that the title was mistaken if it were to be understood as being content with oneself. People do not multiply selfies out of that kind of narcissism, certainly not to that universal extent: they do so in order to exist. In the original myth which we know from Ovid, Narcissus is despaired for not being able either to experience or to express love, although he longs for it (otherwise there would be nothing to the myth…), which is why he turns to his own image, one which does not escape but at the same time which cannot be reached as another person with which to become one. He loves the unity – or godliness – in his own image, but that unity can only be attained through the hard path of duality. One assumes that we are being told about the despair which looms in this quest, rather than the banal spectacle of vanity.

As a addition to this comment, one could turn in the same exhibition at the Pilevneli to the drawings of Gözde Baykara; we see a series of young girls in what is mixture of innocent and provocative postures, staring straight at the onlooker. Innocence is a tool for provocation, and provocation partly excused by innocence. Although the work definitely lacks power and maturity, it also tells a story of an attempt to exist in the most obvious place for doing so, which is in the eye of anonymous and invisible other that watches from a myriad of places, but is never actually there.

As a complement to the above, one can get acquainted here-below with the works of Engin Konuklu, Tunca, Ardan Özmenoğlu, Uğur Güler, Siya Fatih Gürbüz, Cem Sahin Kemal Önsoy, and Banu Anka, to name but a few (respectively from left to right and top to bottom).

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