Contemporary Turkish Artists: Performing Culture and Identity

Photo of Culture Trip
29 February 2016

Turkey has recently emerged as a modern arts hub, with the success of both the Istanbul Biennial and the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art; several contemporary artists from Turkey have attained international prominence. With new contemporary galleries and artists’ spaces opening up regularly, particularly across Istanbul, opportunities for contemporary artists are on the rise.

Kutlug Ataman, Küba (2005) | © The Artist, Artangel

The burgeoning contemporary arts scene in Turkey is surprising for some, but welcomed by Turkish artists themselves in a region where opportunities were scarce for their predecessors, many of whom migrated across Europe and America to develop their artistic practice. With the added support of international exhibitions focused on Turkey, and spaces like the TANAS gallery in Berlin, which is dedicated to the representation of the country’s emerging contemporary artists, Turkish art is becoming widely represented both at home and abroad. Kutluğ Ataman, Banu Cennetoğlu and Nevin Aladağ are three artists whose international reputations are contributing to acclaim for Turkish contemporary arts, and their practices are linked by themes of identity, cultural division and performance.

Kutluğ Ataman

Kutluğ Ataman’s highly acclaimed films and video installations bring the viewer into close and intimate confrontations with the marginalised or excluded communities he represents. His socially and politically conscientious works offer an ethnographic perspective in both their content and their presentation. Ataman’s installations encourage reflection on issues such as identity, social division and memory, and the subjects of the work invite, and even demand the attention of the viewer.

Kutluğ Ataman, Beggars (2010) | © The Artist

In Küba (2005) Ataman shows 40 television sets housing filmic portraits of the residents of Küba (see installation image above). A shanty-town on the outskirts of Istanbul, it is home to a community of non-conformists who reject Turkey’s religious and state conventions, bound purely by their common displacement to these make-shift dwellings. Shown in various international exhibitions and settings, the residents cohesively move as a unit sharing the collective vocalised histories of an excluded community. Considered outcasts by most Turkish people but as ‘the rescued society’ by themselves, the viewers’ face-to-face confrontation with these individual storytellers challenges the conventional representation of marginalised populations.

This effect is also achieved in the silent slow-motion video installation Beggars (2010), in which the viewer is obliged to engage, albeit perhaps uncomfortably, with the expressions of the homeless. Rather than walk on by as they might typically do on the street, the life-size bodies on screen demand attention and expose the viewers usual avoidance of this interaction. Ataman is known to use some actors and imposed storylines within his works, but uncertainty as to which ones they might be leaves us questioning which is real and which fake, and true narrative from fiction. Ataman’s lack of distinction between real and fake histories in a way undermines his implied quest to archive and disseminate lost histories, but also calls into question the morality and authenticity of our everyday actions and how we remember.

Banu Cennetoğlu

Banu Cennetoğlu is also concerned with processes of recording; producing considered publications that highlight the scepticism towards public information sources and our everyday methods of classification. Cennetoğlu’s educational background is in psychology and photography, and both clearly inform her practice as she highlights how we consume imagery through selective news media and journalistic documentary photography.

Banu Cennetoğlu, Catalog (2009) | © The Artist, Artists Space

Reminiscent of anthropologist Mary Douglas’ influential analysis in Purity and Danger (1966) of how societies set up dichotomies between the pure and the impure; the clean and the unclean, Cennetoğlu’s work entitled Catalog (2009) parodies the organisation of our social and emotional lives into labelled categories. Catalog comprises 451 of the artist’s own photographs organised into 14 colour-coded yet ultimately abstract categories including Composition, Excursion, Caution, Love, Seizure and Act. It was presented at the 53rd Venice Biennial as a glossy look-book, a mail-order style catalogue from which viewers were invited to select images for free online download; a dimension to the work which draws attention to processes of selection in a world inundated by imagery. In the artist’s own words, ‘one’s likes and dislikes become part of the work. They have to act if they want a part of it’. The choices and desires of the viewer are almost more significant than the book itself; the artist becomes spectator as the viewer makes their choices, through an object that inspires reflection on the dissemination of information, and our own energy in collecting and organising it.

Nevin Aladağ

Nevin Aladag, Pattern Matching Blue, 2010 | © The Artist, Wentrup Gallery

Nevin Aladağ reflects upon the fabrication of cultural divides and practices of social performance, cleverly combining evocative materials in her sculptures and installation. Born in Van, Turkey in 1970, Aladağ’s emigration to Germany where she continues to live and work, has undoubtedly influenced her practice, as she becomes an observer of social behaviour as it relates to to cultural backgrounds. In her sculptural carpet works entitled Pattern Matching (2010) Aladağ combines the patterned emblems of oriental carpets with the layout of American basketball courts, creating an incongruous meeting of eastern and western cultures, and challenging their typified assumptions of each other. In Orientalism (1978) Edward Said addresses the ethnocentric perspective of the West towards Eastern countries and their cultures, especially in literature and art, an essentialism which is alluded to by Aladağ in a way which queries Said’s contemporary relevance. The display of Pattern Matching as wall hangings further accentuates the notion of the tourist’s gaze, in which the carpets are souvenirs brought from exotic destinations, displayed as decorative wares as if within the homes of their collectors.

Notions of cultural fabrication and display also feed into the installation Stage (2012), in which Aladağ’s material interventions in the gallery transform it into a theatrical space, inviting the viewer to invent and perform their own acts. Again, the choice of materials speaks to the artist’s conceptual aims. The colourful curtains are in fact metres of artificial hair, accenting artificiality within the everyday, our daily presentation as performance, and how the styles and roles we play in turn become the character by which we are identified. Aladağ’s work speaks comically but importantly about cultural classifications in contemporary society, a topic relevant to all three of these artists that also reflects upon their own identity as Turkish artists within an international, but still arguably a predominantly Western-centric, art world.

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