ISTANBUL — At times it is easy to believe that we’ve lost the world — not the Earth, which we will have to live on until our resources run out, but rather the human world, that space that separates us from each other into an arena of plurality where a dialogue is heard and a persona is seen. Without this space, we fold into the loneliness of isolation, being pressed too close to one another to adequately articulate our individuality. At present in Istanbul — faced with the Syrian crisis, the ongoing silent war in the Kurdish east, and the political maneuvering of the ruling party-state — this feeling is omnipresent, often coupled with a sense of irrevocable doom before which we stand powerless. Throughout 2015, contemporary art exhibitions have referenced this current state, from the military dictatorship in the 1980s to the construction of a new Bosporus bridge, from domestic violence to the Kurdish question.
Once the world has been lost — in politics this is always identified with the outbreak of war, but there are other versions of loss too, such as metaphysical and moral disintegration, financial dissolution, or a natural disaster — what becomes urgent is not the reestablishment of the old structure but the building of a new one, as if the world is a palimpsest that becomes increasingly unreadable in every generation. But what is the source of this new world we seek? Where does this need for novelty come from? The group exhibition Grace of Another World, inspired by the late Turkish philosopher Ulus Baker’s seminars on art and desire, sets out to investigate whether it is possible to construct a new world from within this one, beyond the constraints of political history. From Baker, curator Nihan Çetinkaya draws an interest in the writing of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, particularly his idea that water is a medium that can distinguish movement itself from that which is moving.
This reference in Deleuze seems abstract, particularly because it comes from a discussion about cinema, but Baker explains it as a model for otherness or heterogeneity, or the grace inherent to being from another world, as if in the movement through water, bodies discover a subjectivity that operates beyond the medium — and the medium of life is always the whole world. To speak of this exhibition in terms of one artwork or another seems to be the wrong approach for a show that is simultaneously artistic, curatorial, and theoretical, for, as the curator explains, the works were not selected but almost conjured up together by the group through a surprisingly close dialogue, searching for junctions of empathy and togetherness that blurred the line between the individual and the collective at the moment of developing the show’s internal configuration — even if the works ultimately acquire a life of their own outside this context.
Central to the exhibition is an untitled video work by Eda Gecikmez, who is otherwise mostly a figurative painter, bringing to life Deleuze’s water concept so that in each of two channels, the viewer gets a glimpse of a totality, or what it means to see not as a subject but as a force or element. This work lays the first ground, then is augmented by the introduction of grace in the rest of the works not as an abstract quality, or a substance, or a divine attribute, but closer to the definition used by early theologians: a generous gift, a favor, a form of power that requires a degree of collectiveness. The photograph by Emrah Altınok, “Now Put Your Gender Down” (2015), opens the show with a certain ambiguity about identity, or the freedom to exist simultaneously in different places and with different identities, also referencing the realities of gender and domestic violence in Turkey.
Yağız Özgen’s abstract painting “Landscape” (2015), a real rarity in Turkish art, is an investigation into the possibilities of translation, moving between languages or between worlds, constructing one reality using the raw materials of another. Using computer software, the artist obtains different color palettes belonging to online documents on art and then re-arranges them into figurations. The field of representation here is virtual and speculative, but the represented objects are tentatively real. Given the subject-object relationship with the image, who is being seen and who sees what? Perhaps the gaze of the image is directed at us and we are the seen or reflected object.
The kinetic images in Serra Behar’s “Can You See Us” (2015) are also significant to the show. These X-rays from different individuals installed in framed light boxes speak about the embodied reality of a common world and the equality that exists between people in times of illness and pain — or the loss of the subjective world.
The cabinet of curiosities in Güneş Çınar’s “Conversation” (2015) is the result of a creative collaboration with the show’s curator, turning to classical figurative sculpture as the material of archival and historical research, and then looking at the politics of the natural museum, the history of Orientalist exhibitions, and the modern dichotomy between science and nature. The 35mm slides of Yavuz Erkan, in “Ateloprosopia” (2015), with its semantic reference to a congenital malformation of the face, is perhaps the most curatorial work in the exhibition, providing a minuscule window into the creative act of seeing and interpreting images as a part of an extended concept of art, yet reminding the viewer of the impossible, utterly unreachable other world.
While the exhibition is not too seamless, and not all the works are of the same quality, there is a moving curatorial elegance about it all, not solely from an aesthetic point of view. The grace that Çetinkaya and her artists are attempting to grasp has its origins in the turbulent political history of Turkey.
As Deleuze writes, “What we most lack is a belief in the world. We’ve quite lost the world; it’s been taken from us. If you believe in the world, you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control; you engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume.” The belief in the world at the heart of art’s potency — that ultimately art wants to remain in the world long after we are gone — means a vote of confidence in the human but utterly unpredictable promise of truth, not as the end result of scientific investigation, but rather as the founding principle of all human knowledge. Being too young to be nostalgic about the old Turkey, the artists in this exhibition do not carry the burdens of either the radical pessimism or the utopian idealism of the previous generation, who were bound to modernist Western convention and defined by the bitter politics of Turkish secularism. While these young artists are not optimistic, their political realism is quite sober and skeptical.
Turning to the bigger goals of life — empathy, happiness, trust — that were always at the heart of earlier art and philosophy is always an enormous challenge for artists witnessing the constant grief of the here and now, always universally framed by the present moment, especially in one so violent as our own. Nevertheless, it is those bigger questions that differentiate a passive lamentation from an active process of mourning, fixed on the horizon of the future, thinking of the past as a temporary structure to be demolished, rather than as a point of origin, unavoidable and indestructible. The belief in another world articulated within this world, to which the grace in this exhibition refers, is the equivalent of a belief in the future from the perspective of us being the future, being able to imagine a different economic model, a different political history, and a different order of representation. Deleuze concludes: “It is possible that the problem now concerns the one who believes in the world, and not even in the existence of the world but in its possibilities of movements and intensities, so as once again to give birth to new modes of existence.”
Grace of Another World continues at artSümer (Mumhane Cad. No:67, Karaköy, Istanbul) through December 19.
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