DETROIT — The Sick Man of Europe, a project by artist Dor Guez, demonstrates the fundamental tension between individual and society. For issues to be big enough to garner notice, they must operate on the societal level — war, gun violence, political grandstanding, environmental catastrophe — but ultimately these struggles hold significance because of their impact on us as individuals. War would not be the tragedy that it is if it did not deprive people of their singular lives, or injure them in physical and physic ways so as to make them unrecognizable. One supposes that those who make decisions on the societal level must distance themselves a great deal from the human impact of their political imperatives.
The Sick Man of Europe — whose title is a phrase coined by Czar Nicholas II to describe the Ottoman Empire and its economic and cultural “weakness” in comparison to Europe, but has subsequently been assigned to nearly every country within the continent at one time or another — derives its power from breaking down the larger structures of war, country, and cultural identity into the emblematic and digestible personal narratives of real, individual citizens from the countries that once comprised the Ottoman Empire. Guez filters society through the lenses of five people. The first chapter, “The Painter,” about a painter-turned-soldier and Jewish Tunisian who immigrated to Israel, debuted at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in February. The second, “The Architect,” is marking the project’s American debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, organized by guest curator Chelsea Haines as part of the DEPE (Department of Education and Public Engagement) Space residency and exhibition series.
This segment focuses on the story of Kemal P., an architecture student who was recruited to the Turkish army immediately following graduation. While the “The Painter” centered largely on paintings created by the subject (also named D. Guez, but a completely different person from the current artist), the main feature of “The Architect” is a two-channel video featuring 13 of Kemal’s photographs from 1938–39, which include images from the Turkish Republic’s Victory Day Parade in Ankara and the funeral of the controversial, secularizing republic leader Kemal Ataturk, as well as more casual shots of Kemal’s friend Ahmed (there is a sense, though never stated explicitly, that Kemal and Ahmed were romantic partners).
The video is densely layered, juxtaposing dual visual and dual audial experiences. On the right-hand side are the photographic images, including those taken by both Kemal and Ahmed on a fall 1938 holiday together in Ankara, overlaid with subtitles and audio snippets from an interview that Guez conducted with Kemal a few years prior to debuting the piece. On the left side, the hands of an architecture student of roughly the same age as Kemal P. when he studied the field expertly draft renderings of the landmarks and parks where the photographs were taken. The rhythmic scratch of the pencil underscores Kemal’s narrative, with segues between images often punctuated by the tearing loose of the current sketch to make way for the next.
The verbal narrative presents historical lore and factoids, recollections of celebrations and funerals, and personal associations as whole cloth, showing Kemal’s sense of identity as inextricable from those of his country and his longtime compatriot. This is an interconnectedness that cuts both ways, as a nation is truly nothing without its people, yet that intimacy carries a great potential cost: that which we hold closest to us is able to inflict the greatest sense of loss. As an example, Ataturk led the Turkish National Movement and was victorious in the Turkish War of Independence; through military service in this conflict, Kemal gained a national identity even as he lost his connection to himself as an architect.
Loss seems to be one of the overriding themes in the Sick Man work to date. Both Kemal P. and the painter from the first chapter find their artistic practices extinguished following their conscription into the military. Kemal’s story incorporates the death of Ataturk and closes with the loss of Ahmed. Kemal speaks of photographs taken on the day of the funeral, shot blindly, but we are never shown these images, left equally blind. Outside the video gallery, vitrines display Kemal’s extensive collection of photographic portraits of Turkish soldiers, which he turned over to Guez before his death in 2012. Though his reasons for collecting these images are never made clear, it is startling to look at them and realize that each person carried with him the same depth of experience and memory as in Kemal’s story told in the video. Again, the social construct of “army” is broken down into its individual constituents.
“Kemal P.’s story reveals a gap between official narrative and personal memory, national identity and individual experience, ultimately undermining conventional narratives of masculine militarism and nation building in Turkey,” said Haines via email. “We’re especially happy to show this project in Detroit, a city where many people have had to come to terms with the complicated legacy of American modernity and nationalism, and may be able to connect to Kemal P.’s story on some level.”
The next chapter of The Sick Man, currently in progress, will focus on an Armenian composer and will be presented at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. In the meantime, a separate project which also leverages Guez’s interest in the intersection of art and archival practice, the Christian Palestinian Archive — “a growing collection of scans of archival documents from the first half of the 20th century, documenting the personal histories of the Christian Palestinian community worldwide” — will open at the James Gallery at CUNY on April 7, 2016. Just as some artists work with found objects, Guez seems captivated by found stories, and through a practice he calls “scanograms” scans, rescans, and analyzes the layers of images and documents to find ever-greater detail in those stories; he has applied the technique to reveal unseen details covered in the works of “The Painter” and to add fidelity to the blown-up images of certain soldier portraits in “The Architect.” Perhaps he senses that, in paying close attention, it may be possible to heal the “sick man” on both an individual and societal level — by finding that which has been lost to time or trauma and bringing it to the light.
Dor Guez: The Sick Man of Europe: The Architect continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Avenue) through January 3, 2016.