ISTANBUL — Insecurity appears today as the general condition of a world largely defined by an industry promoted as the sole provider of the apparent opposite: the security industries. Yet while the discourse on global insecurity often remains confined to the War on Terror (and its predecessors, like the War on Drugs) being fought in and around the Middle East, our current state of insecurity underlies the entire structure of reality as a place of interminable tensions and ongoing revolutions, always animated by wars that happen elsewhere, far away. From violent conflict based on ethnicity and religion, to the collapse of the financial system and the enormous inequalities of our cities, to the migration crisis, to the struggle of new democracies the world over, this state of crisis seems to have become permanent. A kind of eschatological nightmare seems to have taken over our imagination of the future, and it has become impossible to conceive of a world in which the common denominator isn’t interminable tension.
All of this is exacerbated and accelerated by the tireless 24-hour mass-media loop in which one tragedy after another floods the emotional lanes of the audience, only to be quickly replaced by even greater tragedies, risks, and collapsing borders — of countries, of bodies of water, of debt ceilings, of data capacity. Qualitatively speaking, what makes our present situation incomprehensible is not the quantity of bad news or conflict, but the fact that conflict has become a permanent condition, so that it’s no longer possible to say what’s happening at all — there’s just too much data to quantify. In this atmosphere of general insecurity, how can we grasp what’s going on? That was the question posed by curator Christiane Paul at the heart of What Lies Beneath, on view at Istanbul’s Borusan Contemporary, an exhibit that coincidentally opened at the end of the 2015 summer — one of the most convoluted periods in the history of modern Turkey, in the shadow of the Syrian crisis.
Consisting of three room-size installations on the second and fourth floors of the Perili Köşk building that is home to Borusan Holding and its contemporary art collection, the exhibition dwells on the idea that, on the one hand, the world is witnessing a moment of remarkable instability and conflict, yet on the other, the systems and forces behind this condition are at present too complex and diverse to understand, creating a pervasive feeling of insecurity and fear. What Lies Beneath, in the words of the exhibition catalog, “strives to capture an atmosphere of disconnected realities, increasing alienation and decaying trust that results from factors that often lie beneath the surface of the visible.” Last fall, the global art elite descended upon Istanbul for the 14th Istanbul Biennial and its collateral events — at the same time that the bodies of drowned Syrian children washed ashore in Turkey and a truck was found near Vienna containing bodies of unidentified migrants. According to Paul, although this exhibition had been concocted long before, those developments changed the show and reframed it, yet at the same time, these events can be subsumed under the exhibition’s major themes.
Two of the installations are by Michal Rovner and Krzysztof Wodiczko, each dealing with migration and demographic movement, so it might have been possible to read those works, and the exhibition as a whole, in terms of the current Syrian crisis. But both pieces occupy a larger temporal framework, preceding the urgency of migratory movements today by half a decade and alluding more to a global situation of porous high-tech borders that have been in place since the 1990s. As the borders between countries in the Middle East are broken up and the entire region is re-ordered, it is a rarity to be able to see the work of someone like Rovner, an Israeli artist, shown in Turkey — crossing invisible borders now thicker than concrete walls.
Krzysztof Wodiczko’s installation, “Guests” (2009), which opens with the Hannah Arendt quote, “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples,” had previously been on display in the Polish pavilion at the 53th Venice Biennale. The piece features interview-like conversations with migrants from different parts of the postcolonial world who are currently living and working in either Italy or Poland. The migrants can be heard and only vaguely seen through a blurred window; they engage in conversations or go about their menial jobs but remain far away — silhouettes at best. Here Wodiczko is questioning what is being discussed and challenged today in Europe: the visibility of migrants, or, in other words, the Europe of strangers, of the “other.”
The conversation is sometimes a solitary monologue without an audience. Where is the “other” located here? In the political configuration of reality, when the “other” is too far away to be seen, he becomes a foreign entity even to himself. At the receiving end, this invisibility, extinction, extermination, and disappearance ultimately becomes a form of identity: an identity outside the concreteness of civic and political rights, a spectral substance progressively fading out. This is a reality that is not exclusive to the countless Syrian migrants crossing from Turkey into Europe, but one that has many historical precedents, including Polish migrants in Western Europe, South Asian labor in the Gulf, and many migrant communities in the United States.
On a more abstract plane, we have Rovner’s “Broken Time” (2009), a huge found stone resembling a decaying ancient clock that is cracked in the middle and has a video projected on its surface. This work addresses themes far larger than Wodiczko’s, engaging with the internal structure of time, the role of historicity in human narratives, and the ways our present condition is affected by changes in theoretical models of time, brought about in science and philosophy by the onset of war, in an attempt to make sense of temporal interruptions or historical gaps. On another level, in this and the other two of Rovner’s pieces — both untitled panoramas shown on LCD screens — the work could be read as a tale about migration, with small human figures undulating in different directions, returning, getting lost, and then merging back into one another. Are they crossing a mountain or the sea? Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they are not drawn but rather projected from a video in which different human figures walking forward are depicted through repetition of the sequence, as if their final destination could never be reached. In these works, Rovner proposes an analytical model to survey the process of civilization as an irregular cycle of simultaneous beginnings and ends, rather than the linear model of progress proposed by earlier thinkers. Despite the weight of the stone, time itself remains this installation’s most tangible material, one accumulated through centuries and that at times breaks piecemeal, reorganizing all past history accordingly. “Broken times” are always periods of convoluted activity, of revolution, of transitions between religion and culture, but the question remains: how do we place ourselves inside this temporal rupture and live in it without losing the constitution of reality that allows us to move through a world rich in contradictions?
The final piece in the exhibit, Swiss artist Zimoun’s work in motion, “240 prepared dc-motors, cardboard boxes 60 x 60 x 20 cm” (2013), is a sculptural land- and soundscape of cardboard boxes evoking the heterogeneity, both architectural and social, of modern cities, with slow and erratic movements within a closed mechanical system. The arrangement of the boxes hints at equilibrium and balance, but also to the unpredictability of systems and the inability to discern, from mere observation, the different forces that drive them from beneath. What are the true structures of power that animate the confusion of the contemporary moment? The intersection between politics, demographic shifts, the global economy, and the myriad conflicts we are currently witnessing is nowhere self-evident today, yet it remains part of a human experience so borderline and overwhelming that it becomes difficult to grasp the source of authority and the target of domination, blurring the lines between private life and the public domain and creating the viscous substance of abstract space: mega-cities, the internet, revolution without aim, and economies without borders.
The broken time Rovner alludes to — which encompasses the sleepless and seamless time zone of the internet, the 24-hour supermarkets and airports, and the disciplined constancy and deadly accuracy of modern warfare — is not simply an event but a general cultural condition. Is it perhaps part of a preexisting condition of humanity? Paul relayed to in an interview with Hyperallergic that it is imperative to leave the realm of literal associations that link the current migrant crisis and the Syrian war with this exhibition, to see how art is still undervalued as an autonomous form of knowledge that is inherently different from others, such as science, politics, or belief. None of the questions Paul proposes in this exhibition are given clear answers, but many rich nuances remain open-ended, enabling the viewer to adopt different positions simultaneously, to see what lies both beneath and above. Referring to the disconnected realities that make up the tissue of the here-and-now, Paul writes in the exhibition catalogue: “Realities — as totalities of things possessing actuality, existence or essence — appear to be both situated and timeless.”
What Lies Beneath continues at Borusan Contemporary (Balta Limanı Hisar Cd. No: 5, 34470 Sarıyer, Turkey) through February 21.
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