Art

From a Cave Church to a Fairy Tunnel, an Outdoor Exhibition Revels in Turkey’s Landscape

Ayse-Erkmen, "Prize" (2016) (photo by Murat Germen)
Ayşe Erkmen, “Prize” (2016) (all photos by Murat Germen)

CAPPADOCIA, Turkey — Set in the Gobi Desert, The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), by directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, follows — slowly, meticulously, and subtly — the life of a multigenerational Mongolian family during a period of camel colt births. It starts with the eldest man telling the mythology of the camel to the youngest in the tribe; he speaks of the animal’s importance, its beauty, and how essential it is to their lives. These people live a simple, isolated existence — their only interactions with the outside world is when they need necessities from a small village just a few hours’ camel ride away, or the superficial contact provided by the rare occasion that they turn on their small, old television.

Fittingly, the film played at Cappadox Festival, as part of curator Fulya Erdemci’s and associate curator Kevser Guler’s exhibition, Let Us Cultivate Our Garden. There is a kind of magical realism to the film — a feeling that mimics the experience of being in Cappadocia, Turkey, with its supernatural landscape and its many mythologies. Cappadocia, like this family’s plot of land, feels isolated and precious yet simultaneously occupied and commercialized. The family’s property has been overrun by the cameras turned on them during filming, and out-of-place electric cable wires now snake through their land. And, enveloped by the tourism industry, Cappadocia has become separated from itself.

The irony, of course, is that we would never be able to see such places without these infiltrations, and because of economics and industrialization politics, the relationship between the tourist industry and Cappadocia’s natives is now symbiotic. As an observer of this film, a voyeur of these people, you are stuck being a hypocrite: No matter how you spin it, you are guilty of playing a role in a kind of Westernization regardless of how sincere or well-meaning you may be. It’s a feeling that reflects the feeling of being in Cappadocia. This awareness and the singular instinct to work both with and against this process, despite being part of it, is a central theme of Erdemci’s and Guler’s exhibition — one that is mindful of its place, its time, and its ironies while being generous enough to make the viewer feel less like an intruder and more like an admiring passerby or, in some cases, even a participant.

The exhibition’s title (also the theme of the festival this year) was taken from the last line in Voltaire’s Candide, which is spoken by a farmer in the book. This is apt, considering that before Cappadocia was a tourism-based economy, it was agricultural. It’s also appropriate because Candide is an Enlightenment tale about the search for a respite from Western disillusionment, one that ends in Istanbul (then called Constantinople). Let Us Cultivate Our Garden relies on the land, on what is there and what can be done with it ethically. And it is a respite from the increasingly urbanized Istanbul, where such expansive land is hard to come by, where public contemporary art is rare, and where art in general is under increasingly tight surveillance.

The exhibition is, in a sense, a continuation of Candide’s search, years later and much removed from Istanbul. It’s about false utopias, and about relationships — be they cultural, political, agricultural, religious, or commercial. Far from any white cube gallery and any contemporary Western art, it makes you question the moment when a special place becomes cheapened as a tourist destination, especially those associated with “fast tourism,” the kind of sightseeing that involves getting on a bus, getting off to see a site for an hour, then getting right back on the bus again. Erdemci wants us to be present, to look at the land of Cappadocia and its heritage, but also to disassociate from its preciousness and instead revel in its vitality. Really, this is what the entire festival was about: asking visitors to experience this ancient, beautiful place while also enjoying this contemporary moment, be it through art, music, or food.

Most of the works in the exhibition are installed in the landscape of the Red Valley (Kızılçukur Vadi), along what is typically a hiking or mountain biking trail (though there are also works in several other locations, including stops in the town of Avanos, pieces in Uçhisar Square, and an installation and performance ground at the Red Valley Plateaus, which was also one of the concert venues for the festival). The first piece to come into view on the trail is Ayşe Erkmen’s “Prize” (2016), a ring piercing through the man-made opening of a fairy chimney. It’s large, geometric, red, and impossible to miss. It brings your attention to just one fairy chimney, a natural formation characteristic of the region — porous rocks jutting from the arid ground that were carved out and made into homes by generations dating back to before Christ, and even up until the 1980s. Erkmen’s gesture of focusing on one fairy chimney makes the viewer really look at and study this one among the masses. You realize that it has been split in half, and what was most likely once a door now leads to openness, a fact that allows for Erkmen’s ring to pierce through it with no environmental effect. The land is of course beautiful without the installation, but with it, the infinitude of the beauty is brought into focus: how vast it is and how each individual fairy chimney has a story and a history unknown to us.

Maider Lopez, yelow tile from "Zoom In" (2016) (click to enlarge)
Maider Lopez, yelow tile from “Zoom In” (2016) (click to enlarge)

Next there is Murat Şahinler and Fuat Şahinler’s “Breathing / Break” (2016), a circular installation placed under the earth. Operated by solar energy, the installation makes it appear as if the ground is actually breathing: an innocuous piece of earth moves slowly up and down as if the land itself is alive. You continue walking and come to a small painted ceramic tile placed on the ground, of a blue that exactly matches the beekeeper’s bee-house a short distance away. Next you see a deep purple tile that matches the tiny purple flowers blossoming around it, then a sandy pink one mimicking a few layers of the rock formation ahead of you. These tiles were produced by local ceramicists for Maider Lopez’s “Zoom In” (2016) — it’s a simple gesture to the area’s local artisans and to the land, to multilayered and bountiful effect.

Other pieces in the show likewise ask the viewer to inhabit and appreciate the land surrounding them, such as Emin Naci Akkuyu and Murat Taşçıoğlu’s “Floral Conversations” (2016) and Özge Önderoğlu Akkuyu’s “Flora Walks” (2016). Akkuyu’s guidebook Flora of Cappadocia was published in its second edition for the exhibition, and it identifies 223 plants in seven languages, including their uses (if any) and their flowering times, color-coded so that a viewer taking in the exhibit can easily learn about the flowers they are walking among. Akkuyu and Taşçıoğlu’s conversations focus on the healing nature of certain plants in the region and their history. Like watching the Mongolian family in Davaa and Falorni’s film, the exhibition as a whole demonstrates a lifestyle of appreciating what is in front of you, understanding the land and nature in a way that is far removed from the commercialism and urbanism of today.

Tomas Saraceno, "Aerocene" (2016)
Tomas Saraceno, “Aerocene Airport Cappadocia” (2016)

Similarly, there was Tomas Saraceno’s “Aerocene Airport Cappadocia” (2016), a project/performance that used air-fueled balloon-like sculptures that have the ability to rise into the sky using solar energy — a direct nod to the hot-air-balloon rides the area is famous for, as well as the environmental damage they cause. Murat Germen’s “Matrix #2: Living Culture Routes” (2016), with its Living Culture Perception Map, encouraged viewers to range even farther, to the lesser-known parts of Cappadocia: the map consisted of photos related to numbers along your path. Like the “Flora Walks,” and Lopez’s “Zoom In,” Germen asks the viewer to find the beauty in what is already there in a way that reverses the “fast tourism” generally associated with Cappadocia.

While many of the works in this show deal directly with the land and its contemporary commercial economy, Nilbar Gures, Hera Buyuktasciyan, and Asuncion Molinos Gordo’s installations speak more to the effect that today’s economy, society, and policy is having on the land and its histories and mythologies. Inside of three caves in the Red Valley, Gures created a dreamlike, talismanic wunderkammer with three installations. Each makes a statement about the religions of the region, specifically Bektashi culture, with its history and identity that is both ancient and ever-changing, and the ways in which it is both fragile and mobile, yet always reliant on nature. Taken together, the collection brings life to the land and its societal and cultural realities, acting as a narrative that uses subtle motifs and local materials and craftwork. The works themselves seem ready to move in an instant, much like the ideas and belief systems she speaks to. The tourist industry is so heavily reliant on the past that it often fetishizes, romanticizes, and whitewashes it. Gures wants us to question this — and, viewing her work, we do.

Nilbar Gures, installation shot
Nilbar Gures, installation view

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s “Freely you have received, freely give” (2016), looks like a just-discovered archeological site. The installation takes its grapevine motif from a nearby cave-church, and by putting the grapes metaphorically back into the earth, the piece is nodding to the rooted history of grapes and wine-making in the region’s religious culture and economy in both the past and the present, albeit less so today. By situating the ceramic work as an archeological dig, she is also commenting on how this vibrant viticulture is slowly transforming, maybe even disappearing, in the wake of other economies taking precedent. Where Büuüktaşçıyan questions how things have transformed in Cappadocia, Molinos Gordo, in her video installation in a tea house in Uçhisar Square (one of the other locations for the exhibition), looks at the actual political whys and hows of these changes. Her piece, a short film called “Purpose, Scope and Penalties” (2016) was made in the same teahouse in which it plays on a loop, a place where farmers typically come to talk about the harvest and other such rustic matters. The video shows farmers and researchers discussing the effect of Seed Law no. 5553, shedding light on how this law has effectively made it impossible for small farmers to profit off their own land, and how the government has economized and politicized seeds and nature. While this video is the most literal work in the show, it is also a metaphor for the way the exhibition battles with the commercialization of Cappadocia and champions the everyday person there, the farmer just trying to live off the land. Ultimately, the exhibition entreats us all to cultivate our gardens — despite the politics that seem to perpetually and unabashedly obstruct us.

Hera Buyuktasciyan, "Freely you have received, freely give" (2016)
Hera Buyuktasciyan, “Freely you have received, freely give” (2016)

The major arc of The Story of the Weeping Camel is the birth of one particular camel whose mother rejects it. Over the film, the family goes to great lengths and does every appropriate ritual to reverse the mother’s feelings and save the colt. Toward the end, soundtracked by an ancient ritualistic song and its accompanying music that brings the mother camel to tears, the baby comes to suckle and is embraced. Humans, animals, and nature create a majestic cinematic moment. But the film doesn’t end there: the final scene shows a boy watching the old television with fuzzy reception as his brother tries to adjust the huge satellite that sits beside, and dwarfs, their humble home. It seems that no matter how self-sufficient we can be, or how beautiful our land and our life is, the proverbial grass is always greener elsewhere. But what if we choose to cultivate our own garden instead?

Let Us Cultivate Our Garden took place at at Kızılçukur (Kızıl Vadi Plateaus, Uçhisar Square, Cappadocia, Turkey) from May 19–June 12.

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