Essays

Remembering the Light in Dark Times: Dispatches from the Turkish Art World

Conversations with artists reveal a dark mood, and everyone is focused on one topic: When to leave? Where to go? What to do in the meantime?

Morning in Yenikoy, North Istanbul (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The works of Bilge Friedlaender, in her exhibit Words, Numbers, Lines, currently on view at Istanbul’s ARTER, perfectly summarized the state of affairs in the city right now. There’s nothing you perceive as strange or changed on the paper, but upon closer inspection, you can spot a smooth and fragile line — not the straight line of a pen, but something like a crack — and then the cracks become a gaping wound that swallows an entire surface. It’s not chaos, but the atomization of life: Particles become separated from their larger structures to the point that they no longer understand their role in reality. There are endless articles in the media from the past year that detail the gravity of the situation in Turkey and make dark forecasts for the future. One would think it would be impossible to ignore this reality on the ground, but that isn’t necessarily so.

Bilge Friedlaender, “Words, Numbers, Lines,” installation view at ARTER

There’s still the unchanged flow of life here — admittedly slower, but always thrilling and inviting. Regardless of the circumstances, a stroll through the center of the city or along the waterfront makes you feel that life will go on. Yet, as a curator at one of the city’s institutions wrote me in an email:

That’s the thing — all appears normal and feels pretty sane. Things still change slowly for Istanbul (although rapidly in the bigger scheme of things) and places and people disappear with little response. Only major events or the unfolding changes: the sudden realization that you can’t visit a favorite restaurant for lunch as it’s now closed, the spiraling lira, the friends you want to call but who are no longer there, and maybe the clearly different but at the same time intriguing changes in local demographics are the knee-jerking experiences that remind one that things are in decline.

But the picture pieced together from far away is much bleaker. Rapid winds of change are rippling through a country that has been left without a master plan.

And things haven’t looked great this past year for the Turkish art world. There’s a list of censorship cases, canceled exhibitions, threats to and dismissal of academics, tightening press freedoms, gallery openings attacked because of alcohol, prosecution of artists, and, as the highlight of the season, the assassination of the Russian ambassador at a gallery opening in Ankara. For many in Istanbul, these events are something of a novelty since the Gezi Park protests, but Kurdish colleagues describe these sorts of things unflinchingly as having been daily realities of life in the east of the country for many years. It would be a falsification of history to say that these sorts of difficulties are new; they are just the culmination of a long learning curve in this country that ends in decay. So it goes with the new Turkey that we fell in love with, filled with the precariousness of a new place pregnant with possibilities. Now you can feel in the air that the windows of opportunity are closing.

News of the January 1 terror attack at a Turkish nightclub

During the last Istanbul Biennial, in 2015, I got on the ferry to the island of Büyükada to see Ed Atkins’s “Hisser,” which recounted the last 30 minutes in the life of a Florida man whose house fell into a sinkhole while he slept, at the end of which the room in the film begins to collapse, physically shaking the derelict palace where it was being presented. At the time, I saw it as a metaphor for the political disintegration going on in the country, which for me still fell within the sphere of politics. But what is a stake in Turkey today is not politics in any general manner; it’s a delusion that, under the banner of religion, is swallowing up the whole of reality. This is widely understood. Conversations with artists reveal a dark mood, and everyone across the class spectrum is focused on one topic: When to leave? Where to go? How to get a visa? What to do in the meantime? At many gatherings, temporary joy at the dinner table is often interrupted by tragedy, as it was on New Year’s Eve when a gunman entered a nightclub and killed 39 people.

Board member Sheldon La Pierre addressing the audience at the Protocinema dinner

There’s not so much that art can do in this situation other than engaging in straight truth-telling, something that feels particularly subversive at the moment. Yet the highly political art of the past now feels shy and bland compared to the theater of daily life. It is as if a whole new language has become necessary in order to talk about this. What kind of condition are we being thrown into? There’s no political jargon yet for this combination of hyper-capitalism, mass media, repression, delirium, and violence. At the five-year anniversary dinner of Protocinema, the itinerant American-Turkish non-profit, there was a cheerful mood of old friends getting together, and many words of encouragement could be heard, but in between the clinking glasses, so could conversations about the arrest of journalist Ahmet Sik over tweets and fears about whether or not to remain on social media. A couple of days a later, a young artist who asked to remain nameless (nobody wants to be quoted at this point) commented to me about the renewed intimidation of already nervous minorities in the country.

But is it really possible to speak of the future (and art) only from a position of powerlessness? Perhaps it was in fact that fundamental powerlessness that initially drove us to art, to big cities, to larger worlds in which we could become ourselves. It seems as if adopting such a position would mean accepting the facts created by the world as eternal and unchangeable, and, in turn, becoming employed by reality — the opposite of what art does. It is not possible to write the whole history of a complex territory like Istanbul through the lens of a rather short period (one of democratization and eventual fallout), and so that a different Istanbul might eventually emerge from the collapse of the current comatose structure. But it’s hard to make any predictions right now. The situation in Turkey isn’t isolated; it’s part of a fault line of major historical events throughout the world that are causing humanism and humanity to crack under the pressure of capital and fantasy.

Back at home in Moscow, I was discussing the situation in Istanbul with a young Russian journalist. He summarized the current mood by saying, “I think that our lives are just getting harder and harder,” and this made me think, in a moment of global disenchantment, about the work of Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, who passed away earlier this week. In a recent interview, Bauman said: “Liquid fear means fear flowing on our own court, not staying in one place and diffuse. And the trouble with liquid fear, unlike the concrete, specific danger which you know and are familiar with, is that you don’t know where from it will strike.” How can we view the future without becoming strangled by it, and what are we in a position to do now? Bauman continues: “So we have to exercise what is called empathy, but unfortunately there is no shortcut solution… Dialogue is a long, long process. Coming to an understanding takes some time — the whole generation or even more than one generation — so we have to brace ourselves for a very difficult time coming.”

Eminonu Port, Istanbul

Another recent conversation, this one  with Joana Hadjithomas, the artist whose work inspired me 10 years ago to leave philosophy and join the art world, began with a reminder: “You have to remember the light!” she told me, in reference to a recent work, depicting the state of flow in which we currently exist, as described by Bauman. It is perhaps in these moments of powerlessness, during which our capacity for action is hindered, that art must shy away from present images and we must turn to poetry. By “poetry,” I don’t mean seeking shelter in beautiful things — this is a tactic of the hopeless — but poetry as the constant repetition of human aspirations that shouldn’t be forgotten. As Hadjithomas remarked, we must repeat things from the past, even if we’ve heard them already, in order to keep our language alive and not be swallowed by the swamp. That’s nowhere close to the confidence and solidity necessary for building viable alternatives to these perilous present times, but as a part of solidarity, it can still safeguard, for now, the boundaries of our shared reality, which is something people badly need in places like Istanbul.

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