Exploring Turkey’s Political Crises Through Symbols of Byzantine Supremacy

Viron Erol Vert’s exhibition at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien questions political, historical, and cultural paradigms and the role of power in them.

Viron Erol Vert, “Long Live Your Balls” (2017) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BERLIN — Born in the Purple, currently on view at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, is an exhibition by Berlin and Istanbul–based artist Viron Erol Vert. The show unfolds through many different rooms, creating a bizarre ambiance reminiscent of a family home where patterns, everyday objects, photographs, books, and melodies are collaged into large-scale installations. Shoes must be taken off before entering the first room, where viewers walk through carpeted floors and Turkish rugs lit by shiny, ostentatious chandeliers, while fragments of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” emanate from another room.

Born in the Purple, installation view

Vert’s interdisciplinary work questions political, historical, and cultural paradigms and the intrinsic role of power in these structures. The pieces evoke a nostalgic, intimate atmosphere charged with humor, while also evidencing a fragile process of cross-cultural identity. The artist’s eccentric mix of ancestral roots (Levantine, Greek-Orthodox, Armenian, Arab, and Sephardi) is key to the aesthetic and conceptual framework of the exhibition. The use of purple in lighting, drapes, and carpets references the luxurious hegemonic status and ruling class of the Byzantine Empire, when purple dye, obtained from sea snails, was extremely expensive to produce. These longtime traditional elements shape culture and thinking, setting up the following inquiries: How are Istanbul’s ancient supremacy paradigms relevant to recent history and culture? And how are these driving forces shaping current political and existential crises?

Viron Erol Vert, “An Armenian in the Kitchen, a Greek in Bed” (2017)

The phrase “born in the purple” is the literal translation of the Greek word Porphyrogennetos, an honorific title from the Byzantine Empire that was given to the emperor’s son or daughter, who was born in a special chamber called a Porphyra. As part of the exhibition, Vert encourages guests to join The Polyphora Club, a discursive, open space within a room that is the largest installation in the show. The Polyphora Club invites international thinkers, artists, curators, and researchers — like Turkish activist and writer Defne Koryürek, Doctor of European Ethnology Dr. Jonas Tinius, and New York–based artist, curator, and critic Mohammad Salemy — to share and discuss urgent political and philosophical questions that are not only relevant to Turkish sociopolitical complexities, but have become global to the point of complete abstraction and intricacy. Lectures, conversations, symposia, video screenings, and open conversations take place once or twice a week, and during these events, delicious Turkish food is shared. Presented by Australian, Berlin-based cook and artist Denise Palma Ferrante, these traditional Istanbulian recipes extend the theme of the show into the culinary sphere, reflecting Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences.

“The Polphyra Club” during Mohammad Salemy’s symposium
“The Polphyra Club” during Mohammad Salemy’s symposium

The artist’s interest in mythological content is an engaging element in his work, revealing the fluid interaction between an individual’s subjective construction of identity and the construction of history as an “official” narrative. Myth is explored through a contemporary perspective, comprehended as the foundation for social dynamics and subconscious thought processes. For instance, in “Long Live Your Balls” (2017), an installation using two different rooms at the end of the hallway, lead sculptures and neon lights are put together, while a poster portrays a blown-up image of an eye gradually shutting, frame by frame. The image of the open eye, installed in one of the rooms at a high-altitude, descends to the floor, then rises into the following room when the eye is finally closed. The interplay of mediums functions as a dialectical disclosure of today’s multicultural societies in the Middle East and Europe, using the rhetoric of propaganda alongside classical and contemporary art media. The works on view become an active, ontological theater where layers of content — archeology, history, memory, family — evolve into a fragile, uncertain arena that is neither in the realms of poetics nor politics.

“Porphyrogennetos” (2017), an abstract video animation with psychedelic forms descending, growing, and moving, is the piece accompanied by Nina Simone’s voice. The video discloses a phenomenological space, perhaps an alternating reality — similar to the space of dreams — that invites the viewer to detach from the geopolitical, cultural paradigms where ideological power structures reign.

The long-explored connection between the poetic and the political is developed and expanded in Born in the Purple. Yet a sense of absence, a missing part, is always present in Vert’s work. This lack of completeness may be the driving force behind his subjective construction (or deconstruction) of identity, which is never fully understood.

Viron Erol Vert, “How Nice the Gladioli Are” (2017)
In “The Polphyra Club”

Born in the Purple continues at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien (Mariannenplatz 2, 10997, Berlin ) through August 27.

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