LOS ANGELES — I walked into To Thread Air, a solo exhibition by artist Hande Sever at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive running through March 11, to catch a video depicting an older gentleman painting a horse eating grass in an idyllic landscape. The painting is nothing too remarkable, but the man, I would soon learn, is: He is Kenan Evren, Turkey’s seventh president, who came to power in 1980 by means of a military coup that quashed leftist movements at the time. And Evren, Sever explains, was simultaneously engaging in an equine painting tradition associated with militarism, while also softening his image.
To Thread Air is a pithy, powerful exhibition that juxtaposes footage of Sever with US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — the former who came to power through film and acting and the latter who began painting after stepping down from power. The power of art and media to project, modify, and erase history lies at the heart of the installation, which consists of a video and a dozen photos.
Sever worked with found footage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and starts her film with Evren receiving a legion of merit from President Reagan. The US leader praises Evren for bringing democracy to Turkey. A TIME cover declares that Mr. Evren was “Holding Turkey Together,” while black-and-white footage of the coup plays in the background.
The film soon transitions to footage of Reagan’s own cinematic career, including This is the Army (1943), in which Reagan plays Johnny Jones, the son of a World War I veteran who in turn enlists in the army after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both Johnny and his father, Jerry, enjoy dancing and go on tour in military-themed musicals. Both have love stories that are interrupted by deployment to their respective wars.
The film, Sever tells us, is produced by the Army’s Motion Picture Unit. In a clip she splices in from one documentary about the unit, a narrator declares that its art department “is a perfect example of how the arts of peace are transformed into the arts of war.” Sever helps us see that entertainment, the military, and history intertwine both on screen and off, both in the US and Turkey. (Before serving as US President, she reminds us, Reagan himself was the first president of the Screen Actors Guild, a role in which he informed on suspected Communists.)
Alongside the video, viewers can see Sever’s photos from across Turkey, where Evren’s government removed public works developed by leftist artists and revolutionaries. Some of the works are still missing. Others, like Ethiopian-Turkish artist Kuzgun Acar’s public sculpture, “Kuşlar (Birds)” (1967), were taken down but then restored.
The frames for the photos are the same size as Evren’s coup declaration document, long, skinny, and made of walnut. The material invokes “Ceviz Ağacı (Walnut Tree),” sung by Armenian-Turkish Anatolian Folk singer Cem Karaca and based on a poem of the same name by Nâzım Hikmet Ran.
Some lines from the poem, translated by Kaya Genç, continue to resonate today:
My leaves are my eyes, I look in amazement
I watch you with one hundred thousand eyes, I watch Istanbul
Like one hundred thousand hearts, beat, beat my leaves
I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park
neither you are aware of this, nor the police.
Drawing material from a presidential archive and installed in an artist archive in Los Angeles, Sever’s work is surrounded by thousands of pieces of paper at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, which is focused on contemporary artmaking. These pieces of paper were made from trees with one hundred thousand eyes and produced by artists and writers with one hundred thousand hearts.
To Thread Air, I realize, is as much an exploration of the role of the arts in state power as of the role of archives in offering resources for re-evaluating and re-exploring dominant narratives. In Hikmet’s poem, the trees never forget, and, in Sever’s rendering, neither do the people.
To Thread Air continues through March 11 at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (709 North Hill Street, Suite 104-8, Chinatown, Los Angeles). The exhibition was curated by the organization in collaboration with the artist.