Issue 3/2015 - Fluchtpunkt Ethnografie
How would you make your ethnic origins speak through objects? And how can you make that speech look both natural and sophisticated as well as personal? Complicated problems taken as simple ones. The scene, I mean being represented in the main art scene, putting things on stage, in contemporary art, is sometimes understood as a closure for any debate. There is evidently no articulation problem on the stage. Whoever is visible is also audible and understood. Whoever becomes a part of the scene is a part of the sentence. Yet, there still is a phonological (phonemic) problem.
Why does ethnology work with stuttering artistic speech? Why letters are misplaced?
After 100 years passed since the Armenian genocide of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, what a heavy responsibilitiy it is to represent the Turkish pavilion as an ‚Armenian’ artist? It must have been extremely difficult for Sarkis, I believe, to speak with art in such a frame. The Pavilion of Turkey presented 'Respiro' by Sarkis at the 56th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the Pavilion of Turkey is curated by Defne Ayas and is located at Sale d’Armi, Arsenale, in the main venue of the biennale.
Susie Hodge seems like she is aiming to defend contemporary art in her Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That by trying to answer a common question, „could my five year old have done that?“ And for that purpose she ‚defends’ the works of Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and the like, as if the problem with contemporary art for its unbelivers lies in the childnessness of the art works. In fact, the question „could my five year old have done that?“ not only undermines modern/contemporary art, but it also undermines children. Because the saying mainly asserts that belief that modern/contemporary art works lack a person of genius and obvious skill and mastery. Therefore, it could have been done by anyone – even a five year old. If no talent is needed then there is no need for the artist as well – a child will do. We are not talented but you are not talented either – then what on earth makes you an artist, but not me and my five year old?
One answer could have been to say that maybe you are not talented and it was unfortunate that you were subjected to an art history where talent is overstressed; but in reality talented people are less rare then you think, and key artists of art history were not the only ‚chosen ones’. Rare talent is not that particular or that critical for an extraordinary art work to happen. And gifted children cannot be guaranteed to write a perfect novel, short history or poetry in any way.
Of course, art history and art museums are full of success stories and do not sufficiently represent relations, discussions, repetitions and failure. A good reply to this kind of representing art comes from fake painters. Art forgery shows that if it was legal to do so, there are many people out there who could draw and paint just like the masters. The history of painting is full of people who were less talented than certain figures of the art forgery scene. In all cases, what cannot be faked, still remains an intervention to the realm of art in a certain time and place. In short, a unique, matchless art work could not have been done by a five year old but can be done by many other people if they are allowed, and is actually done by many when possible – especially if they feel like they can sell it. The best function of art forgery is revealed when we are forced to question what we admire in art.
Talking about Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst says „He can't paint hands and he can't paint feet, but that's not going to stop him. That was a great thing to realise: that you don't have to have ability, instead you need belief.“ Referring to this quote, we can look at a modern/contemporary art work and say: „My Francis Bacon could have done that!“
That leads us to ask: what is art without the copyright? Without a signature? Without the story of the artist? A recent study of the Turkish art market says art works which are titled as ‚Untitled’ are sold at 30 % cheaper than art works that have definitive names and stories attached.
A book like Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That could well be about art forgery, fake classics in museums and what is the role of talent in the history of art.
Is There A Kurdish Contemporary Art?
We have been asking this question for so long, and have always believed that Kurdish contemporary art exists but it is constantly neglected. Then, I read a novel ( The Diary of Spinoza) by well-known Turkish-Kurdish artist Şener Özmen. A novel he first wrote in Kurdish and which has been translated into Turkish very recently. There, within the realm of the novel, the difference struck me. The Diary of Spinoza was speaking from a Kurdish voice to a Kurdish audience. The book was referring to a Kurdish identity across borders, to a nation mainly spread in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Özmen is one of the most prominent post-90's contemporary artists in Turkey and has been widely exhibited internationally. Yet, Özmen's (artistic) universe, his artistic discourse seemed so far away from his other, (literature) universe, and his literature discourse. For Şener Özmen the artist, İstanbul represents the center. He speaks to Istanbul from his home town, Diyarbakır. He also speaks to the Western art world, again from his home town, Diyarbakır. He reflects a voice that wants to be heard in the centre and originates from a genuine peripherical context. On the other hand, in his novel, he talks as a voice of general Kurdistan, again across borders, and speaks to Kurdish listeners in all four countries and abroad. Why does he feel so free to express himself in literature, one wonders, but not in contemporary art? Although nearly every actor in the contemporary art world is relatively liberal or even left wing, but many in the literature world in Turkey are still a bit nationalistic, it looks like it is easier to find your voice within the compounds of literature. One observation, could be that, Özmen seems svery stuck on the theme of recognition in his art works. He seems like he wants to get recognised, and has related problems and deals with these problems perfectly in the artistic sense and receives that recognition (which includes a recognition of his ethnical recognition difficulties). Recognition of all ethnicities leads to a personal recognition. As a result he has works where he shouts, even screams but cannot be heard. Or where he screams to his own ears. But in the novel, characters from four different countries do all speak in an after-recognition environment. And they are heard, they have daily problems to be articulated and challenged; the main protagonist – unlike the main voice in Özmen's art – does not stutter: he simply speaks and is heard and others react to him accordingly. Yes, this may be a sign of a newly emerging Kurdish bohemia once again, but this time with much greater self-esteem.
All of which makes me think, what could be the obstacles standing in front of such an ease in expressing your ethnic self, while you still receive all the recognition for your right to express it? After reading the novel, I felt like I understand more about Özmen's photograph series where he screams hopelessly and his video where he shouts and talks with anger while nothing is heard. This is what happens to him in art, now I understand – his inability to be heard is recognized and even embraced wholeheartly, while he still cannot articulate what he thinks and feels. For that, a novel is needed. In art, instead, he is encouraged to repeat himself, and underline his being unheard, again and again, until we are able to close the debate, by hearing and supporting his inability to be heard.
Which brings the discussion to the Armenian artist, in 2015, a hundred years after the genocide, trying to express an inability to express himself/herself in such a situation, who has to demand a recognition of a problem and a stance, and has to ask for his/her awareness and willingness to express. That much will be recognized in the art world for sure. And to stress the vigor in this, art needs resistance to provide recognition. In that sense, during the Venice Biennale, when the catalogue for Sarkis's work was found problematic by authorities for the word ‚genocide’ in it, it gave the art world somerelief and led to more pressure on the artist, Sarkis Zabunyan. A closure for such debates is commonly promoted in art – where you can easily fall into the trap of feeling like there is nothing to discuss any further, but there still remain things and people and facts to recognise. Can we call this attitude as being too professional and too mature even in times of scandal, pain, dilemma, struggle and despair? And how do artists resist?
What the Hell is an Amateur Poet?
Another exhibition, this time held in istanbul, at elhamra galery (Domates Bİber Patlican, curated by Zeynep Öz) included Side by Side, a conversational art work by the young Turkish artist Merve Ertufan about professionals and amateurs.
Side by Side brings together five professionals and five amateurs from ‚amateur disciplines’, disciplines where being a professional is not always consideredpraise. These were Visual Arts (photography), Culinary Arts (cooking), Sports (table tennis), Music (singing) and Literature (poetry). Listening to the podcasts online (https://yanyanaserisi.wordpress.com/) you hear a photographer and someone who takes photographs talking about photography, a cook and another person who just loves to cook talk about cooking, a professional young table tennis player and a rather older lover of playing table tennis in conversation about table tennis, a singer and someone who sings and lastly a poet and another person who writes poems. A discussion of recognition inevitably arises. Nearly everybody takes photographs today, nearly everybody cooks, many like to sing, and quite many have written poems at some stage – and when you see tennis table and are invited to play, many would think they can play – at least basically. Especially in poetry, there is no education or training requirements. What makes you a poet is recognition coming from other poets and literature figures.
What is an amateur poet? It is like asking „what is pornography“ – difficult to define but you 'recognise' when you see it. Amateur artists create art but it would be considered non-art at some level; amateur poet writes poetry but it is not poetry as such; I can play, but table tennis is definitely something else.
André Breton, during World War I, described some mental cases seen in soldiers as „people who are loyal to a flaw“. If I am writing poetry, but I am not a poet, this is a flaw that has to be explained, rationalized and legitimised. Amateurs represent an apologetic tone. If I continue to write poetry, although I never manage to become a poet, it means I am loyal to a certain flaw. There would always be something touchy about it.
Amateur, as a concept, includes a certain naivete – and professional includes a certain connotation of trade and careerism. In one of the conversations, during Ertufan's podcast series, the moderator asks a weird question to ‚the professional’: „do you have other hobbies?“
Ordering of the Elements
Donald Judd once said „the more elements something has, the more the ordering of those elements becomes the central point of the work and therefore takes away from the form.“ Would it be a surprise for you if you met someone who read the book but then forgot the main plot in Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch? And would it be at all possible to forget the ordering of the elements in the same book? It is a rumour that many people stole bricks from Carl Andre sculptures and it is easy to buy an Ai Weiwei porcelain sunflower seed on Ebay today. As Kuba Szreder implies In Undoing Property? (ed by. Marysia Lewandowska & Laurel Ptak) you cannot initiate futurism without appropriating futurism first. Pascal Gielen, by the way, says a good idea, today, is an opportunistic idea.
Where can we find bad ideas about ethnic representation today? Maybe within artculation problems, in stuttered speech – or, alternatively, in anything that does not seek recognition.
What is a bad idea? An idea that does not care about local artistic parameters and environment, does not reshape itself according to economic and political circumstances, an idea that feeds itself with temporarily independent positions?
In Undoing Property?, you can own a book but you cannot own literature, they say. Instead, you are owned by literature. That is, one reason obviously, why being owned by art is a bad idea today, where being recognized by art is a good one.
In Diyarbakır, there is no institutionalized art flow. Institutional support appears and disappears. Artists cannot rely on local audiences for any meaningful feedback. There is no academic support. Politicians are focused on other cultural matters surrounding Kurdishness and the recently grabbed modernity. No galleries, nothing. Even art students are not much into contemporary art. Still, Diyarbakır is on the map of Turkish contemporary art, important artists like Özmen represent not only the region but also the country. Diyarbakır is in the game. Nevertheless, Diyarbakır has to talk about Istanbul a lot, although Istanbul rarely bothers about ‚art and Diyarbakır’.
Give Me a Hand
Recognition stabilizes. It is a closure. I see the efforts of artists like Sarkis and Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, as efforts to destabilize this recognition. Recognition of a problem, recognition of a pain, recognition of a genocide, recognition of an ethnic origin. It is interesting to see how they use a helping hand of ghosts for that.
Hera Büyüktaşcıyan presented two works during the 56th Venice Biennale in the National pavilion of the republic of Armenia, at Mhitaryan Monastery San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Lord Byron’s Room: Letters from Lost Paradise & The Keepers.
Letters from Lost Paradise is meant to be a silent embodiment of Lord Byron’s existence within San Lazzaro degli Armeni/The Mekhitarian Convent and recalls the strong memory of the monastery as being one of the most important printing houses that operated in Europe between 1789 until the early 2000’s. Lord Byron had visited the Mekhitarian Monastery during his stay in Venice, and began to take language lessons from the monks to learn Armenian. „The quotation ‚Letters From Lost Paradise’ inscribed with the letter stamps has a direct connection to Lord Byron and his experience with the Armenian language, which he refers to as ‚the language of Lost Paradise’ in his letters. In his Armenian Exercises and Poetry printed in San Lazzaro in 1870, despite difficulties in learning this ancient language, his constant effort and enthusiasm are revealed, especially through his letters and daily notes. The notion of transformation and the process of becoming a part of the other, of learning and understanding the other appear at this point, through his attempt to learn a language which is not only one of the oldest of languages but also one which has been constantly suppressed due to many identity politics throughout centuries.“
The Armenian alphabet in this work, English written with Armenian script, reminds us that the main discussion is still how we speak. How to speak about life and past? With which script, which references, which language? If you see in this work a recognition of the Armenian alphabet and its value you arrive at a closure. But if you trace Lord Byron and his will and his adventurist side, you reach Hera Büyüktaşçıyan and the problems she aims to bring forward today, along with her own adventure on this small island. No closure, totally open and undecided situations. The mechanism Büyüktaşçıyan uses to make the Armenian script is also destabilized. You hear voices as though a ghost is stuttering. A ghost speaking in its old language, in its gothic environment, talking about lost paradises, moving things in the room. The other work, The Keepers is „another sculptural installation within Lord Byron’s Room which has a dialogue with the existence of the Egyptian Mummy in the room that has been gifted to the Monastery.“ These are also very gothic hands on library shelves holding the letters as if they are collecting them.
Recognition of an inability is a relief for today – and much promoted in the art system. Stutterings of ghosts and free flowing hands holding letters and leaned tables are all inconvenience and discomfort – because the adventure is just beginning. The artist, like a medium, only aims to make the ghost speak; and does not necessarily care about the ghost's recognition.
How to grieve through art? And keep your indirectness and freedom to think further, Büyüktaşıyan asks. Memory has been killed, by too much talking about it, she adds. Memory stabilized and nothing to think about it anymore.
Memory of an object is freed when it speaks for itself, with its own lost paradise and adventure.