Beyond the artist's studio: In Turkey, how art engages with the past, present and future

Editor's note: In this column called 'Beyond the Artist’s Studio — Travelling for Art's Sake', Rosalyn D'Mello will be engaging with artists as she travels to new places, both at home and abroad. 

This is the second in a three-part series from Turkey. Read part one here.

It is early evening. Were we in India, the sun would have already begun its descent. But here in Istanbul, it is 6 pm, there are at least three hours of daylight left.

I am in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s studio in Karakoy. I’ve come armed with cans of beer, provisional respite from the humidity of June-end. As I slump into a chair, my fingers pore into a bowl of pumpkin seeds, the most preferred Turkish pastime snack. To my left I see a broadsheet resembling a newspaper filled with outlandish headlines: “Turkish East and West to be reintegrated,” reads one; “NOTHING IS WHAT IS SEEMS,” says another, just above the boldest one that seems to leap out of the page: “Federal state system to be established in Turkey.” Inches below is one that conflicts with the earlier one: “TURKEY WILL BE DIVIDED INTO TWO” and a stranger one that says “Two jaguars are running towards India”.

Beyond the artists studio: In Turkey, how art engages with the past, present and future

Asli in her studio. Photo courtesy the writer

The newspaper is another collaborative work of art conceived by Aslı in 2017 as a response to the worsening conditions for freedom of speech vis-a-vis the media after the Gezi protests, following which many journalists lost their jobs. The 2016 coup led to the shutdown of more newspapers and magazines, with members of the press being imprisoned due to increased polarisation. Aslı noticed that the marginalisation of press freedoms led to a new crop of news makers; fortune tellers and astrologers who were soon being invited to newscasts and panels and begun to enjoy a position of authority.

Future Tense brought together 50 soothsayers from diverse political opinions and ethnicities who “consulted sand, lead, tarot cards, coffee grounds, blank sheets of A4 paper, dreams, water, clairvoyance, astrology, pendulums and horoscopes in order to reveal the point that Turkey has reached in newscasting.” This piece of conscious exaggeration drives home the point about who is really in command of a country’s future when the forces of reason and presumed objectivity are repressed. “As populism, lack of empathy, discrimination are reaching new extremes both in the world and in Turkey, as everyone is asking the question of what will happen next, Future Tense questions our habits of receiving the news by mixing propaganda, news and fortunetelling,” writes Aslı.

Where Aslı is concerned with the challenge of imagining the future, two other artists I met find their practice immersed in the past, as if looking there for answers or clues as to what will be forgotten and what must be remembered. “Don’t forget to carry your swimsuit,” Aslı told me when we were getting ready to leave Buyukada to take the ferry to Heybeliada, the very next island, where Sibel Horada lives with her husband and daughter in a somewhat incredible sea-facing apartment built and designed by architect Edmond Sarfati.

Sibel Horada with Asli

Sibel Horada with Asli

When we arrive, Sibel shows us around, then asks if it might be better if we went for a swim first. I imagine we will go for a dip in the swimming pool just downstairs. Instead, Sibel directs my steps to the shoreless sea. I sit by the edge like a chicken and watch Aslı and Sibel swim like mermaids. Later, over beer and a large platter of black cherries and peaches, Sibel demonstrates, through her spellbinding narration over illustrative slides, how her 2009-2010 work, As If It Never Existed was an excellent example of the Turkish artistic penchant towards the reclaiming of evidences that bear testimony to forgotten, suppressed or displaced histories.

She had spent hours with a Paulownia tree, among the oldest, in her alma mater, the Yildiz Technical University, until it was cut down in 2009, all traces of it disappearing further once the stump, too, was uprooted. Horada’s installation features broken pieces of the stump and roots that she managed to reclaim, along with the information specific to its erstwhile existence that she was able to gather.

Two years later, through two works, Untitled Machine and Last Impressions, Horada, a non-practising Jew, focussed her artistic lens on the Passover Bakery in Istanbul that was rendered obsolete because it was more cost-effective for the resident community to import matzo (ritualistic unleavened bread) from Israel. She got the machine to run one last time and produced a series of 24 prints on paper, which she titled Last Impressions. Neighbouring this work, in the group exhibition, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place, was her Untitled Machine, which mirrored the 21-metre-long machine through 14 video loops that show the phantom machine functional but producing ghost bread.

As If It Never Existed. Courtesy: Sibel Horada

As If It Never Existed. Courtesy: Sibel Horada

Last Impressions. Photo by Sevim Sancaktar (Passover Bakery)

Last Impressions. Photo by Sevim Sancaktar (Passover Bakery)

In 2015, a day before the birth of her daughter, Horada installed A Void in Retrospect as part of a group show in Istanbul, the consequence of a bizarre idea she had to excavate a “void”. “2015 was the centennial anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Living in Turkey and pondering the effect of its missing people on the land itself, I had decided to deal with a Void and work to generate a number of interactions around this idea. I, an artist who often dealt with objects and sculpture had accidentally stumbled upon a Void,” she writes, facetiously, almost, because in Horada’s practice, there are no accidents, only serendipitous encounters, as attested by the rather amazing story around her work, The Fall, recounted in an essay titled “Wing Story” by the well regarded Turkish writer Elif Batuman, who speaks of the real-life protagonists who happened to be named Michelangelo and Icaro, who were her guardian angels, so to speak, while she was attempting to solve the mystery of the cloaked Pegasus statue in the Plaza de Legazpi in Madrid.

I met Hera Büyüktaşçıyan a few days later, barely half an hour after my visit to the Hagia Sophia, an overwhelming experience by any account. I was still basking in the afterglow of its spectacular gold mosaics and frescoes when I climbed the many staircases that led to her studio space, in the building that once housed a Greek school, opposite an Armenian church. It is now being used as a gallery space for contemporary art shows and is one of the venues of the 2017 Istanbul Biennale. Hera and I got along instantly. It turns out that besides Aslı, who engineered our meeting, we had more artworld friends in common than we could have imagined.

(L) A page from "Future Tense". Copyright: Aslı Çavuşoğlu; (R) Hera Büyüktaşçıyan's The Discovery of 36 Wells, 2016, Pencil and watercolor on paper, 27 x 35 cm (each)

(L) A page from "Future Tense". Copyright: Aslı Çavuşoğlu; (R) Hera Büyüktaşçıyan's The Discovery of 36 Wells, 2016, Pencil and watercolor on paper, 27 x 35 cm (each)

Acquaintances aside, Hera, who is half Greek, half Armenian, unusually traces her Armenian heritage to Kolkata and Amritsar, as a result of which, both sites have become phenomenally important to her artistic research. Before getting around to talking about her work, she chalks out a list of places she believes I absolutely must visit, including the Chora Monastery and the Balat neighborhood in the Golden Horn area. Two days later, when I allow myself to be guided by her proposed itinerary, I find I am immensely grateful for the recommendation, though I harbour deep regrets about not having had the privilege of having her take me through the city so I could discover it through her eyes, particularly because so much of her practice is guided by the question of “how space is liquefied” and about “places that water holds together”.

Dome at Chora Monastery

Dome at Chora Monastery

Like Sibel, she is also concerned with the ephemerality of memory. The blue-edged book she gifted me, Write Injuries on Sand and Kindness in Marble, the catalogue of her eponymous show at Green Art Gallery in Dubai, reveals her fascination with the past lives of spaces, in this case, the marble factory that used to exist on the site of the gallery. “For Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, the term aquamorphology grants water a physical, transformative agency through its collaboration with time. It symbolises the fluid, aquatic nature of memory, as it can simultaneously purify, divide, connect, heal and destroy,” reads the text at the beginning that snakes its way through the book, edging through the images of her work and contextualising her concerns with frameworks of power, labour, production and reconstruction of memory.

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, It takes a few more buckets of water to turn the mill, 2012, Coins from different currencies and water Installation view at Galeri Mana, Istanbul. Photo credit: Coşkun Aşar

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, It takes a few more buckets of water to turn the mill, 2012, Coins from different currencies and water
Installation view at Galeri Mana, Istanbul. Photo credit: Coşkun Aşar

When asked by Haig Aivazian what coded memories emerge in her work and what they tell us about power today, Hera speaks about how, throughout history and across geographies, monuments, palaces and all forms of imperial power are associated with their commissioning ruler/patrons. This she calls “the architecture of power — the desire people have to leave a trace of themselves for posterity, often through grand architectural projects. This is often coupled with the erasure or even denial of the actual elements or actors that were integral in the creation of that monument. We even refer to figures of power when we cite great historical architectural feats: Hagia Sophia was ‘built’ by Emperor Constantine, the Taj Mahal by Shah Jahan, the Great Pyramid of Giza commemorates Pharaoh Khufu, The Palazzo della Civilta Italiana is synonymous with Mussolini, and so on. We don’t remember the names of those who actually built them. Instead, architecture becomes the physical manifestation of a historical, political or social memory.”

Coming up: Part III

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Updated Date: Jul 23, 2017 12:47:45 IST

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