İpek Duben is surely the
Grande Dame of the Turkish art World: a feminist activist artist of 75 who is still
producing provocative work in a career spanning four decades. Showing all over the
world, formerly as a painter, always a writer, her practice today involves artists’
books, video and installation. Highly articulate, she recounts Turkish history in a
measured tone that gradually divulges an impassioned critique, not only of former
bloody purges leading up to the current oppressive regime of President Erdoğan, but
also of the left opposition: ‘ He did not gain, we lost … we have to look at
ourselves.’ This is the question raised by the exhibition ‘ They/Onlar ’ : to
examine the dilemma of Turkish cultural identity from the inside.
The outside image of the Turk has long been manipulated in western literature as the
perfect puppet of the other – from Shakespear to Rudyard Kipling to the EU’s stooge
– but Turkey has its own ‘others’ and the internal divisions between its
multi-ethnic cultures are equally discriminatory. Alevis are banned, Kurdish songs
are forbidden, LGBT people are hounded, patriarchy and populism rule. Despite public
opposition to hosting three million Syrian refugees, Erdoğan has 60% support for his
domestic polices. Whereas Duben’s last work considered what it is to be Turkish from
her own perspective, in this installation victims of religious, ethnic or gender
persecution have been invited by Duben to recount their experiences to the
spectator, with the hope of inviting us ‘to examine ourselves in our context, to
listen, to understand to be generous rather than threatened by the Other’.
Fabrica, as a non-conformist chapel converted into a contemporary art space, seems
the ideal setting for orientalist introspection. Lofty ceilings and stained-glass
windows echo the crusading evangelism of Islamophobia. In haughty defiance, six
framed videos are artfully posed in the dark space. Free-standing, larger than
life-size portraits of divers Turkish subjects recount their lives and problems to
the camera which is focused on the whole body. Each discourse, in Turkish with
English audio translation embedded in the work and edited in a seamless stream, is
whispered as in therapeutic confession with ethnographic documentaries, any sign of
the interlocutor is absent. At one end of the space is a low round table stood
facing a triptych of three interchanging frames with clips of 19 individual stories.
Duben describes the installation as a sound and light piece inviting a sense of
dialogue around the global issues of migration, dislocation and identity.
Does an art context communicate a different message to that of documentary
distribution? This is the challenge for artists working across media who call for a
self-reflexive approach to the power relations involved in representations of the
other. Besides the familiar visual self-othering in photography, artists such as
Bouchra Khalili (ReviewsAM386), Kutlug Ataman, Suzanne Lacy (AM401), Amar Kanwar,
Nishat Awan (AM402), Mohini Chandra and Anthony Luvera have also asked the voiceless
to tell their own stories through audio visual portraiture. Intriguing, therefore,
is Duben's denial of this work as 'documentary'. There exists a clear overlap
between art and documentary in much contemporary practice ever since their dangerous
liaison began with the 'ethnographic turn' described by Hal Foster in 1996.
The age-old issue within artwork of a documentary leaning has been identical to that
of mainstream anthropology: opposing objective to subjective accounts. In the
former, the eye is a spying eye of surveillance, dutifully detached and constructed
by Renaissance perspective to place man at the centre of the universe. It
foreshadows Michel Foucault's 'eminence grise' of the gaze as instrument of
knowledge and control. With Cubism and Surrealism as models for a multiplicity of
perspectives, ocular authority is shattered by a fragmented vision corresponding to
the political crises of their time. Such a leap opened the door to the 'mind's eye',
the vision of which was introspective and reflexive, awake to its subjective
influence on the 'objective'.
Duben's installation manifests a reflection on such shifts.
Cool, minimal and apparently objective, it is based on an observational aesthetic.
Each of the six portraits delivers a subjective rant made up of stories of pain and
frustration, strangely recounted with detached poise. This is far from the dramatic
and dialectical montage of ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch. It is closer to the
earlier tradition of observational cinema, influenced by the neorealism of Italian
cinema, that inspired David MacDougall's documentary use of deep focus to reveal the
authentic through critical reasoning. Duben's method is similarly unspectacular. The
presentation is not so much about 'showing' as about 'telling', the tales told avoid
a linear narrative by their informal disposition in space and the lack of any
Polyphonic voices are embodied through strongly individual poses. They propose a
corporeal encounter between subject and spectator who finds herself listening,
partly as an eavesdropper, partly as a voyeur, perhaps as an ethnographer, although
she remains an observer rather than a participant. Vision and voice fuse to seduce
yet refuse to exchange with the spectator. Dialogue cannot take place because the
spectator remains a viewer but hardly a listener. This is due to the force of the
visual that dominates the delicate audio, handicapped by the voice-over tape
operated on justifiable 'politically correct' grounds whereby both languages are
given equal space. This does not work for both technical and physiological reasons
because the human ear, unless highly trained like that of a UNESCO translator,
cannot easily absorb simultaneous transmission of two different languages.
One remedy might come through the artist performing Walter Benjamin's 'Task of the
Translator': 'to release in his own language that pure language that is under the
spell of another', but where does that leave dialogue with the spectator, whispering
in the dark?
VIRGINIA WHILES is an art historian, critic and author.