İpek Duben: They/Onlar

Virginia Whiles , Art Monthly, 7 May 2017

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 authorial voice-over.

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.