A still from They/Onlar
Kaya Genç, Daily Sabah, ARTS, May 1, 2015
"Hell is other people," mused French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in a widely
misunderstood line from his one-act play "No Exit." Sartre later explained what he
meant by those words: "If relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then
that other person can only be hell. Why? Because when we think about ourselves, when
we try to know ourselves, we use the knowledge of us which other people already
have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for
judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else's judgment always
enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else's judgment enters."
I remembered Sartre's words about self-knowledge and prejudices, while walking down
the stairs of SALT Galata to see İpek's Duben's multi-screen video installation
"They," on view there until June 28.
Darkness is the first thing you see upon entering the hall that hosts "They." I
don't remember visiting a "darker" exhibition - since they are not allowed to take
pictures inside, visitors walk into the pitch-dark entrance where they can't use
screens of their phones to see whether they are alone or surrounded by strangers.
This must be intentional since Duben's powerful video-installation questions exactly
that: our ideas, prejudices and fears of "They," whoever that may be. Presenting
video interviews with 24 interviewees who come from different ethnic origins, belief
systems and sexual orientations, "They" presents us with touching stories of
discrimination and oppression about Armenians, women wearing head scarves, Jews,
Kurds, Alevis, Zazas, Rums (Greeks), Romanis, LGBT individuals and women who
experienced domestic violence.
The installation has two "zones," each containing a group of three projections as
well as independently placed screens. "In each zone characters appear on screens,
having a conversation in the presence of the audience around specific concerns such
as racism, discrimination based on religion and beliefs, homophobia, gender
inequality and domestic violence," according to the exhibition program. "The
installation attempts to encourage dialogue between people who never, or rarely,
have a chance to speak with each other. On the independent screens, each character
recounts an unbroken monologue. A murmur of languages including Kurdish, Ladino,
Armenian, Greek and Turkish, resonate in the background."
One of those voices belongs to Meryem İlayda Atlas, the Op-Ed editor of Daily Sabah,
who talks about the discrimination she suffered as a headscarf wearing woman from an
early age. She describes how she was forced to change her clothing at university and
about the power of patriarchy that oppresses women on both sides of the
secular-pious divide. Her anecdotes about being looked down upon because of her
public identity is echoed in another screen, where a young Armenian woman talks
about her shattered dreams of becoming a public servant in the 1990s after learning
about the secret discrimination against Turkey's Armenian citizens at the upper
echelons of bureaucracy.
While other interviewees, including LGBT individuals and Kurdish men, talk about
their experiences in separate screens, the design of the "zone" sections create a
dialogue between those 24 interviewees, as if they are participating in a roundtable
Duben has degrees from the University of Chicago (M.A.), New York Studio School and
Mimar Sinan University (Ph.D.). She has written numerous books on modern and
contemporary art. Having participated in the British Museum's "Poetry and exile:
contemporary art from the Middle East" exhibition last year Duben exhibited her work
at the 13th Istanbul Biennial in 2013 and at Istanbul Modern and The National Museum
of Women in the Arts.
I asked Duben why she chose to focus on the subject of "They." "I've been engaged in
identity issues since the beginning of 1980s starting with my first show 'Şerife' in
1981," she told me.
"'Şerife' was an iconographic image of Turkish women. In 'What is a Turk?', a
postcard and video installation that I showed in 2003 and 2004, I focused on the
western gaze's depiction of the Turk and Turkish culture throughout the twentieth
century. This work was based on information taken from books and documents published
by western authors about Turkey and Turks. 'What is a Turk?' is the precursor of
'They', a video installation about the Other's view of its others. In other words,
it is basically about how citizens of Turkey view those citizens that they identify
as the Other defined in terms of ethnicity, religion and gender."
I asked Duben how she had approached her interviewees. "In a project based on
information provided by selected subjects, it is crucial to establish confidence
between the interviewer and the interviewees," she told me. Of her 24 participants
only three knew Duben before. "The rest of the group were not only total strangers
to me, they were also ethnically, geographically and socially quite distant from my
"The only way I could establish any contact with them was through friends and
acquaintances who believed in my work and integrity and were willing to introduce me
or put in a word of trust about me."
After contacting her interviewees, Duben asked them to look her up on the Internet
and visit her website to have an idea about her professional background and the
sincerity of her intentions.
"I told them to feel free to express their doubts and ask any question they may have
about me, my project, my intentions and how I planned to put the final work to use,"
she explained. "I tried to make them understand that I respected them, accepted them
for who they are, and that I would not abuse their trust..."
Duben knew that transforming her documentary material into art would involve making
choices in various aspects of aesthetics, including "the visual quality of the
image, its size, sound effects and synchronization of sound and the speed with which
it travels, the quality of lighting in the installation space specific to create a
particular environment, and the placement of image reflecting panels in relation to
each other as well as their distribution in the geometry of the space..." She then
created a space of complete darkness, "a homogenous atmospheric vacuum, an undefined
Duben acknowledged that identity politics in Turkey have been coming to the fore in
recent years and this has made it possible for her to actualize a project like
"As this transformation is taking place, we are still witnessing manifestations of
discrimination as the participants have expressed individually in real life
situations. One essential change seems to have taken root by the way and that is the
unquestionable rights of covered women."
Very few of her interviewees had yet seen the finished project, Duben told me.
"Those who have told me that their attention has not faltered as they viewed and
heard each other speak... Getting to know each other is raising their consciousness
of each other's travails. The audience response so far seems to be similar."
Her conclusion and characterization of the public space as a 'human theatre'
reminded me, again, of Sartre and his play about prejudices in human relationships.
"People who have seen the installation have expressed great excitement and in a
sense bewilderment at the reality of the human theater in Turkey," Duben said.