Issue 3/2018 - Institut "Kunst"

“I Know You Can’t Levitate”

Contemporary Art in Turkey as a Weak Diversion of Interest and a Powerful Tarrying

Süreyyya Evren

“Although waiting rooms, train stations, airports, or hotel lobbies are merely to be passed through, I shall argue that waiting is not simply a passage of time to be traversed. Although time is supposed to function like a door or a hall through which we pass unawares, in waiting, the door jams and the hall is endless.” (Harold Schweizer, On Waiting)

The state of emergency rule in Turkey, which has been in place since July 2016, has been extended for another term. The AKP government declared a state of emergency on July 20, 2016 following the failed coup attempt on July 15. And it was extended for the seventh time on April 18, 2018.
While so many things are in crisis in this country – from education to economics, media to justice – we are still going to openings of new exhibitions every week in the Turkish contemporary art world. The problems regarding freedom and economics directly tighten all life channels of art. But we do not actually hear much about a crisis of content. There are increasing obstacles, new barriers and threats every day, but there is not much decrease in production. In fact, some artists, for example Yasemin Özcan, argue that they are producing even more.1 New initiatives are emerging, performance art has never been so popular and vibrant, and individually, many artists are in an extremely productive period. There is obviously a persistence shining.
Many of these recently produced artworks have strong political connotations if not immediate messages, while another tendency evolves around works about melancholy, deprivation, emptiness, desolation, despair, worthlessness. In fact, these two tendencies go hand in hand on many occasions. Selim Birsel’s exhibition “The Art of Garden Care” (Riverrun, 01.0.3–21.04.2018) and Deniz Aktaş’s “No Man’s Land” (artSümer, 06.04.–12.05.2018) are good recent examples of artists dealing with abandoned places, empty sites, left away things or areas. Aktaş’s monochrome drawings show depictions of unsound structures and remnants of archaic structures. Destruction, ruin, debris, rubbish are the keywords. Selim Birsel’s “The Art of Garden Care” may seem like a much more optimistic title, but when you enter the exhibition what you see is a garden of emptiness, abandoned areas, forgotten objects, and rotten life. And you are literally surrounded with these images. Or you can go to “A Year Without A Summer” (Pilot, 08.02.–17.03.2018) by Elmas Deniz and see a cage-like-serum in the middle and two framed plastic bags of similar color (with the titles “Mistake 1” and “Mistake 2”). “Mistake 1” is made of non-biodegradable and “Mistake 2” of biodegradable plastic, to which the artist adds, “unfortunately both are decomposable in nature.”
But what is it that keeps contemporary artists alive and kicking – while many of them at the same time consider to move abroad, talk about friends or family members who have already immigrated or found a job in the West and left the country?
I see two things: 1. With a more politically activist tone, contemporary art under a state of emergency is accumulating and testing new forms of resistance and social critique. From 2013, the time of the Gezi Uprising, we all know that when the time comes art may again be very useful – crucial even, as we have seen in the case of the “Standing Man” (he was also a performance artist by the way) and others. So much so that art won’t be used to aestheticize already existing social messages, slogans, mottos etc., but art will be the medium of politics, art will bring its own message. It is not like the 1970s when artists had to paint political scenes, which had been decided by socialist party leaders. 2. With a less activist but a more effective tone, contemporary art is tarrying. We are actually lingering. And that’s not bad. Tarrying proves that it can be powerful. It is a way to wait strongly. To wait for the crucial moment to appear.
It is difficult to tell which “forms” will come back as political resources when the time is right. For example Ayşe Erkmen’s recent show “Kıpraşım Ripple” (Dirimart, 06.04.–14.05.2017) gives a direct idea of ripping the walls (where she actually ripped the walls of the gallery) and creating a new understanding of our environment (an an assertive one evidently).
But it is a bit easier to pin down tendencies of lingering. I even believe contemporary art in Turkey today is very much based on lingering. Not only art institutions but all institutions in Turkey seem instable nowadays. Big companies are moving abroad, huge changes happen without convincing anyone in society or the parts involved. The state of emergency gets extended another time, than another time, than another time – this way, we reached its seventh term.
What to wait for when you are in a state of emergency? Is it true that we are producing too much art for a country in a state of emergency? We are obviously able to play with sensible issues through art – and prolong the time before these issues get “broken.” It is about feeling the right and ability to play with those sensible issues, and letting them fall off the table quietly.
Runa İslam’s video “Be The First To See What You See As You See It” (2004) inspires more. In this work, we see a women who is moving around seemingly valuable porcelain objects – for example, a white tea pot – touching them, playing with them and in the end, slowly pushing them off the table and letting them break into pieces.
A moment of suspension, playing and letting them break (an orgasm?) in the end. Making to wait is one of the main tactics of domination. Making to suspend as well. And suspending meaning opens a new space – much more different than looking for a meaning in life.
Compare this with Bas Jan Ader’s videos of falling (for example “Fall II”, 1970). Bas Jan Ader doesn’t linger, play or suspend but he breaks the ice directly – by suddenly falling down into the canal. He focuses on the falling itself and stages this fall. He gets on top of a roof just to fall down from it. Ader finds life in this rejection and insists on the breaking of good life. Both Bas Jan Ader and Runa Islam affirm death – at the same time, they do catch life in certain moments. Theirs is a body of work that is not based on deduction.
This keeps Turkish contemporary art alive, too: Not being in a hurry – being a good accomplice. Make life wait. Brake the porcelain teapot, suggest undigestible experiences, like Bergson, wait for the appearance of an event in its total directness. The point of breaking the orgasm that is worth living for, the fall that is worth falling, the death that is worth dying – suspend its own emergence, defer its own realization.
In his famous Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930), Sigmund Freud talks about the issue of inevitable death, the misery of life, and how to cope up with our weakness in regard of this destiny. He makes the problem seem clean and apodictic. We will all die and while we live we are all aware of this; there is no meaning in life and we are aware of that, too. So life equals misery. How to respond?
Freud points out three means: “powerful diversions of interest, which lead us to care little about our misery; substitutive gratification, which lessen it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.”
It makes me remember an old letter of his to his then girlfriend (who would later be his wife) where Freud says he is not sure if he should be a writer or a psychoanalyst. He feels doubt. Which path to choose? What do they have in common – being a writer and being a psychoanalyst? We can read this through his own words in Civilisation and Its Discontents.
Let’s think about his three means again: a) powerful diversions of interest – art, science, religious radicalism, revolution, environmentalism, animal rights activism, feminist activism, ending poverty and hunger, being an inventor, an explorer etc. All the measures that would protect you from thinking death is coming and you can’t do anything about it. A life devoted to such high aims; enormous, mighty tasks, grandiose ideals suggests a protection from misery in this way.
b) substitutive gratification – which lessens our misery – and indirect satisfactions. Basically all the things we consider a “good life”: Healthy food, earning money, insurance, security, assurance, luxury, a life that endures as long as possible and with less and less pain. An unarguable surrender to death. No search for a meaning, ideal or sublime. Accept death, accept limited time, and go for making it less painful.
c) finally, a life devoted to intoxicating substances: all kinds of drugs, addictions, alcoholism, gambling, pleasures of the world that make you risk your health and wellbeing. You do not surrender to death – you challenge it. And you do not buy into an idea of sublime – you find the sublime in chance, fantasies, nihilism.
Powerful diversions of interest aim to get rid of the misery of life by starting to believe there are things in life that have much higher value, are more supreme, noble, elevated than life and death. That connects it with a life devoted to intoxicating substances because that includes a rejection of death and the miseries of life as well. Yet, substitutive gratification is a position that recognizes death. You do not ask, “why live, what is worth living for?” but you ask, “how to live longer and better?” Which makes you favor good farming practices, good nutrition, good sex, good sport, good art …
This is where tarrying comes in. Tarrying offers a path without ample objectives. You don’t “gratify” the moment – you linger as much as you can. I see this as a strategy of art under the state of emergency.
Artistic strategy is one thing, the strategy of the artist another. The strategy of the artist involves emotions. Whoever works totally alone is in a much more negative, hopeless state of mind – collective moments bring more positive feelings and the ability to perform. And believing in the need to perform, that it “makes a difference.” And tarrying is easier done collectively.
Under the state of emergency, there is of course a serious difficulty in expressing many issues. Yet it seems like a little luxury to call this censorship. Something else is going on. Institutions promise a thickness, consistency, strength. A strength for waiting together. I suggest that the art world is very creatively waiting (for the good and unfortunately, sometimes for the bad to appear). And it is of course producing more and more art, more and more events.
No meta-narrative follows from mega events – under the state of emergency rule everyone needs mega events just because they steal time, prolong the situation on a big scale and open room for collective interaction. Does fluidity keep contemporary art together, tight? Or is it representation? Could waiting be the thing that keeps contemporary art together – waiting for something big, something important to appear? To emerge, rise, to come out?
That means understanding Turkey as a society that is actually waiting for the bad to fall down – which doesn’t mean there is no struggle, in fact there are so many attempts since the Gezi Uprisings of 2013.2 But still … a society that is waiting – and accumulating free forms, forms of freedom through contemporary art. Let the thing appear.
Waiting is at the same as torture, a hierarchy, a violence. To make someone wait can be an insult. On the other hand, in many cases there is also a promise in waiting – to be patient, to let time pass, to be sensitive with time.
Biennials, art institutions and mega events help you stay international – life outside the market, life outside your local concerns becomes a part of your routine. Which means tarrying with like-minded friends abroad sometimes.
Which forms, which aesthetical attitudes are helpful here? Going back to Elmas Deniz’s exhibition “A Year Without A Summer” (where she exhibited those plastic bags and the cage-like serum): part of the exhibition was also an artist book titled “Flying Plants, Dogs and Elephants”, a silk-printed book on special paper made of elephant dung. The book includes drawings of exported indoor plants of Sri Lankan origin, international transportation regulations of living plants, and short pieces written by Deniz herself describing moments where she felt so miserable that she actually hugged street dogs, become one with their dirt and smell and mingled with their rancid state.
I see this as a way to wait in an utmost miserable situation. Not proper paper but elephant dung, no proper relation with street dogs, not helping them or feeding them or protecting them but “being with them”, becoming a fellow street dog. What is the nature of producing under the state of emergency – what can we say about censorship and self-censorship? Our ideas are in many cases subject to regulations similar to the transportation regulations of living plants. What is the logic behind producing art in a state of emergency – maybe an enlargement of waiting?
Art and propaganda – not propaganda of a certain idea or position, but propaganda of the possibility of a future, something, some approach that will be useful when the moment comes. It can be pretty glaring (like ripping the walls and reshaping the space) or it can be totally subtle.
Contemporary art both exhibits an inflated directness and a range of layered strategies of indirectness. Even when there was no state of emergency in Turkey the line of inflated directness was criticized deeply. Shall the arts ever be that direct? Especially for political artists in other disciplines, contemporary art represents a much too easy, too direct political discourse. Contemporary art still enjoys being too direct at many occasions – even more direct than theatre sometimes – and uses easy to duplicate messages.
But censorship in a state of emergency era does not work like a Stalinist tool. It is not that clear. Not every art work has been censored directly. Conditions under a state of emergency may apply pressure indirectly. It is not clear from where the censorship will come. The latest Çanakkale Biennial in Turkey has been cancelled in such a weird way that it became a special case to discuss the differences between self-censorship and censorship. Nevertheless, there was obviously political pressure, which ended the biennial. An anticipation of pressure, waiting to be censored, being kept in suspense – under conditions as uncertain as they can be. Waiting as a means of torture versus tarrying for a future. This is also a marketing strategy for some companies. The prices of some products go up and down and you can’t be sure if you bought them cheap or expensive. You never know what the real price is.
“I know you can’t levitate”, is a quote from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s movie "Youth" (2015). In it, there are two artists of different background and age but they are both suffering and they are both being trapped in their career with only one moment of success. A levitation. And levitation is not true – you only know it when you levitate. So one of the artists whispers to the guru-kind of man who behaves like he can actually levitate, “I know you can’t levitate.”
Because if he did, if he was capable of levitating, he wouldn’t be happy about it, he would be suffering just like them. Both artists did levitate once in their careers and learned that levitating is not good in itself. You need something else, endurance maybe, or duration, staying high, maybe a transformation, but definitely not a moment of levitation, which will hunt you afterwards. Forget the idea of the peak, or one good blow – in favor of time, prolongation, fullness, continuation, knowing that you can’t levitate. I can’t levitate but we can “become.”
I hear this as the words of a tarrying artist whispering into the ears of an agitated artist: “I know you can’t levitate.”



1 In an interview on censorship and self-censorship in Turkey, see
2 And they are continuing. I am writing this piece in May 2018. Everything may change after the elections in the summer. [It didn’t; editor’s note]