An Encounter: Cengiz Çekil at MoMA

Merve Ünsal

Cengiz Çekil’s Günce—translated, Diary—is on display at MoMA, as an anchoring piece for the exhibition I am still alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing curated by Christian Rattemeyer.

Having recently viewed On Kawara’s Today series at Dia:Beacon, where the contemplative, modest paintings reverberate in the expansive white space of this temple of early contemporary art, I was skeptical about how MoMA could re-inject Kawara’s paintings with a new meaning—Kawara’s work is a central part of the curatorial backbone of the exhibition. At the entrance of the exhibition, Kawara’s painting from December 17th, 1979, is on display. Kawara’s daily habit of painting the date of the day, using the notation of where he is at the moment is obsessive; the artist destroys any painting that is not finished on the day to which it belongs, creating a finitude that is unnatural but quite necessary in the context of such diaristic practice.

The second work by On Kawara on display is the artist’s telegrams to his gallerist, in which the artist declares, “I am alive.” These telegrams are self-affirming—the artist declares his presence in the world through forming a connection with someone far away. Presence becomes materialized through Kawara’s gesture as the artist stamps in his being alive by communicating this aliveness to the gallerist. Çekil’s “presence,” on the other hand, is of a different nature. The solitary gesture of noting that he is alive in a notebook is the artist’s means of expressing and recording the unnaturalness of his being alive. For two months in 1976, in an era marked by tension that erupted in episodes of violence, Çekil coming home alive was worthy of documenting. The diary ends with the entry, “I am going to the military,” which would ensure Çekil’s safety.

The poetic gesture of recording the days on which Çekil is still alive is visually counter-balanced and diluted by how he records his presence. The notebook has flowers on the inner corners of the pages, reminiscent of diaries that little girls keep in primary school. Çekil stamps the same phrase over and over again, never retorting to handwriting, giving his presence a sort of bureaucratic authority and heftiness that can be interpreted as a gesture of self-empowerment, as the artist was surprised to be alive each day. In a period of political unrest and instability, Çekil claims rights and control over his own life by giving value to and keeping a record of his own presence.

At first glance, Çekil’s gesture is innocuous. Yet, there is something about the somewhat compulsive, resilient nature of Çekil’s recording that is a silent threat. The artist is stating the obvious, that he is alive. The repetition of this statement, though, shows resistance—a resistance that is counter to the powers in place, subtly hinting that Çekil can somehow affect the conditions by his presence. Çekil’s shrewd defiance marks a private space of politics, in which the individual can change the active politics on a very personal level. Çekil’s Günce is thus also a misnomered; the diary is actually an inviting gesture.

Cengiz Çekil, On Kawara, Danh Vo and Paul Chan are not connected through a visual representation or their political stand; it is the daily intervention and the artists’ sensitive yet poignant gestures delienate a personal space of political activity. After all, the artistic impulse is defined by the sense of self-importance that what is done, matters and what happens can change what is. Thus, the residue of this exhibition is one of hopeful resignation. Çekil might not have anticipated 1980 and he did not prevent 1980, but his Günce provides the viewer with an impetus to have faith in their own presence.