A Century of Centuries: History, Uncut

İlhan Ozan

For any historical inquiry one can start with this simple question: How is today different than yesterday? The exhibition, A Century of Centuries curated by November Paynter at SALT Beyoğlu, deals with various transformative moments of history and social transitions across different geographies that have been, and still are, influential in the present. Whereas the title of the exhibition evokes a feeling of living in a glorious time, the exhibition space is filled with the debris of the catastrophic twentieth century. The artistic positions in the exhibition propose a multifaceted critical discourse through a combination of imaginary constructions and official historical documents. Although each artist constructs their work around a particular time and geography, they altogether—implicitly and explicitly—reveal a wide range of critical issues from Turkey’s past as well as its present.

Chto Delat
Chto Delat?, The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger, 2014. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci.

Chto Delat? (What is to be done?), a collective founded in 2003 by a group of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism, focuses on the current political climate and everyday life in Russia with the four channel film-performance installation, The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger (2014). The multiple screens in the installation move the viewer beyond linear narration as the work deals with the fact that the takeover of capitalism and the authority of current political regime in Russia leave no place for individual control over social life. The collective states this peremptory political order as “we now stand on the threshold of a senseless and despicable war; what remains of public space is disappearing before our eyes; and we have no levers of political influence. The Russian government brazenly declares a state of emergency, and society answers with full support. Meanwhile there are practically no forces capable of even reflecting upon this danger, let alone resisting it. The situation recalls a nightmare in which one’s habitual reality begins unraveling at the seams. What we thought impossible yesterday is met with enthusiasm today. What kind of art is possible now? Or is it altogether impossible?” [1] This statement represents a critical stance against a rising authoritarian regime as well as a motivation to search for an artistic response.

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Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, 2013-2014. Photo by Barış Doğrusöz.

One may raise the question here: In the current global world order, where do the nation states stand? Have their borders really disappeared with the advent of global capitalist world order? Shilpa Gupta’s installation, Untitled (2013-2014), consisting of interviews, photographs, historical records, drawings made from a prohibited cough syrup, and phantasmic engravings on a stone post, questions the construction of boundaries in regard to the Indo-Bangladesh enclaves, also locally known as the chitmahals, along the Bangladesh–India border. Gupta looks at the daily life of people living in enclaves, as they are entrapped within the borders of nation states upon their reformation. The pieces in the installation reflect the social construction of boundaries as well as their non-existence regardless of our constructions. Perhaps, the best representation of such existence and non-existence of boundaries is a piece lying on the ground. Made of marble, in a rectangle form, a series of possible consequences is written on the surface of it starting with “Depending on which side of this marking you may now be…” below a straight line functioning as a boundary. Once positioned according to the line, the identity(lessness) of a person is determined, and followingly, the basic civic rights that are granted, or not, such as education and health services. The other pieces in the installation expand on this repression resulting from a identity card, which is not an unfamiliar case either for the viewer in Turkey. Leaving the suppression caused by national identity throughout twentieth century , it is also currently pointing out another critical social problem as more and more refugees have been coming to Turkey from neighbouring countries, particularly from Syria. On the one hand, Gupta’s work turns to a particular geography and the lives of people in that region, on the other it in fact points to a global problem that is a result of national borders as well as the social and legal regulations emerging from these borders.

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Destroy your house, build up a boat, save life!, 2014-2015. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci.

Agitated with the stern social reality in these works, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s site-specific installation Destroy your house, build up a boat, save life! (2014-2015) departs from mythology and connects this story with the recent past of Turkey. Comprising of carpets on the ground tied to the ceiling by a rope and an abstract boat by the side, the title is a quotation from the “Story of the Flood” on a Babylonian cuneiform tablet “The Epic of Atrahasis.” This story, also known as “Noah’s Ark”, provides a ground to the artist to build her own story along with others. The imaginary vessel in the Genesis flood narrative finds reflection in a variety of cultures, and marks a new beginning for the entire world and a better life for all humanity. Similarly heading towards a new beginning, the narration of this imaginary boat becomes an instrument for the artist to establish a bridge between life and death as well as past and future. The creaky sound of the boat gives the viewer a feeling of abandonment that a catastrophe has already happened, and whether s/he is in the middle of it alone with the lose of her/his life, or running away with the broken feelings of leaving her/his life behind, as the sound spreads through the silence of entire floor. Thus, the boat also acts as a metaphor for the preservation of belongings that carry the fragments of memory taken away in the aftermath of displacements such as exile or deportation.

This mythological journey of Büyüktaşçıyan continues with the enforced displacement of minorities. The work goes beyond the spatial existence in the exhibition and situates itself in a wider context with regard to the social transformation of the district of Beyoğlu, one of the neighbourhoods and districts where Istanbul’s non-Muslim population was mostly concentrated in the 1950s and where the exhibition is taking place. She appropriates the ceiling painting in the exhibition space, which was originally made for the domestic dwellings of the Siniossoglou Apartment, and makes it as a part of her installation. The large carpets in the installation together with the ceiling painting creates a memory of a domestic place, which is embodied in the image of home. As the artist’s reference point, carpet has functioned as the preservation of memory for the minorities who were forced to leave as a result of the ethnic and religious homogenization practices of the modern Republic without getting a chance to take any belongings. Büyüktaşçıyan localizes this event and put this situation into context by connecting the exhibition space with social history, as this building is a historical witness to the massive forced exodus of minority populations in the local area. The building, serving as the exhibition space of SALT Beyoğlu now, harbors Büyüktaşçıyan’s boat in memoriam for the uncertainties and darkness of the past, and invites the viewer to open the door toward this ignored past of Turkey.

Dilek Winchester
Dilek Winchester, as if nothing has ever been said before us, 2007-2015. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci.

The past of Turkey early in the twentieth century is considered in Dilek Winchester’s as if nothing has ever been said before us (2007-2015). Taking its title from a pioneer of the modern novel in Turkey Oğuz Atay’s Tutunamayanlar, Winchester’s installation is comprised of a few complementary works that deal with the language and the literary canon in the late Ottoman and the early Republican period. When the viewer enters the floor, a long line kendinibeğenmişçesinesankibizdenöncehiçbirşeysöylenmemiş is seen on the left wall. This is the second half of the sentence “We are knocking on your doors with an emotion and arrogance unparalleled in world history and without fear of seeming like those who are conceited and behave as if nothing has ever been said before them.” Although phonetically transcribed  in Turkish, the line is written with letters from five alphabets: Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Arabic, all of which were used in the multi-lingual structure of the Ottoman Empire until the official introduction of the Latin alphabet as one of the core parts of the nationalist program in 1928. This language change is probably best described by Derrida’s phrase “coup de la lettre” in one of his letters when he describes his impressions from his journey to Istanbul. “In this case, of that of the Turks, of the transliteration that befell them, striking them full in their history, of their lost letters, of the alphabet they were forced so brutally to change, a short time ago, from one day to the next, on the orders of an extravagant, lucid, but cruel emancipator of ‘modern times,’ as you know, the brilliant military hero K.A., who brought his subjects into step with modernity. En route, onward, on with the grand voyage! Forwards march!… But perhaps this coup de la lettre, this chance or blow is struck against us every time something happens: one has not only to undress but to leave, to set out again naked, change bodies, convert the flesh of the words, of signs, of every manifestation while pretending to stay the same and to remain master of one’s own language.” [2] This transition is further contextualized with the blackboards as part of Winchester’s installation in that the passage in the three alphabets in Armenian, Arabic, and Greek are written on three separate blackboards. Using blackboards as the material underline the institutional dimension of learning as well as the introduction of the new alphabet by means of education as one of the ideological apparatuses of the state.

Winchester’s work On Reading and Writing gives an account of the formation of literary canon, which has been shaped vis-à-vis this language change. One can discuss multiple criteria for a work to be included in a canon. However, Winchester’s display of literary works from different languages of the period such as Karamanlidika and Armeno-Turkish literature reveals the composition of literary canon predominantly within the boundaries of national identity and the ideology of the state, and ponders the exclusion of those literary works from the ‘new modern culture’.  Thus, the work displays a sharp contrast between the complex linguistic structure of the past and the deformation of it within time. This contrast gains a deeper context with documentary photographs that show the visit of the king of Afghanistan to Ankara in 1928 and the visit of the prince of Japan to Ankara in 1932 together with Atatürk in the same frame. The photographs are observed in accordance among people in the same frame. The common characteristic is here apparently modernism and nation building that manifested itself as an experiment of modernity. Accordingly, Winchester’s works explore the formation of literary canon and language in particular through various resources, and urge the viewer on conceiving a dialogue between the multi-cultural past and the present where the right for education in mother tongue is not even allowed as it stands in front of us today as one of the biggest obstacles en route to a more democratic society.

Yasemin Özcan, threehundredone, 2008. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci.
Yasemin Özcan, threehundredone, 2008. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci.

On this search for a more democratic society, in a truer sense of the word, the constitution of Turkey includes grave obstacles. The protection of freedom of expression is one of the most critical issues that requires attention as we witness the arrest of journalists, writers and many others along with the investigation of many more merely because of the will of government. Yasemin Özcan’s video work threehundredone (2008) takes Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code into consideration as it has given a base to many investigations regarding the sacredness of nation and the notions constructed around it. The article categorizes it as illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish nation, or Turkish government institutions. Thus, it has been one of the main obstacles against any attempt to uncover the past of Turkey as it glorified Turkishness, and has been applied to several high profile cases, among which are the ones against Orhan Pamuk, Murat Belge, Hrant Dink, and İsmail Beşikçi.

In this two channel video installation, the artist shows the production process of a necklace, which centers around the number 301. While the left screen plays the production process as it is crafted in a jewelry atelier at the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest markets in the world, the right screen shows it photographed on a fashion model in shorter sequences and draws attention to the the systematic process of rapid commercialization and reification as a widespread characteristic of modern capitalist society. Therefore, the two different scenes in two screens show the transformation of human properties, relations and actions into the commodity that results in the decay of meaning. It is also another important feature of the work that the artist works with Armenian craftsmen in the production of the necklace as the Article is intended as the guard of national values of Turkish society, which is conceived as a homogenous entity. The ostentatious display of this necklace in a glass case in the exhibition evokes the question if law is just an accessories to the bare power, which is also one of the critical issues in the current context of Turkey.

Didem Pekun ACAC SALT 201505
Didem Pekün, Of dice and men, 2011-ongoing. Photo by Barış Doğrusöz.

Didem Pekün’s Of dice and men (2011-ongoing) addresses recent social movements as well as their interruption of everyday life through her own narration. The two-channel video work, acting as an essayistic video diary, consists of a sequence of 26 entries that the artist has recorded from 2011 to 2015 in both Istanbul and London, where she now lives. A throw of the dice is symbolically thought in relation to the individual existence and the indeterminacy of the flow of everyday life. Interrupted with unpredictable ruptures, how is our subjectivity formed? Is it the order in which we live that shapes the perception of our surroundings, or the breakdown of a pattern? How do we react in such cases? Revolving around such questions, Pekün’s work includes certain moments in this span, some of which are related to the social movements and collective memory that include the march of LGBTI in Taksim, commemoration for Hrant Dink on January 19 and Gezi protests, while some others are constructed on the reflections of such events on artist’s daily life as well as her personal responses to them. Pekün traces the impact of such ruptures on herself by positioning herself as the narrator, and at the same time, she conceptually deals with the subject as such. Her narration together with the sound in the work creates a more immersive atmosphere. The transitions of scenes between the social events and her personal life also keeps in balance that the tranquility of a scene from her house, for instance, gives the viewer a moment of processing Pekün’s narration and the questions she raises. Pekün’s anecdotes follow the relentless political agenda of Turkey while she refers to the persistent events that still echo as the intolerable instances of injustice and oppression for many people such as Uludere Massacre and the Reyhanlı bombings. Thus, Of dice and men presents an archive that captures the spirit of time from a particular point of view with its subjective narration.

In conclusion, A Century of Centuries establishes a strong dialogue among the artistic positions presenting a historical account of diverse events ranging from the Antiquity to the recent past. It provides the possibility of approaching the specific history of this geography through different temporal and spatial parallels. In this way, one of its strongest features becomes that it sheds light on an unavowable history that requires immediate attention today for the imagination of a better future. Each artistic position in the exhibition paves the way for a multiple reading of history outside the official nation-building narration of history whose destructive consequences are yet to be faced in order for a more egalitarian and free society particularly with the past in question and the current political situation in Turkey. The exhibition proposes alternative perspectives on the present by constructing itself on a series of historical references, and accordingly, it encourages viewers to ask the question: How can tomorrow be different than today?


[1] Chto Delat newspaper, Issue 38, November 2014, p.13

[2] Catherine Malabou and Jacques Derrida, Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida, translated by David Wills, Stanford University Press, USA, 2004.