Meditations on and through Cengiz Çekil’s Diary

Cengiz Çekil, Diary, 1976.
Cengiz Çekil, Diary, 1976.
Cengiz Çekil, Diary, 1976.

Özge Karagöz

At the beginning, I wasn’t planning to write the below text, the point of departure of which is the artist Cengiz Çekil’s 1976 work Diary; a recent re-encounter with it seemed to demand its timely reconsideration. This re-encounter was triggered by an unfortunate event—on November 10, 2015, the artist passed away. In the art worlds, the death of an artist paradoxically means increased visibility. In the aftermath of hearing the saddening news of Çekil’s death, I read a few commemorative texts written on the artist and his oeuvre. [1]

One text was primarily about his Diary, and it included the above photographic documentation of it, rendering this re-encounter possible. In the following days, Çekil’s Diary gained another meaning for me, a more singular and affective one, as I couldn’t help but feel intensely with the work. Considering the difference between my earlier impulse to make a brief art historical reading of Diary in a comparison with the Japanese artist On Kawara’s Today series, I also realized that the way I, as well as others, make sense of this work was in itself worthy of reflection. What you are about to read here is a meditation on Çekil’s Diary that is followed by a reflection on its course of reception—both by “local” and “international” audiences—and perhaps also another text of commemoration. A commemoration that perceives this particular work of art produced in 1976 as an event that is not only able to persist into the present but also to instigate future critical inquiry about how art historical meaning-making functions between different geographies.

On view, there is an open notebook, the pages of which are colored with a pink and yellow hue. Looking at its open pages, the text stamped in blue ink comes to the fore. It reads Bugün de yaşıyorum [I am still alive today]. Ornamenting the upper left sides of the two open pages, the small flower figures colored in bright red and green grab your attention next. You then finally notice the six digit number stamped on the upper right side of the page on the right. Sequenced one after another, without any break, the combination of the digits feels arbitrary at first. Ordered yet still arbitrary in relation to what they signify, the arbitrariness of the digits brings to mind those of meticulously ordered state bureaucracies. What implies this feeling of the bureaucratic is the sort of dated, yet timeless, serif font with which the text is stamped. If you follow a logical meaning-making impulse, invited by the date reference in the sentence (I am still alive today), you may realize that that arbitrary looking number indeed suggests a particular date, 13 May 1976. The bureaucratic feeling, here, then reminds you with the one that is accompanied by a sense of powerlessness that many felt during the socially and politically turbulent times of the 1970s in Turkey.

Within this triangulation in the composition—the text, the flower figures, and finally the numbers—the painfully bureaucratic feeling that the stamped date conveys contrasts heavily with the bright flower figures. The flower figures have a quality of the folkloric in their unrealistically detailed and sharp rendering coupled with bright hues. This folkloric quality is also accentuated by the warm, pink-yellow hue of the pages. Such a balance of visual affects, of the coldness of the “bureaucratic” and the warmth of the “folkloric,” generates a palpable feeling, and, in doing so, brings the artist alive into our presence, as if he is still a feeling body, in flesh. In doing so, the work connects the viewer with the artist and his enormous affective capacity—one that was so enormous that it became inevitable for him not to pass over the desolation that permeated the everyday. The work conveys the feeling that the artist was tormented by a sense of hopelessness triggered by the logically impenetrable state operations, and that, at the same time, he saw a warm optimism in the folkloric. Through this work, the artist thus appears to be full of vigor because it is he who appropriated both the “folkloric” and the “bureaucratic” that almost always exclude the experience of individuals, who made a timeless effort to express his torment and to connect with those feeling similar kinds of despair, who was powerful enough to claim the particularity of his experience by resisting the strong bureaucratic currents. Those currents that systematically categorize you out every day, that take your individuality away, and that turn you into a mere number. Did I mention that the title of this work of art is Diary?

Upon an initial glance at Çekil’s Diary and before letting yourself be open to feel with the work, however, it is difficult to resist to a different meaning-making approach that is dominated by an impulse to compare it to On Kawara’s Today series (1966-2013). The striking conceptual connection between the two works was indeed one of the first things that came to my mind in encountering Diary. In his Today series, Kawara rendered the dates that he began painting on a monochrome surface since 1966; the times he couldn’t finish a painting the same day, he destroyed it. Within this daily routine that Kawara set for himself, each painting became a record of his survival. A record, however, that he painstakingly needed to create every single day, perhaps because he knew that the opposite of such a record would be that of his death. Yet the fact that Kawara decided to paint the date every day, even though at times he couldn’t finish or find time to do so, expresses certain optimism—one that might have helped him to overcome, although for only as long as a day, the fear of death, and thus to act, to paint, to be.

In both Diary and the Today series, death and hope are the unspoken yet immanently present themes underpinning the works. What the two artists also share is their outstanding mastery over the use of their modest mediums—modest both in terms of their means of production and size—loading them with an enormous amount of affective and conceptual meaning. While Kawara painted on small-scale canvases, the measurements of which varied between eight by ten inches and sixty-one by eighty-nine inches; Çekil applied seal print in an ordinary, mass-produced notebook, measured eight and half by almost six inches.

My own impulse to compare Çekil’s Diary to Kawara’s Today series is only one example; up until the present day, others also picked up the conceptual similarity between their works. One such instance was in the monograph that the critic Necmi Sönmez wrote on Çekil’s oeuvre in 2008 [2], while another was in the curation of a 2011 exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York [3], which also served as an occasion for a comparative reading in an excellent short analysis, again on this website, by Merve Ünsal, the editor of and a regular contributor to [4]. In Çekil’s monograph, for instance, Sönmez drew attention to the similarities between Diary and Kawara’s I Got Up… series (1968-1979), in which Kawara sent a series of telegrams that read “I am still alive.” That viewers both from older generations, such as Sönmez (b. 1968) and younger generations from Turkey, such as myself (b. 1990) and Ünsal (b. 1985), inevitably make a reference, when looking at a work of an artist from Turkey, to a work of another artist, who has been included into the Western European and North American art historical canon, I think, deserves a closer look.

In the remainder of the text, I will reflect upon this impulse to compare Çekil’s Diary to Kawara’s works. By doing so, my aim is not to undermine the art historical significance of Çekil’s Diary, but to use the story of its reception as a point of entry to scrutinize the conditions under which artists from “local” contexts can attract canonizing attention of the “international art” worlds. This impulse should, of course, come as no surprise considering the abilities of both artists to give expression to profound feelings through modest means of production. Yet, without disregarding the richness in reading their works together, one should also question the relative absence of other meaningful art historical and literary references between works by artists from Turkey. Why is it that art writers tend to compare works of art produced from Turkey predominantly with the ones that are well canonized from the “international” artistic centers, namely, the ones that are located at North America and Western Europe? In pondering this question here, I will limit my inquiry only to younger generations of art writers from Turkey, therefore exclude a converging yet different line of inquiry governed by the same question in relation to older generations. This is not to say that the latter is less urgent but that it demands a different set of considerations specific to that generation.

Such art historical tendencies to compare works of artists from Turkey to those of others that are canonized by the “international” artistic centers are often left unaddressed. In the case of the younger generations of artists and art writers, the reason for this, I think, is not so much that there is a shortage of works of art or literature from Turkey for comparative readings, but that the younger generations are not educated well enough with Turkey’s own art histories and that narratives for its art histories are lacking. In other words, it appears to be less of a question of individual preference of younger generations than a question pertaining to the present state of the art historical knowledge production and dissemination. In the lack of broader cogent art historical narratives for the visual arts written from Turkey (except a few notable cases, which nevertheless remained limited in their dissemination), we then inevitably orient ourselves towards the existing ones that are able to give meaning to singular works of art. [5] And such narratives are, more often than not, written from the “international” artistic centers. This orientation becomes especially the case when we are first taught the international art historical canon at schools long before we cultivate a curiosity to learn about Turkey’s histories of art. My aim in raising this issue is not to call for a retreat into a provincialist art historical discourse—for we already have plenty of those, especially from the past—and to disregard an enormous critical potential that comparative art historical studies between different geographies hold. Instead, I wish to point out a specific problem that emerges from the fact that the art historical narratives that we, subjects from Turkey or similarly those from other “local” contexts, look at are almost always those of North America and Western Europe. In the light of this one-sided direction of orientation, the question then becomes the uneven relations of the two different contexts of art historical production, between a “local” and an “international” one.

Precisely located at a point where the “local” and the “international” meet, the story of the course of reception of Çekil’s Diary exemplify how an artist from a “local” context can attract canonizing attention of the “international art” worlds. Not surprisingly, a biennial exhibition provides a contact zone for this meeting. “A small notebook in a vitrine at the 2009 Istanbul Biennial caught my attention,” wrote Christian Rattemeyer, an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York [6]. He then went on to say that Diary “marks a watershed moment in Turkish art, a gesture of local political commentary executed with utmost conceptual economy. And its inclusion in the 2009 Istanbul Biennial marked a late discovery of its maker, Cengiz Çekil, by a wider international audience.” As his text mentions elsewhere, the presentation of Diary at the 2009 Istanbul Biennial also led to its acquisition for MoMA’s collection and later to its inclusion in the aforementioned international group exhibition, I am still alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing, curated by Rattemeyer himself, at the museum in 2011. In this exhibition, Çekil’s Diary was shown together with Kawara’s Today series as well as with works by other internationally acclaimed artists including León Ferrari, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lee Lozano, Robert Morris, and Danh Vo. As this brief anecdote reveals, the inclusion of Diary in the 2009 Istanbul Biennial proved to be an event changing the course of the historization, thus reception of Çekil’s work.

Although Çekil was a prolific artist throughout his career beginning in the early 1970s, a wider critical recognition of his work in Turkey can be said to take place only as late as in the late 2000s. His works were exhibited at numerous group exhibitions including Yeni Eğilimler [New Trends in Art] in 1977; Öncü Sanatından Bir Kesit [A Cross Section of Avantgarde Turkish Art] in 1986, 1987, 1988; Toplu Sergi [Joint Exhibit] in 1986, 1987; and the 4th International Istanbul Biennial in 1995. Yet, the first comprehensive presentations of his oeuvre were in 2008 through the aforementioned monographic publication written by Sönmez, and in 2010 with a solo exhibition at Rampa Gallery, a commercial art gallery in Istanbul.

The publication of his monograph in 2008 and the solo exhibition in 2010 were comprehensive in scope, thus were of great importance in doing the groundwork for historization of Çekil’s oeuvre. Yet, they nevertheless remained as singular attempts at historization that are not connected to the broader art historical narratives in Turkey nor to those of Western Europe and North America. The presentation of Diary in the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, on the other hand, resulted in its inclusion in the collection of an internationally influential art museum in North America and in a group exhibition along with internationally prominent artists. Diary’s presentation at the 2009 Istanbul Biennial thus provided a possibility, although indirectly, for its inclusion in broader art historical narratives.

The presentation of Çekil’s Diary together with both Kawara’s Today series as well as “I am alive” in the 2011 group exhibition at MoMA is, as it were, just another iteration of the art historical comparison that was first recorded in Çekil’s monograph written by Sönmez in 2008. Yet, the MoMA’s reiteration appears to be more effective in positioning Çekil within “international” art historical narratives particularly because it has been done so by a leading North American art museum, which has been particularly influential throughout the twentieth century in shaping the central art historical narratives—ones that are able to give meaning to singular works of art by not only connecting them with works of other artists but also by placing them under art movements or other similar broader categorizations. These narratives become even more internationally prominent when such historizations on broader levels are rarely done effectively from the “local” contexts.

That Çekil’s work was able to succeed in such a long and convoluted trajectory to be included in the broader art historical narratives proves both the significance of his practice as well as his patience as an artist. Yet, there are also other important artists from Turkey as well as from other “local” contexts, too, who did not, and most probably will not, succeed in such a trajectory. This is not because their art is of less art historical or critical value, but because how the internationally central art historical structures of evaluation operate for the majority of artists who work from outside of them. Paradoxically, however, these “international” artistic centers are also the ones that are able to produce coherent and cogent art historical narratives, unlike “local” artistic centers. This situation presents a problem unique for the “local” artistic contexts and a related yet different one for the “international” artistic contexts. What needs to and can be done, then, is to carefully reconsider our art historical meaning-making impulses, and, when necessary, to take a step back into self-reflexivity before walking ahead.


[1] Christian Rattemeyer, “Passages, Cengiz Çekil (1945–2015),” Artforum, January 21, 2016,

[2] Necmi Sönmez, Cengiz Çekil, A Witness (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Publications, 2008), pg. 40.

[3] I Am Still Alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing, curated by Christian Rattemeyer, took place at MoMA on March 23–September 19, 2011

[4] Merve Ünsal, “An Encounter: Cengiz Çekil at MoMA,”, April 19, 2011,

[5] For a discussion on master narratives for twentieth-century art and on the way they function, see James Elkins, Master Narratives and Their Discontents (New York: Routledge, 2005).

[6] Christian Rattemeyer, “Passages, Cengiz Çekil (1945–2015),” Artforum, January 21, 2016,

Edited by Merve Ünsal

Özge Karagöz is a writer and researcher, currently pursuing her MA degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She holds a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from Sabancı University in Istanbul. She is currently working on her MA thesis on Turkey’s artistic discourse in the period 1979-1995. In parallel to her MA thesis, she is also in the process of writing her Non-Thesis, an autobiographical text that reflects upon the relationship of the body to creative and scholarly productions.