Vasiyetimdir: Nancy Atakan

When I consider writing a will, I see that there is no real reason. Any money I earned as a teacher has already gone towards supporting my parents, my children’s education, running our art initiative, 5533, making art work, and just life itself. Over the years I have received gifts of art work from or bartered with many artists and do have an art collection that I have already given to my children. All that will be left when I die is my art work and memories. Perhaps that is why I find documentation so very important. Isn’t an art work in one sense a form of documentation of a process or thought?

We are living in a precarious world without a strong legal structure to trust; nevertheless, a contract about the future of one’s art work could make one feel a bit more secure. Many issues come to mind, but I will focus on just one. Especially if a work is one of a kind, I would propose that something similar to this statement be included in certificates or contracts given to buyers when a work is sold:

Should you decide to resell any of my art work(s), you agree to give us (the artist, artist’s family or representing gallery) a first option to acquire the art work(s) at its/their fair market value before you offer it/them to anyone else. This first option shall be to either buy the art work(s) back or take it/them on consignment for sale as your agent for an agreed period of time that shall not be less than three (3) months.

Will this be adhered to? Probably not, but experience tells me that we need something. In a way it seems strange that I would propose this. After all, most of my work is digital and can be reproduced. As technology changes they just need to be upgraded. But, I like to tell stories…

In the 1970s during my first decade of living in Turkey, I did not make art work, but taught art in a middle school. In the early 1980s, I began to make watercolor paintings of my environment—inspiration came from everything: antique needlepoint designs, surrounding landscapes, water chestnuts, seashells. During this period I opened two solo exhibitions. While I kept a few of these mostly small paintings, I have no idea who bought the ones that were sold. After I began to write this text, I received an e-mail from a young graphic designer in Canada who had three of my watercolor paintings. She found me and sent photographs of my paintings hanging in her home. They are definitely mine and from this period.

In the late 1980s, I began to make abstract acrylic paintings on unprimed canvas trying to understand how Helen Frankenthaler worked and how this technique differed from the way I worked with watercolors on paper since both were done on absorbent surfaces with water-based paint. These were shown in another solo show in 1990. Likewise, several were sold to unknown buyers. 

After this exhibition, I moved on to combine shapes I saw in miniature paintings with shapes I saw in Byzantine icons to transform them into a technique on wood reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s combines. This entire series (I kept two) were sold to a newly opened hotel where for several years they were displayed in the entrance. When the hotel ownership changed, the ‘décor’ also changed and my art work disappeared. I assume they were destroyed. Now most are only a memory, but these 3-dimensional paintings contained glimpses of all the topics I continue to explore such as globalization, orientalism, family photographs, feminism, relationships, similarities, and differences.   

Between 1990 and 1995, I returned to do doctoral studies on conceptual art at Mimar Sinan University. My art practice changed. I stopped painting and focused on concept, process, and dialogue. The first work I did after finishing my studies was a photography series about tea that questioned the difference between photography and the then new technique of color photocopy. These photographs were sold to a restaurant. Again when the ownership changed, the photographs were transferred to a warehouse. Only by chance was I able to save them.

Until 2008, I did not work with a commercial gallery, but as I got older a gallery seemed more and more important. The gallery gives certificates of authenticity when works are sold and may help to follow their fate. Nevertheless, after exhibitions close, I carefully wrap and store my art work at 5533, our art initiative. But whether my archives and art work is sold or given to an institution, prominent collectors, or museums, their fate is still precarious. In Turkey, galleries, museums, and institutions close and collectors’ financial situations change. 

At 70, mortality becomes more of a concrete issue. When I am no longer, when I can no longer work, when I can no longer store and protect my legacy, what will happen? Chance will play a role as does memory, belief in the validity of my practice, and documentation.

Working as an artist, teacher, art historian, and art critic, American born Turkish artist Nancy Atakan has been a resident of Istanbul since 1969. Her art work has been represented by Pi Artworks since 2009 where she has had four solo shows in Istanbul. With Volkan Aslan, she co-founded 5533 Artist Initiative in 2008. In 1998, her book Alternatives to Painting and Sculpture was published and a revised second edition came out in 2009. Atakan earned her PhD in art history from Mimar Sinan University, Istanbul, in 1995. She has taught in the art departments of Robert College and Boğazici University, Istanbul. Some selected exhibitions include: Sporting Chances (solo), Pi Artworks London, UK (2016); Small Faces, Big Bodies, Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, Istanbul, Turkey, (2015);  Keeping on Keeping on, Treibsand Art Space on DVD, Zurich, Switzerland (2012); Dream and Reality- Modern and Contemporary Women Artists from Turkey, Istanbul Modern, Turkey (2011); Under My Feet I Want the World, Istanbul Next Wave, Akademie Der Kunste, Berlin, Germany (2009).

Vasiyetimdir* is a publication project that aims to explore how art works will subsist over long periods of time. Art works live in artist studios, private collections, museums, storage spaces, or simply in memories. But how far do the artists want to control what happens to their works when they are no longer? How do they want to exert their control? We directed these questions to the artists we are in dialogue with. We are accumulating their answers through

*Vasiyetimdir is a Turkish phrase that can roughly be translated into English as “It is my will that…” The phrase holds a tint of the melodramatic, mixed with a sentimental flair.

Vasiyetimdir was conceived by Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Özge Ersoy, and Merve Ünsal.