A Sudden Stop in Amsterdam

Lora Sariaslan

The exhibition bringing together Özgür Demirci and Fraser Stewart is aptly titled Sudden Stop* and indeed starts with one—an oversized toy car crashed into white bricks. The toy car seemingly takes us back to our childhood through the joy of going to an amusement park or driving there. Here, it is the moment of abrupt stop that is the focus. What happens when we are not running, not driving, not thinking, when we are not in control anymore? Can we still go on? Can we handle the “sudden stop”?

Fraser Stewart & Özgür Demirci, Sudden Stop, Corridor Project Space, Amsterdam, 2017. Photo by Fraser Stewart.

In Demirci’s video POV (2017) we see the world through the artist’s eyes (or the POV camera) as he is enjoying a bumper car drive in an amusement park: driving, crashing, and continuing to drive. No one’s hurt, no one complains, no injuries, no death toll. In short: no repercussions. Presented in a constant loop, the video is projected on a surface that is leaning against the wall, neither completely hung on the wall nor laying on the floor. This in-between placement of the video imitates the act of the assimilated form of driving which is the subject of the video—the safe zone of the in-betweenness of driving a bumper car, driving but knowing that you will really never crash leading to an in-between reality. 

The experience of death, which Demirci takes as an anchor in order to, in his own words, “tackle how in contemporary societies culture does not give any intellectual, emotional, psychological, sociological, or technical means to deal with death as a public and social experience” has led to this work. Crashes are instrumental to modern society as Demirci adds, “The crash can be political or sociological, creating different possible strategies for the future. There is no difference between a real car accident and a bumper car’s—the real object is getting used to having it. In order to produce new goods or ideas old ones should be crashed. That is why maybe bumper cars have no brakes, once you get in, you just accelerate and hit.”

Demirci’s biography contains an example that is exactly the opposite. The artist survived a car crash, ironically—and tragically—documented since it took place during a video shooting planned to become part of an artwork as he is driving on a highway in Turkey, and being filmed by a camera placed in a neighboring moving car. The viewer is suddenly confronted with a speeding car hitting Demirci’s. Staged or reality is the initial question in mind, only to realize that it is completely real, the hitter (accidentally) not achieving the sudden stop. The unexpected car crash captured on camera is free of any protection, just like the driver (the artist) and the accident we are witnessing is on view in the parallel space of the exhibition at De Kijkdoos.

Özgür Demirci, POV, Full HD Video, Color, Sound, 4’52”, 2017. Photo by Fraser Stewart.

J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash and the eponymously titled psychological thriller film written and directed by David Cronenberg from 1996 are instrumental for Demirci. The film tells the story of a group who takes sexual pleasure from car crashes, albeit, a line by the character Vaughan, “The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event,” turns into a central idea for Demirci. For the artist, this sentence represents the big businesses’ need for accidents/fragmentations/ restructuring in order to live, in other words, to not have a sudden stop.

Vaughan’s line also led to the installation in the parallel space of the exhibition in De Kijkdoos. Meaning a viewing box or peep show in Dutch, De Kijkdoos turned into a suitable setting for the installation that also focused on artists/writers/directors whose works were in the production stage and been affected by their fatal accidents. This is the moment that Demirci steps in and “creates” books by Albert Camus and Roland Barthes, or a movie that Theo Angelopoulos could not complete. Demirci employs Roland Barthes’s statement “The death of the author is the birth of the reader” while producing these works on their behalf. Barthes was hit by a laundry van in Paris, while walking home from a lunch given by François Mitterrand, the future president of France, and died a few weeks later from the complications of the crash. Barthes describes literature as a space “where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”. The death of the author marks the birth of literature, defined, precisely, as “the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin”. Indeed, the “modern writer” – or “scriptor” as Barthes calls him – can only mimic “a gesture forever anterior, never original” by recombining what has already been written. As Barthes puts it, “It is language which speaks, not the author” – or the scriptor for that matter. The key to a text is not to be found in its “origin” but in its “destination”: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”

The discrepancy between origin and destination lay at the core of Demirci’s quest, as in previous projects he has looked into the sub-culture of modifying cars and motorbikes (focusing on local versions ranging from Japan to Turkey) as a way of becoming part of a community for young men. In this case, ironically “creating” or “branding” an individual’s identity goes through the drive to be different and simultaneously the same as the other one(s) in the group. Imagine being dressed in the same manner, having the same haircut, and spending all your money/allowance on the modification of a vehicle, all in the name of being united, yet individual.

Fraser Stewart & Özgür Demirci, Sudden Stop, De Kijkdoos, Amsterdam, 2017. Photo by Suat Öğüt.

“THE LIARS UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED.” These words on the red computer screen create an immediate affiliation of a clear message that simultaneously unites and divides. Who are the Liars United, do we know them, do they surround us, and how can we be sure that they will never be defeated? What if they are defeated, what happens then? This statement is indeed the result of Fraser Stewart’s imagination. Creating an installation that revolves on making an identity for “The Liars United”, Stewart invites us to stop and think about “The Liars”. Are they imaginary, or completely real? Surrounded by tires and their marks on the white walls of the Corridor Project Space that cross the entirety of the exhibition space, the marks remind us of the skid marks in conjunction with accidents and the sudden stops.

Creating a trans-cultural work, meaning that its operative mode does not presuppose any specific education at all, any cultural knowledge, nor any hierarchy of interpretation, Stewart creates direct contact between text and his audience. He works in a sculptural mode, integrating ceramics with performance, film and video, photography, and printmaking to form installations as his tools for societal commentaries of which this exhibition is yet another example. The other component in his installation, the helmet, created in diverse colors and placed in the viewing boxes in De Kijkdoos as well as in the Corridor Project Space, may give the impression of the desired durability of this protective gear. Yet, made of ceramics, the helmet embodies a cunning contrast between its pre-determined protective function and made of the uttermost fragile and ancient medium of ceramics.

In Stewart’s artistic practice, failure is key to observe the way capitalism works, and also the means to consider the strength of failure in daily life. As he places the “branding” created for Liars United, we are surrounded with images of text and text as repository of images, through posters and tire marks. His collective imaginings may lead to a story that is fictional, but the contact with it is real. The notion of a sudden stop as a political upset—where the least expected suddenly stops you realizing that after the crash there are only damaged pieces left—relates to the current political atmosphere(s) that Stewart is trying to express.

Fraser Stewart, Liars United, Audio Loop, with animated text, Variable size, 2017. Photo by Suat Öğüt.

“I am not a racist, but…” were the words that Stewart was confronted with as he was sweating in a steam room in Amsterdam hours before the opening of this exhibition. Having decided to take a break after installing the exhibition, the confession of this sweating stranger seems to be the encapsulation of our times. To feel the urgent need to confess and confront at that moment of pause, and also to realize what is real and what is imagined. Should certain thoughts and sentences go through a sudden stop, besides, what do we do with the broken pieces left after the sudden stop?

The main thread connecting the work of the two artists is “the drive”—be it the literal drive and also the drive for identity. In Demirci’s case he looks into the identities of groups that willingly postulate themselves as “the other” through their modification of the vehicles, they also modify themselves. As Demirci sheds light on reality, Stewart creates fiction that is based on reality. Both artists create from a position, and use their artistic practice as a platform for production and negotiation. Sudden Stop exhibition encapsulates spaces of negotiation: negotiation with failure (what if the Liars United lose?) and negotiation with death. In Demirci and Stewart’s case, an allegory of their own experiences continuously shapes their thinking and practice, and there is (hopefully) no sudden stop for that.

Özgür Demirci , The death of the author is the birth of the reader, Installation, Book-DVD-Digital Print on Canvas, UV Print, 2017. Photo by Suat Öğüt.

Edited by Özge Ersoy

Lora Sariaslan is an art historian and curator.

*The exhibition Sudden Stop, with works by Özgür Demirci (1982, Turkey) and Fraser Stewart (1986, UK), was on view at Corridor Project Space in Amsterdam, March 10–April 7, 2017.