Challenging Knots

Sera Marshall

I have always had a very contentious relationship with the creative process and the wider art world—often oscillating between a sense of disdain and a deep yearning for art. After spending over three years living in an area where contemporary art was only accessible with semi-decent Wi-Fi connection and never in person, I was delighted to be back in Ankara and eagerly looking into the capital’s often underestimated art scene.

Photographers, by their very nature, have immense difficulty expressing themselves with words. So when I went to attend the modest book launch of Cemil Batur Gökçeer’s work – Düğüm (2017) – at Ka Photography Atelier, I was nothing sort of stunned that the artist spent two hours before a crowd of around 100 people, trying to translate into words what his book meant, and what it was.

I was lucky. I had arrived a little early and was able to “read” the book in full. It is a beautiful object; although smaller than A5, the size does not cramp the photographs beyond recognition nor distort their meaning, the paper is tactile, and the yellow cover is immediately gripping, drawing the reader in. One instinctively wants to pick it up, and therein lies half the battle. Once a book is in your hands, you are compulsively going to open the cover and look at what it is inside. Photobooks are inherently challenging. We are accustomed to idly flipping through most image-dominated publications, only ever looking at an image for a moment. Rarely do we end up thinking about the relationship of the images to each other or to the text. Photobooks demand to be read, rather than merely looked at. 

Düğüm is not an easy story to read. The few pieces of text provide vital context: the period during which the images were taken (2010-2012), the places the images were captured (Konya-Aksaray), the local myth that sent Gökçeer down this creative path (the story of a woman and a djinn). The photographs and their flow are akin to waves building up momentum, force, crashing and then dissolving into calm waters once more. 

The motifs of couples and of duality, echoes throughout and it is striking that there is only one all-female portrait in the entire book. In the exploration of a relationship between a woman and a djinn, it is almost as though Gökçeer has sought to capture a djinn on film. Gökçeer has somehow managed to photograph a highly recognizable sight—a shepherd in his traditional Anatolian felt cloak—and make the shepherd look eerie and other-worldly. The one portrait of two women lying comfortably on a bed, their bodies seemingly blending together to the point where one could be forgiven for thinking it is one beautiful creature with two supine-eyed handsome faces.

Gökçeer presents the reader with a set of blank pages at two points in the book. This is jarring, not because it impacts the work negatively, but rather in a world where Instagram never presents us with “nothing” to look at, it is almost shocking to be forced to look at nothing, especially in analogue. Yet even those “empty pages” are not voids; they foreshadow the photos to come. The artist deliberately chose 80 gm paper for the translucency to better show the shadow of the next image, a decision he admitted agonizing over. Indeed, next to the finished version of Düğüm stood a stack of 6 or 7 draft books. Different iterations, various experiments, attempts at trying to conjure the story into how it ought to be. The creative process is long and hard, and also just pure magic. 

It is not often that an artist allows viewers to see incomplete or early versions of a work, especially not alongside the final iteration. Photographers are particularly neurotic bunch: a colleague once printed the same image 28 times each with a very slight difference in colour balance, and went on to destroy all but the “perfect” one out of the 28. In this regard, there is something highly disarming about the manner in which Gökçeer displays his vulnerabilities. Unlike others, he does not claim to be a modern-day Midas, where everything he touches turns out perfect.

Try—and he did try—Gökçeer cannot verbalize what Düğüm is trying to convey. What did he speak about in the pregnant pauses was the tangible fear that all photographers live with: What if no one understands my images in the way I intend them? What if no one sees what I see? To quote the last terrifying line of Samuel Beckett’s Play: “Am I as much as… being seen?” Gökçeer’s attempts to address these complex anxieties transported me back a decade, to 2007. And the classroom in which I would show my work to other young, aspiring photographers wrecked with uncertainty, fearful that no one would see what I saw.

Photography is perhaps the most democratic of art forms. Just as every citizen has the right to vote, nearly every citizen in 2017 possesses a smartphone with a semi-decent camera. Not only do we all take photographs incessantly, but the multitude of platforms on which we share and spread our images seem to know no bounds. For visual souls, this reality is horrendous to navigate. Gökçeer spoke about the choice of self-publishing and its adventures: driving around the industrial neighbourhood Ostim, tracking down and finding the right paper, how the bookbinder kicked him off the premises, and more!

These adventures have left their mark on Düğüm, both in the form of the yellow book cover but also in the shape of a puncture in the bottom corner of the pages near the spine. The puncture is meant for the thread for the binding, but it is obsolete. I had noticed this imperfection when I first read the book, and it made me think that this book was evidently produced locally. The printers and bookbinders in Turkey generally find photographers to be a peculiar and, as I mentioned before, highly neurotic bunch. (They are not wrong in these observations). Something happens to craftsmen when they produce only for money and forget how to produce with pride. Gökçeer’s struggle with the bookbinder—Osman—was a dance between two craftsmen, both challenging the other to create with more. More care, more integrity, more sincerity. 

At one point during the artist talk, a member of the audience asked Gökçeer why he had not approached a well-known art-book publisher to produce Düğüm. Gökçeer is, after all, an artist recognized both in Turkey and abroad. Why produce this work, at such difficulty and with such small quantity (there are currently only 136 copies) when a larger production and distribution would have been possible otherwise. The critical mass of acceptance and desirability of which art (or other commodities stemming from sub-cultures) that must be reached to be deemed “viable” destroy the work at hand. In other words: To hand over a work like Düğüm to publishers like Phaidon or Yapı Kredi Yayınları would be nothing short of fucking it over. The intimacy and the rawness intrinsic to the way Düğüm was produced and distributed is a stance against Photographs as Populism.

Gökçeer is not appealing to the lowest common denominator, nor is he interested in courting the international art audience or becoming a brand, collectible and all those things that artists are expected to become in order to survive and be “financially viable.” All he cares for is whether or not you see what he sees when you look at the photographs he has captured and brought before us.

All images are of Cemil Batur Gökçeer’s Düğüm, 2017. 

Sera Marshall studied Fine Art Photography at Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design and Glasgow School of Art. After working as an assistant curator and a gallery assistant as well as producing art of her own, she developed an intense aversion to the art world and has since worked in a range of different sectors. However, she has never successfully managed to give up art entirely. She has a growing collection of works by young photographers and artists from across Europe and Turkey. She even still takes and makes photographs although she does not know how she feels about this.