On Cengiz Çekil—Grave Markers

Cengiz Çekil, 12 Gravestones, 1994. Installation view from Exhibition / Installation, Şantiye Galeri, Izmir. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

The below text is part of a new series of monographic responses to the works of the late artist Cengiz Çekil (1945–2015). For this series, we invited artists and writers to write on Çekil’s conceptually rigorous, formally sparse practice, to be able to situate his works in the here and the now. Çekil’s use of quotidian materials to contemplate and comment on the trying circumstances in his native Turkey presents a visual lexicon that is straight-forward and condemning. His works retain their modus operandi of resistance, a politically charged concept that became a malleable, tangible material in his hands. As we try to grapple with what it means to publish with the artist at the center, his insistence on artists taking charge of their own processes of historicization comes to mind—”if not you, then who?”
—Merve Ünsal

Onur Ceritoğlu

I only saw photographs of Cengiz Çekil’s Exhibition / Installation (Şantiye Sanat Galerisi, Izmir, 1994). The altars and grave markers in this exhibition, I feel, are predecessors to the body of work about Northern Forests by KABA HAT, the artist collective that I’m part of. The similarities between images, forms, and materials used across different times and spaces host a sense of camaraderie between Çekil’s and KABA HAT’s works. The connections with daily life lock hands and scream, “We are still alive today!”, together.

In a conversation with curator Necmi Sönmez, Çekil says, “Political institutions had blessed death, but my only concern was to emphasize life’s longing for everything.” [1] At such times, how is this “longing for life” emphasized? By glorifying it? By commemorating the dead? Is this the reason why we, as KABA HAT, have turned to the same forms and acts as Çekil?   

Cengiz Çekil, A Mortal Monument, 1990. Installation view from A Large Exhibition 2, MSÜ Painting and Sculpture Museum, Istanbul. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

One of Çekil’s responses is his temporary monuments dedicated to those who lost their lives in the political turmoil of the 80s. For example, his A Mortal Monument (1990). With this body of work, the artist used materials related to the rapidly developing cities in Turkey, including briquette and bricks. These materials are also reminiscent of the migration from rural areas to cities in the 80s in Turkey, contributing to the growth of the impoverished population in shantytowns. Just like Çekil’s monuments, all of the shantytown developments can be shifted elsewhere overnight. The rural-urban migration articulated using a specific material connects different realms of knowledge and meaning through the physicality of that material. The word “monument” evokes the notion of permanence, but Çekil’s monuments are temporary both because of the materials used and the tentative relationships that he constructed between the works and the spaces they were in.  

KABA HAT, Grave Markers, 2015. Printed as postcards and distributed during the exhibition The Sun Cannot Be Covered Up By Mud at Tasarım Bakkalı, 2017. Drawings of the grave markers from Naci Eren’s Hece Tahtaları – Antalya-Burdur-Bolu-Muğla Çevresi [Grave Markers – Around Antalya-Burdur-Bolu-Muğla] Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, Istanbul, 1984.

The destruction of the forests during the construction of the Third Istanbul Bridge was something that we could not stop. These large-scale constructions  in Istanbul negatively impact the city, opening it up to exploitation through the increased demand for real estate development. In 2016, KABA HAT decided to do a work in this peripheral region of the city, and entered the construction site of the third bridge (that later opened in August 2016) to bear witness to the destruction. We saw that the construction teams uprooted trees and with dynamites, blew up rocks. Bulldozers and construction machines marked the area that was sacrificed for the highway. How many trees, how many rocks were blown up before we even got there? 

KABA HAT’s If only we had more time before the dynamite (2017), a work based on Istanbul’s Northern forests, is an example of using soil for its raw form in installations. The video component of this larger body of work from the Northern Forests depicts KABA HAT marking the site of rocks and trees right before the demolishment with dynamites. We also created a temporary monument/grave using the branches and pieces of wood we found in the area to mark the place. We do not know what happened to these graves after we ran away before another dynamite explosion.

We also selected a group of grave markers from a book by scholar Naci Eren, published in 1984, which documents his visits to Anatolian villages, specifically focusing on the regions of Antalya, Burdur, Bolu, and Muğla, to map the shapes, sizes, and types of materials of grave markers. We combined these outline drawings with photographs that we took at the construction site. We produced postcards using these combined images.

Çekil’s use of grave markers to create an altar-like space within the exhibition also appear to carry similar concerns of commemorating and creating a ritualistic space. In his Exhibition / Installation, there are many folkloric elements that refer to existence, death, and faith. The artist placed 12 grave markers [2], framed, on the floor. Used as temporary markers of where a body is buried, these objects resemble the human form in silhouette. Do they refer to the deaths of 12 people who were important to the artist? Or do they have to do with 12 concepts that have metaphorically died in our day? This mode of creating open-ended juxtapositions through found shapes is a formal sensibility that we feel very close to. 

During the performance at Tasarım Bakkalı in Istanbul in 2017, we repeated the following lines:

In pursuit of the time passed from the first day until today
On the still water in between
Just like the concealed river that flows below the forests past
Or like the sewage channels passing under the city
life continues to flow. [3]

These lines now call to mind Çekil’s installation What Time Is It?, which includes objects and works on paper from 2008. The moment this question is asked, time stops.

In KABA HAT’s After the dynamite  performance (2017), the recording mentions the memories and spaces that belong in the past—they are removed from us and become road maps that are emptied and filled with meaning through the ritualistic repetitions of bodily gestures. Repetition is a somniloquy to better trace the past. Our visible silhouettes are spectral presences. Our collective past plays a major role in the freezing of that moment in the performance. We hope to be able to return to that time through calling for the past. Working the mud and spreading it across the wall, the bodies change form and become one with the forest, continuing the cyclicality of life. There is faith in a mystical existence. As such, the performance is not dissimilar to a ritual or a rite of passage.

The formal and conceptual connections between the works by Çekil and KABA HAT suggest an affinity for folk culture and faith as well as a specific way of reacting to authorities that permeates the day to day. While these attitudes might not lead to revolutions, they point to the emergence of visual and conceptual strategies as a form of resistance and survival.  


[1] Necmi Sönmez. Cengiz Çekil: A Witness. Yapı Kredi Publishing, 2008.

[2] A grave marker is placed at the head or the foot of the dead in Anatolia and is usually made of wood. The purpose is to temporarily mark the grave.

[3] The performance text for After the Dynamite by KABA HAT.

Onur Ceritoğlu is a visual artist and an academic, trained as an architect. Based in Istanbul, he employs drawing, photography, video, and text to delve into urban phenomena, regenerating them in the context of socially engaged art practices and installations. Often, he works with discarded found objects in his installations to recontextualize the urban life through a material-driven experience. His ongoing PhD research is based on scrap dealers [Çıkmacılar] in the urban reconstruction of Istanbul as social infrastructures who salvage to be demolished buildings for reuse and recycling purposes.