This text, written between August 2019 and June 2021, is a sister to the text and image-based work Debt to Memory (2020), published as part of Re: [aap_2019], and shares some of the key thoughts on photography, memory, and loss in question.
Ayşe İdil İdil
I arrive back home in Istanbul around midnight. I live on a major street with heavy foot and car traffic. My downstairs neighbor is a prominent figure among the locals, always out on his window, eyeing passersby and making small talk. I learned he was an actor when I first moved into my apartment. To me, he is a nice guy who lets my deliveries in and organizes old utility bills by apartment number. Sometimes we talk and sometimes we just exchange polite smiles. Once, he invited me over for his homemade rakı and I politely responded, “Maybe another time.”
After being away for a couple of months and at the end of a 500 kilometer drive, I stand in front of my building and try to remember what my keys looked like. I myself look weatherworn not unlike my sandals—rough and burnt from the wind, the sun, and the sea. And against all my estrangement, I look up to see the familiar face of my neighbor (how easily one gets used to things).
But now, instead of the wide-open curtains and his glass of rakı, there is a photograph of him looking out, placed in front of the curtains drawn-shut, as if he had to go somewhere and left it as a stand-in. The photograph comes nothing short of its subject in animating the half “panoptic”1, half home-y feeling I get when entering the building. Having a short Good Will Hunting moment, I ask myself: Where could he have gone? And then it hits me—he must be dead.
I encountered my neighbor’s absence for the first time not when he died but when walking home late at night one month after, his image was gone.
About a year before this encounter, I was driving on the bridge across the Bosphorus, thinking about my dad. Whenever I think of my dad, I’m in a car, moving. We would drive back and forth over the same bridge when I was a kid (he did 120 kilometers per weekend, driving me to and fro his place; I would be asleep for some of those hours and every time I stirred, I was reassured to find him still at the steering wheel).
His image is carved into my head in his old Toyota Corona and it’s an instant throwback every time I drive. After his passing away in late 2016, really anywhere and anything picturesque became an instant throwback to him, more like a catapultback, as he was a restless photographer and I can’t not wonder if this or that is something he would have wanted to keep an image of. I thought of the infinite photographs he took when alive, which he then left behind: sunsets, seascapes, friends, family, especially my childhood, our cat, his surgeries, so on and so forth. He was an avid recorder of moments.
Like most children of divorce, I spent limited time with him (240 minutes per week took place in the car). Maybe, his habit of taking and keeping photos started with those of me (he even had a photo of the two of us staring out into the sea and the sunset, painted photorealistically on canvas). When I would visit him, we tried to make the most of every second, so even the individualistic activities were done side by side, like me watching TV laying down next to him playing games on his computer, or him sitting on the toilet every morning for an hour with the door left agape and me sitting in the hallway with my back against the wall facing the bathroom door to chat with him. An hour is 3600 seconds that could be spent together.
Growing up, I never really understood this endless recording. In art school, I learned about the nature of photography as a resource for the modernist utopia of immortality (to freeze a moment and cheat/own death2) and it tainted photography as a mode of souvenir keeping. For this, I found dad’s act of capturing excessive.
The cutout, still remains
Leaving my apartment the day after my first encounter with my neighbor’s image hanging right above the entrance of my building, I see it’s already changed. Looking back at it to get a better understanding of my unease the night before, there are now flowers left on the windowsill behind which hangs a life-size portrait of him. Whoever is behind this cutout gesture perhaps wanted to commemorate him with warmth, but the act seemed not only about sharing his memory with friends or people who knew him, but also with the rest of the world, the alien public that we call “strangers.” Even if, thinking of miscommunication and mistranslation, to say that we are not aliens amongst friends and family is perhaps also hypocritical.
As I failed to take my eyes off of his, I entertained the idea of making multiple cutouts in different positions in different lighting conditions for different times of the day, and interchange them for eternity like a life-long animation. Though one can’t even call it “life-long” as the image lingers beyond death.
Going through my dad’s belongings, I had to make difficult decisions on what to keep. Everything held in itself memories of him but obviously I couldn’t keep it all: all the dusty china, and the crystalware, and the medical books alongside pulp fiction, with various coffee tables stacked on top of one another, paintings sticking out left and right, with crumbling plastic bags filled with ancient foreign newspapers hiding fake silverware mixed with real silverware, perhaps reminiscent of the piles and piles of photographs of warm and intimate memories alongside those of strangers, making the task of sorting inevitably that much harder (this would only become worse after my uncle’s death two years later, leaving me the eldest caretaker of all that remains from that side of the family). Because of this habit of collecting that the two brothers had shared, I developed a dislike towards memorabilia and souvenirs and at the time kept only what was functional3 to me at my house and in my practice, and a box of photographs. I was angry at anything decorative, perhaps because my dad was a mild hoarder, perhaps because it felt like I was betraying his memory by letting myself be affected by the objects bearing his aura, instead of simply feeling it on my own Perhaps, understanding this unending motive to take photographs as a way of keeping me during my absence is conflicting—as he was one half of what caused it—and, indignantly, why the word betrayal comes to my mind when thinking of his images.
Eventually it got harder to live in the same house with the box. It’s not a big box, 42 x 56 x 21 cm, it doesn’t take up that much space, just sits in a corner and it upsets me that I can’t throw the photographs away.4 It puzzles me to think about why these take up physical space in my living area; it can’t be that they’re merely signifiers of memories that I would like to remember but can’t, because again, that is betrayal (for this, I liked also keeping photographs of people and places I didn’t know, photographs I thought were cheesy or failed shots). To refuse this betrayal on my part, I rarely look at the photographs and I never hung them anywhere, which seems meaningless and superstitious now.
In a notebook I recently found, left from one of my college courses, I write (regarding something of Marguerite Duras’s): “Going back to memories always lets them be authored.” Maybe it’s not the betrayal but the resistance against change5… When I shared some of these ideas with a dear friend, he mentioned the “debt to memory” and “the right to forget.”
The (invisible) labour
In late 2018 I was preparing for a show at Poşe, an artist-run space in Istanbul, so the box came out this time for a different purpose—it usually made an appearance when I wanted to show guests that one photo of me at age 11 with five servings of food and a potbelly (I imagine everyone has an aunt who keeps a box of old photographs to bring out during family gatherings). To see if I could figure out why I kept them, I tried to categorize the images by place, feeling, era—no-go. Mostly those of people and objects I didn’t have a personal connection to, and some of hidden or decapitated faces intrigued me. I used such anonymous images and objects to generate an “‘effect’ [that] posits a kind of chronology where there is none. … The ‘effect’ creates nothing so much as a rhetorical hole in time, but only in order to fill that hole in advance with some false history or phantom memory for the individual viewer” (Joselit). The images were accompanied by found objects missing limbs or resembling a foreign one: A piece of lumber resembling the front legs of a horse, a ceramic horse figure missing two of its legs, a Dire Strait
s cassette mispronounced itself into a cover band.
Using forces of anonymity and connotation in this way made me feel like I was able to distance myself from my connection to these images and objects: It wasn’t about me or my dad, it was about the provokable nostalgia, and the production of sensations and of a stream of consciousness, through mere arrangement (of images, sounds, objects, etc).
The notion of an original evokes an understanding of possession, which I find later on is my problem with mementos, heritage, and memories. The relationship between the original and what I will call for now “the other” is interesting when one can get a similar feeling through either—it renders the originality of anything mere chronology. Such, for me, are thoughts, and memories. Everything is borrowed, all appropriated.
Looking at the picturesque seascape and being reminded of my dad, his aura is everywhere, and it is able to change and move on.6 Before me and after him, it can exist. It can exist through the anonymous images and objects, within the viewer in their own terms. Having those photographs around physically made me question whether by thinking I own them I restrain the way my memories exist, freezing them in time, because I can’t be their owner, only their caretaker.7
Musician Leyland James Kirby has a long running project as The Caretaker in which, “sourced from a mysterious collection of 78s, these vague snippets of archaic sonics reflect the ability of Alzheimer’s patients to recall the songs of their past, and with them recollections of places, people, moods and sensations.” Throughout the exhibition, this work was played for the morning rush passersby, through the space’s windows onto the streets, and also through the independent online radio Modyan. The ghostly sounds oozing onto the streets were to activate the public in evoking the aforementioned nostalgia, production of sensations and of a stream of consciousness.
Through the term “caretaker,” I’m able to think of myself as the caretaker of my father’s belongings, his memories, his aura, and the way in which I can accept this position is only possible through sharing them, surrounding them with good company (like the elegant front legs of a horse, or a serene text8 by Deniz Kirkali on the sea). Caretaking is appropriating by nature, appropriating as repurposing, repurposing memories, auras, life? I find comfort in thinking of mementos and ephemera in these terms: as energy regeneration. Borrowing texts from Kirkali and Danny Floyd, I was their caretaker for the time being, and I was to surround them with good company, such as other borrowed things: images, objects, thoughts, and feelings.
With no origins or points of arrival, thoughts, feelings, memories, and everything else turned into a sort of part-whole relationship, perhaps a meronymy of energy. What memories are to an aura, rocks are to a sea-border.9
Maybe one could talk of an image’s place within the memory as a whole, or within the world of many memories—the semantic relations go on forever. I was instantly imagining the space at Poşe with boxes. They were to be the same color as the walls, morphing into a part of the structure—anonymous. What’s inside was to remain unknown, opening the whole installation up to free associations. At the end, what’s inside and what was left outside, behind, were irrelevant. The existence of borders doesn’t mean that they are not permeable (relationships, communication, archives). This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that everything in life is appropriated, there are just endless ways to connect.
At the time, I went to great lengths to prove to myself that the installation was a controlled exploitation of feelings and that I wasn’t specifically affected by any of it—a far reach at that point because now that I look back I can see that what I called an “idiosyncratic” navigation was just asking the viewer to do the work for me, and it was rather haphazardly if not lazy. While I was concentrating on visualizing how I navigated the accumulated (the archive, compilation, inheritance, debris), I was actually outputting how much I didn’t know how to, and this (even within myself) untranslatable state ended up as anonymous, white, empty boxes quite fittingly, while most of what I do is research the translatability of any thought or feeling.
Artist Jason Lazarus keeps “an archive of photographs and photo ephemera deemed by public participants as “too hard to keep and too painful to destroy,” in which he offers to be the bearer you can’t be. I’m drawn to this project for two reasons. First, the idea of becoming the caretaker (rather than the owner) of an archive once its owners are gone interests me. Because an archive, like thoughts and feelings, is valuable if it’s shared, put into circulation, allowed to live and breathe. And second, I can think of reasons for being more drawn to the unfamiliar photographs within my father’s collection, the anonymous images in my box, but maybe they are just too easy to keep, their source relating to my father without the illusion of representing or re-animating him. On a lighter note, they are filled with a backhanded sort of nostalgia full of potential futures not yet mourned.
There is much literature on reviving the dead. While the 1985 flick Re-Animator infamously brings back the dead through plastic-gore, visceral-horror black comedy, Kelly Christian examines the Tupac Shakur hologram as “a stepping stone to a bizarre cultural moment in which a body can be re-animated with technological aid into some kind of virtual continuum.” Every day I went in and out of the building looking up at the cutout, the still eyes stared out from their window. I got more upset every time I saw it because how could I be looking and feeling completely different each time I faced it and yet it stayed the same? One thing most zombie literature have in common is that the dead don’t come back right and it really didn’t come back right—it remained still.
When I got my first tattoo, my dad didn’t speak to me for a week. It was a drawing of a wave I saw somewhere and wanted to get tattooed because Elliott Smith had written a line on tidal waves. Waves are essentially the same as each other yet never are; impossible to compare with one another (endless bummer10), in motion all the time, bringing with them some of the previous water and debris while taking back some anew. I know there is a wave metaphor for life or energy in Buddhism, but can they also relate to memories and on how to keep on remembering, perhaps with change11?
I’ve come to think of memory as time travel, accepting change allows for it. Working with some of the stuff that were left to me from my dad for An absent door, always open at Poşe was sometimes like filling in the blanks,12 which doesn’t necessarily mean that the output is fictional. All communication is subjective and filling-in-the-blanks. Thinking of memories in this way makes it possible to be a part of both past and future. The images and objects I’ve mentioned above as anonymous are in a way resurrected through resemblance, connotation, and free association. Could my late neighbour’s image be time-bending? Was I wrong to get upset over its performativity?
After my dad’s passing, I had a very Miyazakiesque13 dream about being on vacation with him at the Versailles Gardens. At one point I see him laughing and running like a kid under the crisp sun on the dirt pathway which separates the gardens from the eerie, crystal clear lake through which you can see the canyons beneath reaching up short and tall—almost as if it’s not sunk underwater but we are looking down through the sky—and I ask my mom, “He is going to die, right?”
Before his death, my dad was in the ICU and after ten days he started having ICU delirium;
He was a doctor at the hospital and was aware of this condition (as he was fully conscious during his time there). He would see or hear things after which we would explain to him that it was the delirium. He would nod understandingly. One day, he asked me if his hands were bleeding, he said his veins looked as if they were gushing blood, and I took a photo of his fist with the flash on, to show him that it was just the shadows cast on the coves and the creases between his metacarpals, caused by the lack of fat tissue. Again, he nodded understandingly. The photo had to exist to prove to someone that things were not as they seemed, that they were alright. It was a catastrophe. I had never experienced this kind of responsibility with the medium of photography before.
My image making/keeping career had started even before I knew how to take photographs. There was this one photo that I included at Poşe which had a different spot in my heart. It was of a young French boy in puberty who seemed to have just gotten out of the pool, with slicked back hair, a golden necklace around his bronze wet neck, looking straight into the official resort-photographer’s camera with his perfect teeth. I remember that I had paid the resort to buy this stranger’s photograph; I felt like I could feel love and loved, by exchanging money for this image and owning it.
Living alone has rendered the use of doors somewhat redundant. Whenever I go to the bathroom, leave the door open, pull my pants down and sit on the toilet. I face the painting of my dad and I, looking towards the sunset resting against the wall in the hallway.
I would like to thank Merve Ünsal and Özge Ersoy for their unending patience and kindness during this process which proved more emotional than literary.
1 “Like a prisoner in a panoptic building that incorporates the gaze of the warden, we are also persistently impelled to internalise the metre of the clock and the calendar. The devices impose an absolute temporal territorialisation; everything is situated and arranged in a chronometric system.” Sergio Mah, Time Expanded.
2 “. . . since the invention of photography, the visual technologies have always fed (or fed themselves on) that modern utopia in which time is dominated and finitude is outlined as a way of prefiguring a sublime ambition: the temporalisation of eternity, which would eventually make it possible to gain genuine control over death.” Ibid.
3 The function by which I sorted the belongings varied from making me feel good to opening a bottle, but solely calling upon a memory was somehow out of question.
4 Becoming the eldest heir to this kingdom of images and memorabilia, I felt inapt and inadequate to be in the position of sorting, categorizing, keeping or scrapping anything. Who was I to assign meaning to the evidence of lives I did not participate in? To archive is to sort, but unsorted remains are debris, which I had to live with.
5 It feels right to mention at this point that this text was written about two years before its publishing. It was important for me to get it out straight after my uncle’s passing, however more time was needed to get back into it, which is clear to me now. Along the way, I made peace with some of the matters in question, like I do while moving within this text. The fact that I was, naturally, a different person during editing was difficult yet produced for me a less indignant text.
6 “Through movement, we can explore to what degree it is possible to remain liquid or fluid as a body in the world and allow for that transformation to flow through. Our material, breathing bodies, as we move through space, incessantly transform.” Deniz Kirkali, To Ayse, From Deniz.
7 Taking some time off and getting back to this text after one year allows me to also reference artist Vibeke Mascini who talked of herself as a caretaker, in a talk she gave as part of Sena Başöz’s workshop on archives and regeneration.
8 “A body of water. Isn’t it funny that water, this liquid/fluid or opposite of solid/unyielding thing is often used, in English, as being a body of water? As if water always needs to be of something.” Deniz Kirkali, To Ayse, From Deniz.
9 “The water, along with its containers, limitations, borders, is transcorporeal, transmuted, transformed and translated. So is the rock. So is your body. Or my body.” Ibid.
10 This is a term I get acquainted and cozy with while watching young surfers traveling the world in search of the perfect wave in the film The Endless Summer.
11 I won’t be getting too much into this notion of change here, as at the time I hadn’t yet made peace with the idea, but in Debt to Memory I delve into it more.
12 A conversation between Lara Ögel and myself took place around the same time as Sena Başöz’s above mentioned workshop. We talked briefly on voids, filling in the blanks, time-travel.
13 It’s a funny coincidence that my therapist had written on Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki, so I imagine it was even more pleasant for him to discuss this particular dream. We talked about the bewildering lake and the uneasiness its clarity evoked as no thing is as it seems and what is pleasurable usually veils danger—a common thread in the Miyazaki worlds as in mine.