What you see | What you get
Akbank 36th Contemporary Artists Prize Exhibition, 2018
The 2018 Akbank 36th Contemporary Artists Prize Exhibition showcases works by 18 finalists, across a variety of media – including painting, sculpture, installation, video and performance. Together, this juried selection highlights the breadth of techniques and intellectual agendas playing out in Turkey’s emerging art scene. The featured artistic positions investigate a host of contemporary concerns. Reflections on how new technologies are redefining everyday life, affecting the way we learn, what we know, and how we feel, feature prominently. Additionally, timely meditations on the fate of place, and landscape, in a culture saturated with representation abound. Cutting across both of these tendencies, and registering more perennial concerns, explorations of language and sense making are present. So, too, engagements with the power of suggestion, and influence. Celebrating new talents, and offering them a platform, the Akbank 36th Contemporary Artists Prize Exhibition looks towards the future of art, today.

What is the purpose of an art prize? Must artists work with the idea that, one day, they might receive one, in order to stay motivated? Of course, there are never enough awards to decorate all the passionate, intelligent creators out there – so this cannot be the case. But the underlying issue, of recognition, is not resolved through this observation. Indeed, the struggle to have one’s work seen, perhaps even celebrated, is of concern to most artists. But how strategic must one be? When does pragmatism, in this regard, ruin the work? Such questions are explored, playfully, in Merve Vural’s Ave Maria. This is a single channel video which presents a performance by the artist, who appears front and center of the frame wearing a formal lace dress, looking directly at the camera, and by extension, the viewer. She offers an acapella serenade of of Ave Maria. Awkward, weird, and funny—She can sing, but obviously not to a professional standard. Nevertheless, at least in terms of attitude, it is a strident aria. It takes confidence to sing, even before a camera – to pick up the mantle of diva, and offer it to the viewer. The frame is closely cropped, and the fact that you see her eyes makes it feel too close for comfort. There’s something awkward about it. But how? It would seem that it is as embarrassing for us as, we expect, it should be for her. This is an audition. Do you like it? There is contact in the gaze and you feel she is performing for you. The performance is, musically, certainly not perfect. But perhaps you respect her effort. But do you have to listen to the whole thing? You feel, perhaps, a little put upon. You feel, perhaps, a little guilty when you begin to reject (silently, perhaps even unconsciously) her overture. Perhaps you feel that she is is attempting to seduce you, in song, and it feels a little inappropriate. When you look at the background, you can discern that the video is shot in the studio of her art school. She’s a young artist auditioning for you – for your attention and your gaze. As it happens, the libretto for Ave Maria, by Schubert, is a prayer for help addressed to the Virgin Mary. It is a song of supplication. Here is a (young) artist in supplication, before the viewer, before the audience. Ave Maria is the prayer of a lost person – a plea to found, recuperated, or incorporated. Perhaps one finds the experience of viewing this work awkward because, while asking for our approval, for recognition, this young artist leans on a classic (musical) artwork. Perhaps all artists aspire to the status of the a classic – to be as important, as celebrated, as this song is in our cultural imaginary. There’s something impudent about this prayer for importance. It is knowing work played in a naïve way. She’s singing her position without shame, and we can’t help feel ashamed to be in position to judge her.

Also expanding on the theme of judgement, and impudence—Antigone, by Levent Yıldız, is a multichannel video featuring nine screens, each of which display scenes from the eponymous ancient Greek tragedy – sampled from different film and theatre stagings. Comprising retellings from 1961 to the present, all the footage runs simultaneously, with the voices of the actors blending into a cacophony. Showcasing multiple tellings of this story at the same time, while disclosing the specificity of each artistic document, serves to heighten and unfold the stakes of this classic drama: Antigone breaks the law against mourning – attempting to secure a decent burial for her brother against the word of the king – with tragic consequences for her, as well as the king himself. In patrilineal terms, Antigone is a re-articulation of her father Oedipus’ rupture with the sovereign’s will. However, unlike him, she is holds the moral high ground. While she breaks the law, she does not – unlike her father – usurp sovereignty by default. Nor does she seek to become it. Hers is a re-articulation of rupture, but of a different sort. Alone in her tragic fidelity to her brother, she is a martyr to a principle – a female exception who will be vindicated. The video grid delivers multiple Antigones, proliferating the textures and stakes of disobedience in her story. In this staging, Antigone becomes a chorus. No longer a single mourner, or eventual martyr, she is many. Hers is no longer an individual objection to the will of (male) sovereignty, but a protest. In this sense, the work foregrounds a drama of recognition.

A related drama underpins Ayşe Nilden Aksoy’s Face to Face series of portrait photographs, printed on watercolor paper using pigments derived from plant juices. Developed from digital negatives through a solar printing process, the gentle earth-toned photos portray farm workers in media derived from their own labor—vegetables cultivated under the hot sun. The unstable medium of the natural dyes causes the images to fade rapidly, mirroring the precarious nature of agricultural labor today, which is often performed by seasonal migrant workers. Portraiture is a genre through which the self is consolidated and given public representation. To portray someone is to valorize their image within social space. Long a privilege available only to the wealthy, the invention of photography is credited with a radical democratization of portraiture. In this light, the temporary nature of the ‘visibility’ at play in Aksoy’s work suggests that we take this series of images as a portrait of the political economy of social representation itself.

In all of the above works, as with Zeynep Kaynar’s contribution to this exhibition, a question arises: When we observe something (or someone) intently – or attempt to judge them – when does the act of ‘sizing them up’ actually de-center our own self-image? (Amorphi) Kolimban is a painting on a collage support of newspaper and paper, featuring the oversized representation of a strange fish, distinguished having an extremely large eye in place of its head. Utterly replacing features such as mouth, or gills, its massive iris and pupil resemble human eye. The body of this cyclops belongs to a sea bass, a creature whose mode of life and interactions with humans are of of longstanding interest to the artist. Might studying this animal intently, such that it looms larger in one’s frame of attention, change our relation to it? Might its look back at you? What does it see?

Questions of recognition, and misrecognition, of legibility, underpin the social domain – from relationships of the most intimate sort to questions of politics and collective identity. We want to be recognized, and to see clearly. We crave interpretive schema, rules, and order… until such time as they constrict; foreclosing possibilities; undermining mystery, and freedom. When everything is pre-interpreted or defined, the play of imagination in a partnership between two people, just as in society at large, is slowed. A work like Atilla Galip Pınar’s Untitled embraces the strange; and productive confusion. This installation features 24 acrylic and pencil drawings on paper. A number of them feature animals or human figures staged in relation with inanimate objects or schematic forms: a pig is seen in profile, one half of its body replaced by a house; an elephant’s body becomes a right angled line; a tortoise is positioned above a black square. Throughout this series pictorial, figurative, illusionistic, three dimensional motifs meet flat, graphic, monochrome elements. As these two image regimes, abstract and figurative, contend, the overall scenario looks like a language game – as if these strange combinations amount to statements, icons or ideograms (dog + ear = dog eared). This is to say, the various combinations seem to promise a sense, to be uncovered, after one has overcome the apparent nonsense. The work draws you into trying to read a clear meaning, but its appeal lies in the pleasure of finding none. In an age of emojis, corporate logos, and rational signage, where graphic communication has assumed massive prominence, and clarity of messaging is deemed of paramount importance, working with clear signs to make unmeaning is welcome.

Moving away from reflections on abstract signification, The Lovers turns around tensions between recognition, misrecognition, and legibility while staging this dynamic in relation to the image of love, and by implication, between lovers themselves. The installation, by Seher Uysal, comprises a series of 50 black ink paintings on paper, presented in grid formation. Above them a single panel is mounted, depicting a symbol from a Swedish Viking-era rock carving. All of the images below take the form of silhouettes, whose outlines are based on depictions of famous lovers from throughout art history. A silhouette valorizes a person or object’s most distinctive feature, while at the same time reducing and flattening its subject - into a monochrome. Abstract, excepting a traced contour, each one’s visual source/reference is identifiable only to the extent that the viewer’s cultural conditioning allows. While some may be obvious – like Chagall’s The Kiss – others may seem wholly unfamiliar. What is the function or rationale for singling out one sheet of paper, the Viking rune, and placing it outside the grid; above, in a privileged position, seemingly establishing a hierarchy? Is the image a key to interpreting the works in the grid? Alternatively, does the content of the grid establish a criterion for establishing the meaning of the of the ancient symbol? The fact that the rune is an ancient symbol suggests the issue of genealogy, or origins, in relation to topic of love and its visual representation in a long-duree. In this respect, The Lovers also stages a tension between the love’s transhistorical quality, and its historical dimensions as a cultural project whose outlines have developed in time, at least in part through regimes of image making.

Technically, Stale, by Hatice Artüz, is a single channel video, by virtue of its display on a screen. In its formal composition, however, as a near-static image of a canvas curtain billowing gently within a frame, it most obviously invokes painting. The camera’s gaze is trained directly upon this curtain, which appears to affixed around its edges to the entrance of a tunnel in some kind of industrial facility. The entrance is framed by four thick pipes running in parallel, focusing one’s gaze on the slightly soiled fabric surface, which flutters subtly each time an apparent gust of air moves passes through the tunnel. The deliberate composition of the video gradually entrains the viewer into a meditation on the relation between painting and cinema. Are we watching a blank cinema screen, a potential surface for projection? Or a canvas to be painted? Or is this surface, an index of the wind with its own texture and dynamic shape, and movement itself the object represented? Finally, we are drawn to consider whether the double valence of the screen—as surface on which to project or to inscribe—contains a third possibility; that the curtain may also function as a veil for what lies within the frame.

Berkay Yaşar’s 138 Impact=36 Calorie is a single channel video piece, that, in counterintuitive fashion, does not offer a manifestly visual component. This is to say, the screen is all black throughout its duration. The only changing pictorial feature, which might guarantee its status as a moving image work, is a white text subtitle that runs throughout—accompanied by a soundtrack. And yet, the video is full of action. Running throughout, a commentary, and sounds, convey the systematic destruction of an unspecified object. Amid the roar of power tools, and the artist's commentary the viewer bears a kind of witness to its breaking down, or dismantling. One’s curiosity is, naturally, engaged through the act of visual denial, and the obliteration of the object is, in a way, registered by the optical lack. 138 Impact=36 Calorie’s mode of presentation relies on hiding something – making the object in question apparent, to the imagination, through withholding. The work makes testimony an issue. We must take the artist (or the voiceover) as truthfully registering the fact that something is being subject to a physical process. While the spoken account, and the soundtrack seem to convey this possibility, there is certainly room for doubt. What are the stakes of knowing the truth of the matter? Does it matter if our assesment is incorrect? And what might be gained by knowing that the object exists, or, for that matter, what it is? Speaking to modes of verification facilitated by filmic documentation, the work foregrounds the viewer’s expectations and desires for this media. The voiceover is offered in a deadpan fashion, somewhat complementing the blank screen. The work, it seems, offers a canvas on which to inscribe trust, or its opposite, and, more broadly, to project one’s assessment regarding the object of the enterprise. In what sense, the work proposes, is the viewer a witness?

Hoddevik is a large format photograph by Batuhan Keskiner. Located in the center of the composition, a concrete pylon acts as a support for power lines which disappear into the distance. Set against an open horizon of light grey clouds, in a valley between rising slopes on either side, this man-made monolith made stands in contrast with the natural landscape - telegraphing man’s presence despite the absence of human figures in the scene. A straightforward photograph, or a signal inviting decryption?

Pushing this problematic, Backlit, by Mert Acar, plays with perception and expectation. The work consists of three photographs, one of which depicts a defunct billboard, whose advertisements have been ripped away, or else destroyed by weather. Defunct as a method of signage, its interior lighting system – an arrays of fluorescent bulbs which should normally normally be hidden – is visible. This photo, along with two others featuring similar fluorescent fixtures, are exhibited as lightboxes. In so doing, Acar’s work stages a doubling – not so much a contrast as a contiguity, established between the real ground of photographic display (with its actual frame and neon tubes), and the image which describes. In this artistic proposition, the reality of the work’s material support does not cede priority to the pictorial subject, but rather shines through it. Backlit is a synthesis of real and image, constituting a third object which has the capacity to represent itself.

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As well as the above thematic, various works in the exhibition proffer reflections on how new technologies are redefining experience, affecting the way we learn, what we know, and how we feel. A key strand of analysis, in these works, has to do with the question of civilization – that is, how such phenomena relate to values and institutions, that were once considered good, or valuable.

Kaan Fıçıcı’s Echoed through the Ages is a hyperreal acrylic painting on canvas that depicts a manifestly imaginary space, featuring architectural forms and consumer electronic components – such as mini-jack audio cables, of the sort used in headphones – scaled up to monumental proportions. The ground of this landscape is defined by a series of straight lines that converge at the central horizon of the plane, suggesting a huge, flat, perhaps infinite plane. Establishing an architectural space within this expanse, a curved row of classical columns seems to demarcated a kind of coliseum, within which the oversized contemporary markers perform. This theatre-like setting suggests a reckoning, or drama, in which the protagonists are serpentine cables assailing an oversized vase, or an urn – suggesting a kind of technological laocoon. This is a fantastic or virtual scene, taking place in a space that can never exist outside of representation. It suggests a digital architectural rendering of an infrastructural dreamscape – marshalling technological markers and tools of indistinct function, whose contemporaneity is offset by the additional presence of the columns. Through the former’s scaling up, these items encroach on the latter’s cultural valence, as important, and perhaps even venerable. They have, in a pictorial sense, been elevated to the the status of the classics. Or perhaps the columns have been shrunken to the size of the mini-jack. Either way, the diminution of the past, and, or the inflation of present, are leveled. It is a picture that, it seems, seeks to ask how our contemporary techno-culture might approach the status of civilization.

Gülçün Karaca’s triptych, Library, endeavors to explore a similar question as this relates to a key marker – the library; the repository of knowledge; a foundational institution with respect to learning and the goods that result from it. The work is a partially abstracted perspectival image depicting three rows of library stacks, rendered in paint and tape, which converge towards an implied vanishing point at the work’s dead center. According to the artist, choosing sheet metal for the ground of the collage/painting (instead of canvas) conjures associations with screens - reflecting the fact that, today, libraries are virtual. In this respect, Library strives to address today’s data-driven situation, staging the virtual in contrast to the sensuous texture of the living environment – suggesting that while the former might make content/information highly accessible, to some degree, it renders this content flat, and impenetrable to tactile modes of reading.

But what are the stakes in this question of civilization? Is it an abstract, academic question?—Something only for cloistered scholars; those with a penchant for the elegant tokens of a bygone age? Or is there, perhaps, something urgent to consider? Hasan Mert Öz’s Untitled video work features man, wearing only his underwear, is seated on a slope of jagged rubble under a beating hot sun – his head titled upwards towards the sky. But this sweating figure doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to what is above him, or the rest of his surroundings machinery. In fact, in this particular moment, he seems completely unware. His ears are covered, and his eyes and forehead are enclosed within VR goggles, whose weight is the reason for upturning is face. You imagine that he might be more comfortable lying down, if the rocks weren’t so sharp. He doesn’t mind, though, as he appears lost in his virtual experience most of the time – his auditory and visual consciousness elsewhere. Every now and again, however, he screams. If this work is not a portrait of an individual person, it may very well be a portrait of our times – or a particular method for coping with adverse environmental conditions. The figure in this work has ceased to pay discomforting attention to reality, instead escaping into a virtual world. He might look absurd, to us, here in the gallery, but aren’t we all guilty of this to some degree? Clearly, the piece invites reflection on one’s own coping strategies, and the choices made when placed in a disagreeable position.

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While the landscape of contemporary subjectivity, both personal and political, is certainly being altered by emerging technologies, it is important not to lose sight of the material and physical reality. As attention to Hasan Mert Öz’s figure suggests, leaving behind such questions for pure virtuality may be more wishful thinking than a practical strategy for dealing with today’s challenges. As environmental and ecological challenges grow, and while the world effectively shrinks, distant geographies ever more connected, the landscape itself remains a key concern for artists.

But what is a landscape-when ‘all that is solid melts into air’? How do we ground our reflections on the contemporary moment, when it is so often presented as ethereal, or immaterial? Nur Pınar Özen’s The Cloud is a work rendered in charcoal on ten sheets of white paper that have been partially overlaid. These papers are arranged in a manner that recalls a pixelated organization, which may suggest the possibility of a shifting configuration of the image – resonating with the constantly shape-shifting nature of clouds in general. In terms of drawing, the whiteness of this cloud appears as a kind of tonal relief against a black background. This background is, of course, suffused with carbon (from the charcoal). While the cloud motif in question belongs to the non-threatening, friendly, cumulous variety – its figure discloses a blackened surrounding atmosphere. In combination with the pixel allusions in paper arrangement, one’s thoughts shift to the digital cloud – and a reckoning with the energy intensive, and polluting, reality of data storage. This is, apparently, a picture of a white cloud but it is also a picture of a black cloud. It is the silhouette of an atmospheric cloud, but it is also a kind of silhouette for one’s carbon footprint. Taking in the virtual figure of the ‘cloud’ as well as its material substrate, this work is both subtle and prescient.

So often, images are considered immaterial; somehow floating free – in some important respect – from a physical ‘ground’. It is this aesthetic tendency that licenses a kind of mysticism, or cultural theories of universal equivalence with respect to value or truth. Complicating the intellectual picture, however, may be more rewarding. Glade is an installation by Berna Dolmacı comprising many large sheets torn paper that have been crumpled into three dimensional forms, and brought together to suggest a landscape. Partially wall-mounted, their combined effect pushes beyond painting and relief sculpture, towards architecture. Coated in a range of earth tones – greens and browns, greys and whites - the artist has applied various intensities of color and marks, amplifying the visual texture and depth supplied by the volumetric composition. It is almost as if numerous landscape paintings have been ripped from their stretchers and re-installed as collage in order to produce an ‘actual’ landscape. Given this (painterly) work’s scale and, additionally, sculptural qualities, the following question presents itself: What kind of representational claim does it make? Namely—Is this a landscape, of paper, or a paper analogue/model for a ‘real’ landscape beyond the realm of mimesis? At the border between image and spatial reality, the work solicits exploration.

An even more explicit representational game obtains in Bedengi, by Meltem Begiç—various pieces of wood of different shapes and sizes that, as the work’s title indicates, must have formerly comprised a single doorframe. Each of these pieces shows signs of wear and tear; some retain a coat of paint, others are flaking, or have been stripped. Inscribed on each piece, however, is a small red cross or X mark, rendered in red. These repeating signs are suggestive of inscriptions that might be made by builders or a demolition crew, designating features to be excised, as opposed to being merely decorative. The pieces themselves have been loosely re-arranged, such that they compose a rectangular formation. But rather than just comprising the perimeter of this rectangle, some of the painted pieces also sit within it. This is to say, the frame is edging towards being a picture. This subdivided and reorganized perimeter evokes one’s repeated passage through a single doorframe, a static structure that bears witness the daily process of orienting oneself to the world, a process which on each occasion involves bumping up against and adjusting to different contact points. Collapsing a temporal sequence into a spatialized array, this endless portal through which we present ourselves here takes the place of a painted portrait.

How does the world change when we re-orient ourself, or our attention? Gül Akpınar’s Entropy is a monumental scale painting, some 5 meters in length, depicting a street scene devoid of persons – a foot path, a bit of road, a rubbish bin, and piles of bricks. Behind them there is a stone wall and a steel fence, through whose vertical bars trees are visible. The scale of this work is almost one to one with the scene that it conveys. The colors are applied in thin washes, with that overall effect that the painting seems weathered, like the stone and concrete that it represents. Beyond straight illustration, however, the bars of the fence reappear, unnaturally, as if reflected in the concrete below. Upon further attention the viewer identifies more repeated forms, and objects, of different scales, and recognizes multiple spatial perspectives within the scene. In contrast with the work’s painterly mark making, the composition seems to zoom in and out, to magnify, abstract, and diminish its foci while pursuing a visual grammar that reflects digital editing tools. Additionally, this pictorial device recalls the shifting, uneven optical focus experienced when one walks down a street. Hovering somewhere between the phenomenology of an itinerant, embodied, gaze, and the programmatic disarticulations enabled by visual technologies, the work is a reverie on the stability of place – as an image in everyday (pre-reflective) life, and in processes of representation, both technical and otherwise.

Reading the landscape, its past, and its present, in terms of authorship seems to a key concern in One of the Ways Out, by Oğulcan Sürmeli - an expressive multimedia work on canvas, marshalling various techniques of paint application. Some these marks are deliberate, such as curved lines and scratches, while others are the result of the artist’s embrace of unpredictable effects, such as dripping. Such devices, along with the use of spray paint, traffic in the visual style of graffiti. In addition to its rhythmic, active, composition, the work appears to be built up in layers – earlier marks hidden behind latter ones, such that only parts of the former remain visible. In this respect, this gallery work appears to sample the ‘found’ conditions apparent on the walls in certain city streets, wherein older tags are overwritten by newer ones, resulting in a kind of unreadable palimpsest of sedimented, intermingling, noise. This excess of inscription, oscillating between legibility and disorder, seethes on the canvas, underneath a large cross made of tape. A crossing out that does not so much obscure the painterly marks as proffer a symbolic negation.

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Through the range of contemporary concerns, media, and methods showcased in this exhibition, the 2018 edition of the Akbank 36th Contemporary Artists Prize encapsulates the spirit of the moment. The featured artists are those whose works pushed the jury’s conversation forward - sparking debate, passion, and even disagreement. I hope the audience finds similar inspiration, and intrigue, in reviewing their creations.