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In and out of Istanbul, not Constantinople

Canan Tolon, Emergency Exit
Canan Tolon, Emergency Exit

The array of Turkish contemporary art now on exhibit at Slought Foundation serves as a fine reminder that if we don’t look beyond our own shores, we are missing some important ideas and failing to grapple to with experiences–at least vicariously–that are important to humankind in general.

At the opening of In and Out of Istanbul, an exhibit of work by seven artists, curator Osvaldo Romberg spoke about visiting Istanbul and selecting the group of artists for this exhibit. Not all the artists are Turkish, but they all have a political edge, and they are all conceptual in their approach.

I was struck by how similar–and dissimilar–the work included in the exhibit is to work being made all around the world.

A lovely installation of ladders reflecting to infinity in a mirror-covered niche is a sure reminder of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. But “Emergency Exit,” by Canan Tolon, a native of Istanbul now living in San Francisco, takes the infinite mirroring effect in another direction. Looking down or up are ladders to heaven or hell or beyond–and to nowhere. It’s a trick for any escape artist. The sign, Fire Exit, is reflected to reverse the words, not to mention the arrow, creating an Alice in Wonderland world from which there is no escape.

The sign is in English and Turkish. But a reader of Turkish prior to Ataturk’s 1928 alphabet switch (from Arabic to Roman characters) would not be able to read either the Turkish or the English.

The confusion of the sign made a nice pairing with A Calculated Loss of Memory, by Istanbul artist Erdag Aksel. The piece refers directly to the same historic Turkish alphabet shift. Aksel, explained to me at the opening that his writing on the wall, an alphabet written with rulers, is completely made up–but no more incomprehensible than all the historic Turkish literature from before 1928.

Aksel expressed concern for the resulting loss of culture and history, as well as about change and the failure to communicate. Turkey’s switch to modernity under Ataturk was meant of course to improve communication with the Western world. This is not to say it didn’t succeed. It’s just that something else was lost, just as the name Constantinople got lost, and probably wouldn’t even be a dot in my memory if not for the song.

The political is never far away in this exhibit. Beirut, a video by Hale Tenger, also from Istanbul, is an atmospheric single perspective of curtains billowing from open hotel windows as the sky brightens and darkens. In front of those lovely windows, a political assassination took place. The result is a contemplative piece on time and the ordinary everyday of life overwhelming and bypassing lives lost, history lost.

And just in case you think Turkey is lost in history, an interactive Second Life piece by Elif Ayiter is in the vault, making me think of Cao Fei’s Second Life pieces, of course, but unfortunately Ayiter’s piece wasn’t working properly. I thought it was interesting that two women got caught up in the whole avatar and domain design possibilities in Second Life. Here’s a link to Ayeter’s blog, Alpha.Auer, which can take you down any number of paths in her Syncretia project, and here’s a link to some images on News Grist of Cao Fei’s iMirror.

Also in the exhibit, Selim Birsel who lives primarily in Istanbul; Michael Morris, in New York City; and Osman Dinc, in Paris.