Micheal Oren’s Questions


  1. In our interview you expressed dissatisfaction with the current run of
    documentary videos (too much alike and only half art) and the use of
  2. Do you have other discontents regarding contemporary Turkish
    art? In which directions would you prefer to see Turkish art go?
  3. How do you think it can best meet the challenges of globalization, etc. (pp.
    170-71) that your writings describe so well? Are these opinions consistent
    with any political position (Kemalist, socialist, neo-liberalist, etc.) you
    may hold?


Video is a very popular tool for artists to assert their statements and concepts and express their feelings and experiences. Yet, video is also a tool of documentation and journalistic research as well as news, an integral part of the official or commercial media channels. What is the difference between a video we see in an exhibition context and the video we see in TV channels? Nowadays, it is quite difficult to see the difference. To prepare a space to view a video is not a site specific work of video; in the Istanbul Biennale the architect constructed cylindric tents- the same for each video work so that there is a systematic itinerary.

Most of the videos in the İstanbul Biennale are interviews where the artists position himself/herself as the passive viewer; the responsibility of the statement belongs entirely to the interviewed person and the viewer. Maybe this is the culmination point of the de-signatured work! In most of them there is no transformation from a direct shot to a creative criticism or interpretation. Video has been widely used by Fluxus artists such as Volf Vostell and Nam June Paik in the 60’s and 80’s; who can forget the videos of Valie Export, Bruce Naumann. And, we have seen Bill Viola’s masterpieces. After all that the artists seem to have forgotten these examples; specially artists from territories where 20th century art movements were not inherent neglect to look to the previous works of major post-modern artists. The artists equalise video art with TV documentary and clips; and, that means they cannot shake the burden of media technology and ideology from their minds and imaginations. For artist inTurkey video is an essential tool to present themselves to the international scene, because they have no official and private support to travel, to transport their works an to have honorary for their productions.  The videos mostly tend to be documentary and lack the skill of using it as a tool of individual expression.

As to the issue of “diaspora”, I would say that, nowadays “diaspora” is not a valid position, as artists are not forced to leave and never come back to their native country. Diaspora has become a tool for the artist to fulfil the role of “the other” in the gaze of the “the self”.  They have all the possibilities to come back and investigate the situation they are interested in. When they are away, daily changes are happening in politics, in culture and in other issues; so what they dream or conceive about their homeland deviates itself from the reality.

Artists in Turkey have a wide range of scopes and arenas to base their art in, there is a very rich historical background, a problematic modernism, a diverse daily life, different cultures and languages etc…Furthermore, the region of Turkey is another territory that needs to be explored from different angles. However, since two generations, the artists are seriously under the influence of commodity culture, media culture, pop-culture and of all the issues that are closely related to everyday life and mediocrity. They live in a tension of being up to date, being agile, being in transition. This psychology – a certain ill tempered psychology – is conflicting with the serenity of art making. The result of this haste is surfing from one subject to the other, from one idea to the other; accomplishment is not in their grammar…

For a very long time – that is from 50’s to 80’s the artists in Turkey lived through the modernist  polarisation; fighting for their individual freedom, for the social rights, for a democracy. Art production was divided into “art for art” and “art for the society”, which manifested itself in tachism, informel and abstract expressionism and of course in social realism that is figurative painting. This can be classified also as liberals and socialists. The military intervention in 1980, when almost 40.000 people – among them the largest group was the leftist intellectuals – were in jails, free-thinking and political engagement was severely oppressed. The outcome of this catastrophe in art was a kind of retreat or regression, which lasted until recently. The dialogue between the society and the artist was cut of; even if the artists have tried to bring political issues through astounding metaphors to the fore, the society preferred not to receive/ perceive it as crucial for critical thinking. However, the biennale, in this sense have been very awakening and inspiring for the artists as well as the public. Currently, artists are independent in two ways; in joining the political agenda of the country and escaping the pressure of the art market – because there is no support of the state and the international art market. We should face the fact that “visual thinking” is not in the agenda ofTurkey’s cultural politics and public opinion; in this sense we are – we in the contemporary art scene- are exposed to the adventures in the international art scene. And, there I think one can survive only when one is connected to some ideologies, entities, groups, institutions, and the market…

Distorted-Kemalism and Light-Fundamentalism (I call it distorted, because it lost its revolutionary meaning and light, because it is really diluted within secularism and democracy) have replaced the polarisation of the 20th century; it seems there must always be a dialectical platform for politicians and intellectuals and also for the public. When people want to show their reaction, they don’t invent new modes and strategies, but steal and copy the old forms – lack of imagination and motivation. I think most of the serious artists are very aware of this somehow artificial and vanishing polarisation and they avoid being involved into this kind of debate. Therefore it may seem that the works are a-politicised, but most of the works are deeper than surface politics.


Now, we are facing to facts: Globalisation and admission into EU. The artists are experiencing these facts since the beginning of the 90’e, when European art centres started to show interest in “the other’s” art scene. Number of curators visitedIstanbul(officially or private) since 15 years. With the help of the local curators and art critics (not exceeding 10 people) and galleries they selected a number of artists and invited them to “global” exhibitions all overEurope. As a curator I was mostly invited toGermanyto make group shows with Turkish artists. As you know, with my own initiative and energy I have presented Turkish artists in Venice Biennale five times. Yet, I cannot say that Turkish artists are frequently invited to exhibit in private art galleries inEuropeand their works are not sold to collectors. Because, inTurkeythere is no interest in collecting international art.

The only way to be integrated to the EU cultural development is to have effective organisations and participatory/reciprocal projects embracing the communities, delineating social issues and establishing networks. The artists, curators and art critics should sacrifice a little bit of their freedom and work within these organisations, so that their horizon will be extended. Recently I had the opportunity to found AICA Turkey (International Association for Art Critics) and I hope this will open a new era for art/culture criticism inTurkey.

2. Would you comment on the choice of Turkish artists in the current
Biennial-were they good choices? If not, whom would you have preferred
instead? Can you write a line or two on some of the artists below and their
place in the Turkish art world?


Four artists in the biennale were already established: Kutluğ Ataman, xurban (Güven İncirlioglu & Hakan Topal), Ergin Cavusoğlu and Esra Ersen. The most successful work was Cavusoglu’s night helicopters and xurban’s Iraqı border oil trade documentary. Esra Ersen’s and Ataman’s works are of the documentary sort and should be watched in a cinema seating. These artists have been in Venice Biennale and all overEurope; however, there is always a risk inviting the same artists to the international shows. These artists are most of the time overloaded with made-to order works and they repeat themselves; evidently one cannot discover or invent new work every two months! Ersen, Ataman and Cavusoglu live and work abroad; they are a little bit detached of the art scene inTurkey. Some of the others I did not know at all; they are Dan Cameron’s discovery. Some others were chosen with recommendations from people who are near to the Biennale administration or with the recommendations of the sponsor; at least he said in one of the interviews, that he had looked to 100 folders. Why should an establish artist send his folder to be viewed. Cameron should have visited the studios of established artists… He would do so inEuropeor inUSA.

In the fringe exhibitions all over the city there were many interesting works to be seen; of artists who are producing seriously and continuously.

Apart from the four noted artists, the other artist’s works fit into the description I made above. Oda Projesi looks like play-game and very out of context. Where is the population involved in the project? It is a light neighbourhood survey. They should know that in Rene Block’s Biennale (4th) Hale Tenger made an installation at the same venue with the real “room” (oda) of the night-watch. It was a striking work. Another social work was introduced in Rosa Martinez’s biennale (5th) called “Karanfil Street”; that was a real in situ project with interactive processes. That means the chief curator should have a “memory” of the local scene. Otherwise we can say “this has been done before, in a better way!” A more serious work is of Emre Erkal and Cevdet Erek. It is minimal, metaphoric and uncanny. But, why did the curator not install it into St. Sophia? St. Sophia installations are almost scandalous. To make a tent with ordinary pipes and nylon is a tasteless attempt; to let the people throw nickels into a false pool is another mediocrity. My God! This is the most intriguing space ever made; it has an aura and historical depth. The artists in St. Sophia could not declare with their works why they choose to exhibit there! Apart from being very daring, Taner Ceylan’s paintings are disposed to gay-kitsch, which is a very boring issue; they lack the gay-intellectualism; the world displayed in the paintings is too mediocre. People are certainly disturbed by it; he had to leave his university position. There are significant gay intellectuals, writers and artists inTurkey, whose expression is more intricate, metaphoric or literary.


Beral Madra/ October 2003