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  • Christian Hain

Turkey for Vuitton

(Paris.) The last resistance to LVMH Foundation's private museum in the Bois de Boulogne has been squashed by court decision this summer. The green lung of Paris will finally see the opening of Frank O. Gehry's huge crumpled paper ball in 2014 and we may anticipate happening-esque encounters between the art crowd and those drug dealers and prostitutes whose shift begins when night falls on the park.

Whilst most Parisians look forward to a future hot spot of the French scene, there are some regrets mixed in as it probably means that the days of "Espace Luis Vuitton" on the Champs Elysees are numbered. Over the past six years the small yet cosy gallery on the flagship store's top floor has built up a great reputation for high-quality exhibitions staged by freelance curators.

For "Journeys. Wanderings in Contemporary Turkey", Hervé Mikaeloff made an excellent choice of artists, despite the well-known objections to the concept of presenting "the" artistic scene of any country.

This approach can never be successful in terms of totality, eleven artists cannot be representative for all contemporary Turkish art. Their number seems not to be coincidental by the way: eleven players form a soccer team - the country's most popular sports and a strong link to Europe - with the curator taking on the role of a head coach, but in sports as in arts there are always numerous alternatives, players/artists whose absence on the field is criticized not only by experts (and what about the tactic...).

The second objection says that in claiming national scenes do still exist in times, when Germany chooses a Chinese and France an Albanian artist to represent them in Venice Biennale, you open the doors to "national" or stereotypic interpretation. It is easy indeed to understand many of the works in accordance to a certain politico-cultural image of Turkey - at the risk of ignoring possible other interpretations. Turkey is known to be the most "Western", most "modern" of all Islamic countries, albeit its intentions to join the European Union have been (ultimately?) rejected some years ago. It is famous for extreme contrasts between rural areas with people living not that differently from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and the Euro-American lifestyle of Istanbul and the tourist zones along the coast on the other.

Ali Taptik shows the many faces of Istanbul in photographs and a slideshow. On the first of these pictures two young men lie on a lawn at night and we don't know, are they are wrestling or hugging? The artist leaves it to our imagination alone whether we see innocent tradition or voluptuous modernity, most contrary concepts appear melded together. Other snapshots feature a stork on the pavement, a tree in Photoshop-exaggerated colours, a woman dressed in black with her eyes shut who could be a model or a junkie or maybe both, etc. The slideshow occasionally combines two images, like a cliff jumper falling backwards takes the left part where the right is reserved to a blonde prostitute leaning against a tree. Half naked people appear, family idylls, a child in chemotherapy baldness, a woman in a burka with her arms spread out like dancing, short: a panorama of life. We have seen this type of artworks many many times before, and you could take the same pictures in New York, Berlin or any other multicultural metropolis, but they are still nice to look at.

Tayfun Seritas works with photography in a different way when presenting images that were taken in an Istanbul photo studio between 1935 and 1985. All show small children in the same pose, lifting their skirt to the sides, a gesture reminding Dervish’s dances. The images pretend a cultural continuity that is mirrored in politics; during those fifty years the Kemalist doctrine with its Western orientation was protected by the military's strong influence (including a little coup d’état when necessary). Seen from today the world was less complicated before the self-confident return of religion. As we have learned from Ali Taptik: today's plurality means burkas and miniskirts on the same street and it's getting harder to interpret the world.

Halil Altinder's big format photo light box with an astronaut riding a horse in the middle of nowhere (that is Cappadocia) aims again at the country's inner conflict. Anachronisms seem omnipresent in Turkey, a traditional society reaching for the stars, full of idealism, of dreams and visions set by Western examples, but lacking the means to achieve them. Some are prepared for the future, dressed up to discover new worlds, but seem ignorant of their surroundings that still are what they always used to be. Storming ahead from the Middle Ages right into science fiction the elites forgot to take just one step after the other. There is this legendary Turkish film "Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam" ("The Man who Saved the World" a.k.a. "Turkish Star Wars") from 1982, which is said to be one of the worst - and for this reason funniest - movies ever made (just have a look at the reviews on to get an idea of it), yet it was meant dead serious. The director wanted to copy America without having the same - no: without having any technical or financial resources, and Halil Altindere certainly knows about it.

Talking about films, CANAN's "ibretnüma (Exemplary)" combines silhouette animation with black and white images. We learn more about Turkey's past and present as a narrator unfolds the fictional biography of a woman. His account is intertwined with traditional storytelling from the heroine's mother who accompanies her from an Anatolian village to marital life in Istanbul. The voice of ancient traditions finds metaphors and memories suitable to many a situation and often they help to solve modern questions, but other times the traditional view is simply not capable of understanding what goes on. A lecture on the possible role of tradition that might guide in modern times, but only to limits that it is impossible to overcome.

The man mainly responsible for Turkey's modernisation (or "Westernisation") was the founder of the modern laicist Republic, president Kemal Atatürk. His autocratic government gave much power to the military that in turn proved to be a stabilising factor throughout the 20th century. Here the historic leader appears in one of the stories: A village once was confronted with a presidential decree to a) declare the killing of women illegal and b) to dress "modern" and change shirts on a daily basis. The locals could for practical reasons not observe the latter part and in result the army tore the men's clothes off, exposing them literally stripped to the women's laughter. This anecdote tells it all, the (from a progressive perspective) positive outcome of a reform and the means by which it was enforced - the traditional dignitaries could scarcely welcome a "modernisation" that was imposed upon them with violent humiliation.

Sometimes the limits of the exhibition space change an artwork significantly and Murat Akagündüz' "Hell-Heaven" is a good example. We see four large drawings of grey and ochre mountain scenes that give an idea of Anatolia's vastness but stay within the boundaries of decorative landscape painting. In the adjoining room several screens placed on the floor display images of birds' eyes in close-up and on the background wall a film shows turbulent water from above - just like what you see when hanging seasick out of a fast-moving boat. Now in the catalogue the screens are depicted together with the drawings, but without the film projection and one of the guides told me it was actually all meant to be shown as one piece - which certainly would make yet another impression and underline the contrast between desert, water and life.

All eyes on Turkey, and probably there is a turkey's eye too (after all, even art curators have a silly sense of humour, as the exhibition spans around Thanksgiving). Who is the observer, who the observed, is this a safari and everything flows, the stream of time washing away lives contrasted to the (nearly) eternal desert of death, we are only visitors here etc.etc. - a vast variety of metaphors lies at hand. It is a pity we cannot see the whole installation at once.

After this visual fable we may stay with birds, when a warning sign protects Hale Tenger's "Strange Fruit". Yes, if you are allergic to bird feathers, you should probably not push a thick curtain of bird feathers aside and pass through it. But thanks for the reminder.

For the non-allergic a magnificent installation waits behind (I only hope artist and foundation won't get in trouble for discriminating against bird feather allergic persons). In complete darkness the walls display the blinking of starlight, whilst two suspended globes set the earth in cosmic relation. The first one is the familiar Western model covered with satellite photos to show the surface under thick clouds. The second globe is inversed, with the South on top, which is kind of disorientating. A romantic dream of the world's turnaround after troubled times (with a wink to the overdue reverse of the earth's magnetic field?). Of course the idea is not revolutionary new but its presentation is beautiful. Which might be said of the whole exhibition that demonstrates how artists of Turkish origin do basically the same as their colleagues born someplace else. Welcome to multi-culti globalisation.

If you are an art dealer in search of new talents and you want to attract new Arabian collectors who are supposed to be specifically keen of Turkish artists, you might find some inspiration here.

Journeys. Wanderings in Contemporary Turkey, Espace Louis Vuitton, Paris, October 2012-06 January 2013

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