Pergamon and Turkey, Bergama to Berlin: Cevdet Eret at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

 

(Berlin.) It’s almost the end of November again, meaning any Americans among you will probably feel in the mood for some... well, here’s Cevdet Eret, artist from Turkey, and maybe even Turkish. Although of this we cannot be sure: there is his name which could point at the conclusion, but then again, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum avoids every mention of nationality - Wherever you look or listen, it’s only “lives in Istanbul”. Odd. Might be Kurdish? Or just not keen on Erdogan? Bergama, Eret’s project for Bahnhof, has been coproduced by, and first shown at, the performing arts festival Ruhrtriennale, and not even their promo brochure's short bio will divulge his place of birth. This is getting more mysterious by the minute. We can be sure though, he’s not one of those... I mean, he does own a passport, right? And he did not buy it on board some boat in the Mediterranean? ...Has he ever travelled to the US for a show, or attempted to?

Be that as it may, Bergama is the 2019 edition of Bahnhof’s triennial series Works of Music by Visual Artists, and not the now politically correct name for that Roman Empire founded (just checked that on Wiki: even earlier, by the “Cenomani”), Italian town of Bergamo: “Bergamo*a”. No, Bergama is indeed Turkish for Pergamon, both the antique Greek, and the modern day town not far from the Aegean Coast. The exhibition consists of only one work, one large, or indeed: midsized, installation and a handful of events that are programmed around it. Starting point is the rather famous Pergamon Altar that since its excavation by a German archaeologist in the late nineteenth Century found a new home in Berlin where it has been on display ever since (or almost – those wars...) - Until this year, when it's undergoing some much needed restoration. Thus, you may now admire one copy on Museum Island, and another at Hamburger Bahnhof... but keeping to context, let’s just call the latter a “remix”.

 

Eret’s “transferred”, or “translated”, the Altar to another medium, i.e. sound. Saying this, there is still a structure mimicking the shape of the original Pergamon Altar, but entirely made from speakers: (mostly) black plastic instead of white - potentially once multi-coloured - marble. Yes, you got that right: Rows of loudspeakers arranged to walls! Some do differ in colour, are purple instead of black, but not to highlight corresponding parts of the historic edifice (at least I was told they weren’t). The speakers are not for show only, they do their work too: One particularly impressive aspect of the Pergamon Altar is a frieze depicting scenes of Gigantomachy, the War between Gods and giants in much gory detail. In a sort of synaesthesia, Cevdet Eret replaces one sense by another when telling the same story in “music”. Be warned: the composition is very abstract, much more so than an audiobook, most of it sounds like a minimalist DJ Tool. But take your time, stay put, or even better: wander around the installation, and listen carefully. It’s a symphony, an abstract opera, and fascinating indeed. Elements of electronica, drums or beats, folklore and guitars, right up to the growling and burping of Death Metal.

 

Depending on what point you arrive, you will hear something else, but for me it started with white noise, before I noted “deedeldeed deedeldeed deedel dippdipp dim” (hey, that works better than musical notation!), and finally “beh beh beh beh behbehbeh” (that was the Death Metal). You will have to suppress a common reflex: No use Shazaming this, keep your phone in the pocket. Every sound is meant to reflect an image, a scene happening on the frieze, yet what a pity that we cannot draw an immediate comparison. Bahnhof does own a photograph of the altar by Thomas Struth (thus in itself an artwork), they even chose to dig it up from the reserves – only to put it not in the main hall, next to the installation, but several rooms away in a side wing. Smart.

Neither can I omit another point of criticism: It’s too quiet - much too quiet. They promised to turn up the volume for the (probably crowded) opening but otherwise, you need to trust your luck, hoping to visit more or less alone, certainly not in the company of guided groups, children, or retirees mistaking the museum visit for a perfect opportunity to discuss all the latest gossip. Upon request I was told, by keeping the volume low the artist hopes to avoid disturbing echoes, and this is interesting: Did they not just mourn the successive disappearance of all large exhibition spaces in Berlin (not explicitly mentioning it, but HHBhf will also loose some space for an unrenewed lease soon)? Exceptional venues like this central hall of Hamburger Bahnhof are an endangered species indeed, but: Why waste it for an installation that doesn’t need it, and will even suffer from unwanted echoes here? 

 

One of the events around the exhibition will be a live concert with the artist playing a traditional Turkish(? – or perhaps “played in Istanbul”?) instrument, accompanying himself in a schizophrenic musical dialogue with the installation that for the occasion will repeat his melodies. Different epochs, different time zones, once again. For this at least, he might use more of the available empty space.

Standing in some distance from the installation, looking up through the roof window, you espy a flag blowing outside. There are two of them, one on the building’s left and one on its right side, and for a change not meant politically (it isn’t, right?) but to signify “stereo” as opposed to “mono”, Bergama Stereo being the full title of Eret’s show. In this context we learn something about the etymology of that term, Old Greek “stereos”: “sturdy, solid, unmoving”. Dichotomy and the third way of a neutral contemplator?

 

Ever shrinking room for art today, whereas about a hundred and twenty years ago, they’ve built a dedicated museum only for the Pergamon Altar. That Pergamon Museum is still standing, although the state that had it built, vanished a long time ago. Might make you think. Also: Looking back at antiquity, that’s certainly something that has fallen out of fashion today. Renaissance and Classicism are not among the first priorities of a global society that as a matter of principle equals “new” to “awesome, let’s buy it!”.

 

Cevdet Eret, Bergama Stereo, 19 October 2019-08 March 2020, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

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