BERKA BESTE KOPUZ, “X-Ray” series, 2016.

All photos by Gökcan Demirkazık for ArtAsiaPacific.

May 08 2017

A Mammoth in Istanbul: Mamut Art Project 2017

by Gökcan Demirkazık

Tucked away at the bottom of the Maçka hill in Küçük Çiftlik Park, Mamut Art Project (MAP)—an annual juried showcase of 50 emerging artists—is a joy to walk to in good weather. Its fifth edition debuted on a gorgeous Istanbul spring afternoon, just a week and a half after the much-disputed constitutional referendum that secured Turkey’s transition to a presidential system and granted extraordinary powers to the president. Spirits of the predominantly secular youth, many of whom voted “No,” did not seem to be as low as one might have expected: a tangential interest in art and love of the sun kept a great deal of them smoking and happily chatting away at the back of the Mamut tent for the better part of the evening.

As is customary, this year’s edition boasted a jury with local and international art world stars: collector and executive board chairman of the main sponsor of MAP 2017, Ali Raif Dinçkök; Sotheby’s art consultant for Iran, Middle East and Turkey, Elif Bayoğlu; art critic Murat Alat; curator Övül Durmuşoğlu, as well as Sarkis, representative at the Turkey Pavilion during the previous Venice Biennale. Even though few of the jury members were present at the opening, a good number of curators, gallerists, (more) established artists, in addition to several respected Istanbul-based collectors counted among the ranks of visitors. A string of A- and B-list celebrities taking selfies in artist booths was a testament to the power of Mamut’s outreach apparatus, only rivaled (and surpassed) by that of Contemporary Istanbul in Turkey.

Despite being presented in the highly unlikeable, partitioned architecture of a “tent” fair, this year’s MAP was well installed with a healthy rhythm to the modulation between different medias and considerate care toward making the most out of spatial limitations, most notably in the designation of a large square for its performance program. Upon entrance, menacingly large, golden Arabic letters on brick confronted me. I learned later that this work, by the anonymous members of Hallederiz İnş. Kooperitifi (literally, “We’ll Take Care of It Construction Cooperative”), was a sentence in Turkish and read “harç bitti yapı paydos” (“[we’re] out of mortar, recess for the building”). Targeting the government-backed, conservative Muslim bourgeoisie whose extremely profitable building ventures have disseminated a Dubai-esque aesthetic across Turkey, the cooperative had also created a series of tongue-in-cheek calendars bearing their name and motto “YIKALIMYAPALIM” (“LET’S DESTROYLET’S BUILD”), as well as images of construction façades. Inevitably inspired by traditional Turkish calendars, these also featured prayer times for any given day. As I was inquiring about what the cooperative perceived as a threat to our living spaces, one of its members (who wishes to remain anonymous) proudly flashed the inside of his jacket to reveal the round and gold-colored badge of the Hallederiz İnş. order in a biting pastiche of the hidden clerical allegiances of their subjects of critique.

Mamut Art Project performance program curators Seyhan Musaoğlu and Simge Burhanoğlu.
Mamut Art Project performance program curators Seyhan Musaoğlu and Simge Burhanoğlu.

Very few of the other presentations were as conceptually robust and formally inventive as that of Hayrederiz. İnş. Kooperitifi During our brief conversation, director of MAP Seren Kohen keenly noted how the increased number of installations had lent a free-spirited character to the otherwise streamlined, booth-based show. Even though I agreed with her, I could not help but cringe at the sight of a huge sphere made of turd, straw and Styrofoam, or the hanging bulge (think: Ernesto Neto) above a smaller, copper pyramid. Sales were also dramatically (and rather expectedly) brisker for artists working with traditional media such as painting and photography based on my count of the inescapable little red dots. In fact, less than an hour into the opening, a collector friend asked for an opinion as to which of Furkan Öztekin’s intimate, poignant collages about Ali and Ramazan—yet another real-life Turkish gay relationship forcibly ended by hate crime—to buy; after the quick purchase, Öztekin had already sold half of his works on view.Other highlights included Ziyafettin Oğuz, whose 60 tiny (5 × 5 cm) black-and-white oils on Plexiglass showed faces of what the artist called “women of the Enlightenment,” ranging from the Ottoman Armenian writer Zabel Yesayan to the Turkish opera diva Leyla Gencer. (A notable and, if you will, controversial absence was that of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s adopted daughter and the world’s first woman war pilot Sabiha Gökçen.) Oğuz’s lovingly detailed portraits with an edge of naïve flourish could not be further away in style from Ardıl Yalınkılıç’s 2016 video Sultan, in which the artist simply bracketed a speech on motherhood by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, showing the footage exactly as it appeared on television, but with subtitles taken from the script of another speech—this time, on motherhood—by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The subtitles for the latter speech questionably expounded on the equivalence of motherhood and femininity before the unregistering eyes of the audience in a parliament-like setting, but was ironically followed with a standing ovation from the Swedish audience, accompanied by live trumpets.

As jury member Murat Alat points out in his catalogue essay, the ethos of “personal is political” was widespread and meticulously addressed in the MAP, including Berkay Yahya’s Thanks for Being Part of It (2016)—one of the strongest offerings of the show, if not the most impressive. On each screen of this three-channel installation, a man (in one case, two men) moves in slow motion, while everything around them—a neighbor putting out her trash, a daytime TV show playing in the background—continued apace. Whether in a living room, at a dark street corner or mounting the stairs, they appeared to be in the midst of something, but their slow movements culminated in the gestural revelation of an invisible weapon they had been holding in their hands. Their hateful eyes are more haunting than the ghosts of the weapons they are wielding. As I moved to the next booth, no matter what the departure point for the video had been, I realized that this understated, subtle piece unfortunately summarized the post-referendum Turkey more than I dared admit in words.

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