ASLI ÇAVUŞOĞLU, 191/205, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci. Courtesy SALT Beyoğlu, Istanbul. 

How Did We Get Here


HALIL ALTINDERE, Welcome to the Land of the Lost (detail), 1998, series of postage stamps, 12 digital prints, 21 × 29 cm each. Courtesy the artist, Agah Uğur and Pilot Gallery, İstanbul.

Half of Turkey’s 82 million citizens were born after 1984. Four years before the country’s population boom, in January 1980, the government had liberalized the economy, ending its policy of import substitution that prioritized domestic industrial production over the purchase of foreign goods. Eight months after that, on September 12, 1980, Turkey’s third military coup since 1945 quelled the Cold War proxy wars between right-wing and left-wing factions that had plagued the country during the 1970s. In the process, the military brutally crushed opposition groups, trade unions and civil society at large. More than half a million people were arrested, 1.68 million were “blacklisted,” 30,000 fled into exile, 14,000 were stripped of citizenship, hundreds died in prison at the hands of state torturers, and 50 were officially executed. This horrific tally, and the coup’s political legacy, still shape Turkish society today in countless ways, perhaps most basically in the form of its current constitution, which was drafted by the military junta of coup leader Kenan Evren.

Happening three decades later, as Turkey confronts another dark period in its modern history, SALT’s exhibition “How Did We Get Here” looked back at the twin political and economic shifts of the early 1980s that produced the material and ideological environment of Turkey today. Organized by researchers Merve Elveren and Erman Ata Uncu, who used artworks, publications, infographics, documentaries and archival news footage, the richly packed exhibition depicted the repressive yet formative years following the coup, when neoliberal economic growth neatly dovetailed with the promulgation of conservative, nationalistic social values. The schizophrenia of the time was represented on the first floor at SALT, where rows of long tables displayed 270 newly established magazines of the day, whose subjects ran from literature, automobiles and political cartoons to alternative music, bourgeois lifestyle and soft-core pornography. Perversely, such a diversity of media almost seems liberal compared to the highly censored and consumer-oriented output of today.

Perhaps inevitably, as this array of magazines suggests, the freer circulation of material goods, people and information eventually came to clash with the military state’s assertions of rigid ideological control. This paradox is where the exhibition became interesting, in its spotlighting of progressive movements that emerged after the cessation of 1970s-era street violence, curfews and chaos. A brief coalition and condensation of all these liberal trends was the alternative weekly newspaper Sokak (“Street”), published in 1989 and 1990, which served as a platform for marginal groups and a wide rainbow of subcultures (including LGBT and queer communities) of the 1980s. Sokak’s optimistic stance was exemplified in a column called “Know Your Rights” that advised readers what to do if, for instance, you are the victim of domestic violence or are stopped on the street by police—optimistic, because it imagined a society governed by rule of law.

Elsewhere in this overflowing display were moving (and often tragic) stories of brave human-rights campaigns, prison reformers, conscientious objectors, gay-rights advocates, the dawning of a slyly subversive popular culture, and traces of reclaimed minority identities that slipped through the government’s tight fists. The absurdity, and desperation, of authorities is encapsulated in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s artwork 191/205 (2010), for which the artist took 191 of the 205 words banned in 1985 by the state media channel TRT—including “memory, remember, recollection, experimental, motion, revolution, nature, dream, theory, possibility, history, freedom, example, conversation, whole, life”—and had Turkish rapper MC Fuat turn them into a song, which she then pressed into a vinyl record. The words were supposedly “beneath the level of standard Turkish.”

As civil society reestablished itself in Turkey, new concerns were raised by segments of the population harshly repressed by the military-nationalist ethos. A wall of monitors displayed Şerif Gören’s unfinished nine-channel feminist film On Kadın (“Ten Women”), which depicts women performing stereotypical roles—bride, mother, prostitute, feminist and others—and decries the circumscribed positions allotted in this new Turkey. The Kurdish conflict, and rise of the militant PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party)—whose roots can be traced to the radical left of the 1970s—is a complex, tortuous history in itself, and was represented at SALT with Halil Altindere’s Welcome to the Land of the Lost (1998). Comprising sheets of fictitious national postage stamps, the artwork depicts just 12 of the 17,000 people who were disappeared during the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and state of emergency in the mid-1980s and through the 1990s. Any victories of the post-coup-era were offset by new national crises that followed.

AYŞE ERKMENImitation/lllustration, 1987/2015, found brick and three digital prints, 50 × 60 cm each. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci. Courtesy SALT Beyoğlu, Istanbul. 

The exhibition also spotlighted SALT’s long-standing institutional concerns with urban issues, such as the unchecked growth of Istanbul, with slideshows of the construction of the second Bosporus bridge during 1986–88, which presages the current construction of the controversial third Bosphorus bridge. Ayşe Erkmen’s Imitation / Illustration (1987/2015), comprising photographs, a map and a stone, was part of a section in the exhibition depicting the attempted gentrification campaign of what that previously been Greek and Armenian districts around Tarlabaşı—an area once again being decimated by government-backed development projects.

AYŞE ERKMEN, Imitation/lllustration, 1987/2015, found brick and three digital prints, 50 × 60 cm each. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci. Courtesy SALT Beyoğlu, Istanbul. 

HALE TENGERThe Closet (detail), 1997/2015, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci. Courtesy SALT Galata, Istanbul. 

At SALT Galata, an informative section on the various books banned in 1980s Turkey was accompanied by Hale Tenger’s infamous installation The Closet (1997), which recreates a Turkish apartment comprising a dining room with a lone television playing a football match, a bedroom with a desk, and finally a closet stocked with now-vintage clothing. The piece replicates the fearful, claustrophobic feeling of a bygone era—though, regrettably, technical limitations, such as the gallery’s existing ceilings and sprinkler pipes, slightly marred the effect.

Throughout were stories of resistance from even during the worst periods, as collective actions pushed back against the state. Back at SALT Beyoğlu was a section on “Observations and Requests Pertaining to the Democratic Order in Turkey,” a letter also known as the “The Petition of Intellectuals” that was presented to the Turkish president and parliament speaker on May 15, 1984, calling for the freedom of the press and other intellectual activities, signed by 1,256 intellectuals and writers. Visitors at SALT were able to tear off a reproduction of the petition and take it with them. It served as one of many reminders of the incomplete reforms that civil society in Turkey still awaits and needs now more than ever.

“How Did We Get Here” was on view at SALT Beyoğlu and SALT Galata, Istanbul, from September 3 through November 29, 2015.

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.