NEVIN ALADAĞSession, 2013, three-channel video installation, color with sound: 6 min each. Courtesy the artist and Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, and Rampa, Istanbul.

Plurivocality: Visual Arts and Music in Turkey

Istanbul Modern
Turkey China

The full diversity of Anatolian culture is borne by its food and music. Little else in contemporary Turkey retains its links so closely with the past while reflecting the massive societal transformations of the 20th century; since the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, and the alphabet revolutionized, non-Turkic minorities were expunged, deported or assimilated en masse and the majority of the population migrated from villages to cities. Istanbul Modern’s exhibition “Plurivocality: Visual Arts and Music in Turkey” gathers together works by 17 Turkish artists that incorporate sound and music in ways that address, or redress, this collective history, in a wide range of approaches and styles. 

Like many of Istanbul Modern’s recent exhibitions, “Plurivocality” contains many important contemporary artworks organized around a broadly appealing theme. Comprised of two sections, “Plurivocality” contains both a historical component about famous Turkish artists and their connections to music, and a greatest-hits selection of Turkish artworks from the last 15 years that incorporate sound and music as inspiration.

In the former section, called “Repetoire,” curators trace historical lineage, beginning first with Ottoman calligraphy and the modernization periods of the 19th- and early 20th century, when Western classical music—along with other elements of European culture—were fused with Ottoman traditions. The links between music and art continue through the Republican era of the 1920s and ’30s, when a generation of artists was sent to Europe on state bursaries to study fine arts, as part of Atatürk’s Europeanization of Turkish culture. Later, the postwar decades saw the spawning of new indigenous music styles, such as Turkish psychedelic rock (embodied by Bariş Manço, who made his own drawings for albums), and the commercialization of the nostalgic arabesque genre, whose spirit is captured in the paintings, collages and installations of Gülsün Karamustafa. 

Unfortunately, “Repetoire” is a mere sketch or research for an exhibition, as it consists largely of biographical texts and reproductions of artworks printed onto wallpaper. A few vitrines containing musical scores, drawings and notes only further emphasize that “Repetoire” could have—and should have—been realized with primary materials and artworks. 

HALE TENGER, Balloons on the Sea, 2011, seven-channel video installation, color with sound: 5 min 40 sec. Courtesy the artist, Green Art Gallery, Dubai, and Galeri Nev, Ankara. 

FIKRET ATAYTinica, 2004, still from video with sound: 7 min 32 sec. Courtesy Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul.

Fortunately, there are actual artworks to experience in the second part of  “Pluravocality.” Among the works by the 17 participating artists are many that are having their debut in Turkey, such as Nevin Aladağ’s three-channel video installation Session (2013), made for the Sharjah Biennial, which depicts musical instruments from the Emirates’ various Arab and South Asian ethnic groups being deployed in non-musical ways. They are rolled down sand dunes, tapped by the ocean waves and rattled by wind, making sounds rather than music, being subjected to natural forces rather than human interaction. Also showing for the first time in Turkey is Hale Tenger’s beautiful, allegorical video installation (made in collaboration with musician Serdar Ateşer) entitled Balloons on the Sea (2011), which, by reversing sky and water, poetically frames the latent violence of a popular Turkish coastal pastime of shooting balloons. 

Among the older works that still feel relevant today, Fikret Atay’s video Tinica (2004) depicts a boy sitting on a hill over the southeastern Kurdish city of Batman, playing a drum kit assembled from metal cans and plastic buckets. At the performance’s sunset climax, he kicks the drums aside and tosses his improvised metal drumsticks away in frustration, suggesting the perennial disenfranchisement of minority youth in spite of, or because of, Turkey’s unchecked urban development. More mercurial is Füsun Onur’s Prelude (2000), an arrangement of nesting tables, hammers connected by blue lace, and small bits of Lego, each replicating the forms of musical notes.

A perfect representation of the historical traces found in Anatolian music comes in Ergin Çavuşoğlu’s Quintet without Borders (2007), for which he brought five Romany musicians to the northwestern border town of Keşan, where many Romany had been forced to settle in the early years of the Republic, and where they incorporated elements of Turkish, Balkan and Greek music into their own. There, in Keşan, each of the five musicians selected locations where their individual instruments would sound the best—including the furnace of an old brick factory, the ruins of an 18th-century home and a local jetty—and Çavuşoğlu recorded them playing at their chosen sites. In the final installation, the individual performances are shown together, as if they are one act. 

:mentalKLINIK, French Kiss, 2014, double french horn, lacquered brass body, rose brass, leadpipe, four mechanical-link tapered rotary valves, engraved valve caps, geyer wrap, 81 × 54 × 31 cm. Courtesy the artists.

Yet there are curatorial problems here too—particularly evident to anyone who visits the museum even occasionally. “Plurivocality” includes a surfeit of works by artists already showing, or recently shown, at Istanbul Modern. A sculpture of two French horns by artist-duo :mentalKLINIK, entitled French Kiss (2014), resembles their shiny sculpture of two large cherries directly upstairs in the museum’s permanent collection. Sarkis’s video In the Beginning, the Scream (1998) shows him dipping a watercolor brush into a bowl of water, the colorful swirls silently echoing the image of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting. This work by Sarkis was on view for years at Istanbul Modern, and his rainbow neon-sculpture currently adorns the museum’s exterior. Cevdet Erek, who showed sound- and rhythm-related works on a long narrow table, had presented a nearly identical installation in Istanbul Modern’s previous exhibition. Burhan Doğançay’s painting Symphony in Blue (1987), here accompanied by the recording of a commissioned musical composition inspired by the piece, was shown in the artist’s retrospective at Istanbul Modern just two years ago, in 2012. Nevin Aladağ and Fikret Atay both exhibited at the museum in last year’s French-Turkish show “Modernity? Perspectives from France and Turkey.” A display of paintings by Turkey’s first opera singer Semiha Berksoy, depicting famous characters in opera, was shown in the museum’s 2011 survey of female Turkish artists “Dream and Reality” (which also included Onur and Tenger). 

BURHAN DOĞANCAYSymphony in Blue, 1987, collage, acrylic, gouache and fumage on canvas, 164 × 287 cm. Courtesy Yıldız Holding AŞ Collection, Istanbul. 

Another problematic inclusion is fashion designer Hussein Chalayan—whose work is also upstairs in the collection and was the subject of a retrospective at Istanbul Modern in 2010. His work Imminence of Desire (2011) is a signboard like those found in train stations; the letters flip to reveal 150 different names (in different languages) for Istanbul that have existed over the course of its history, and it is accompanied by the sound of seagulls. Two sentimental clichés lashed together (three, if you include the train-station signage) does not make an artwork. Chalayan’s other piece in the show, I am Sad Leyla (2010), has two parts: a room with a standing figure of Turkish pop star Sertab Erener, with a video of her face projected onto a life-size model of the singer, and footage of an Ottoman orchestra behind her. In the next room is a video of her performing with the same musicians and playing the same song— which marries Orthodox chanting and Divan literature—as she wears an elaborate dress and hat designed by Chalayan (the latter has sunglasses embedded in its brim, which Erener flips down in the video). Saccharine and over-produced, it is more three-dimensional music video—or high-concept fashion-boutique display—than work of art, bespeaking a nouveau riche consumerist society rather than revealing materials of historical richness. 

VAHIT TUNASunshine, 2008, installation with sound. Courtesy the artist. 

An early video by Erinç Şeymen is a welcome antidote to Chalayan. In collaboration with Slovenian artist-duo son:DA, Performance for a Poem (2006) is a heavily distorted video of Şeymen yelling into a microphone, with an image that flickers in and out like there’s a bad satellite connection. “O flower of mine that blooms in the highland,” he grumbles and moans, “The pigeon of peace, the eagle of war, I was born under you. I will die beneath you.” Perhaps the figure easiest to identify with is a small clay figurine of artist Vahit Tuna that sits atop a pile of sand, as if looking at the view from a mountaintop. Instead, the artist’s surrogate stares right at a large brass speaker embedded in the wall, from which the sound of commanding voices is emitted, slowly eroding the pile of sand beneath of him. Tuna’s ironic, modest piece, Sunshine (2008) is an endearing, pathetic representation of individual helplessness in the face of enduring authoritarian structures. 

Speaking of chronic problems, Istanbul’s art scene has many, including a shortage of genuine capacity and imagination in many of its institutions. If Istanbul Modern, for example, is not going to make actual historical exhibitions drawing from multiple state and private collections—no easy task, for sure—then what institution in Turkey will do this? The point of Istanbul Modern’s establishment in 2004 was to be the “modern art museum” that the aspiring EU-member state severely lacked, which is why the government leased the prominent Bosporus-fronting customs warehouse to a prominent art-collecting family for its use. Now, ten years later, a new state-funded painting and sculpture museum is rising next door to Istanbul Modern, to be run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, with works from the collection of the Turkish state. I would say that this is meant to rival or even eventually replace Istanbul Modern. However, judging from the pending museum’s design concept, most of the square footage appears devoted to retail and cafés, with small, narrow galleries that are appropriate only for showing paintings. A small preview exhibition of canvases (not a single sculpture was in sight) from the collection was presented with no particular logic, and lacked any commentary—or even rudimentary wall labels with the name-title-date of the artworks—suggesting that this institution will also lack even basic museum capabilities to make exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century art. You can hear the strands of richness, the depth behind the “pluravocality” of Anatolian culture, but Turkey’s institutions remain better at muffling it than letting it sing.

“Plurivocality: Visual Arts and Music in Turkey” will be on view at Istanbul Modern until November 27, 2014.