Installation view of FATMA BUCAK’s “Sticks and Stones” at Pi Artworks, London, 2017. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Pi Artworks, London.

Sticks and Stones

Fatma Bucak

Pi Artworks
Turkey Syria Lebanon Italy United Kingdom

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” as the old English nursery rhyme goes, “but words will never break me.” The expression is intended to stress the significance of physical compared to verbal force, and yet at Fatma Bucak’s recent exhibition at London’s Pi Artworks, “Sticks and Stones,” emphasized the relationship between the two expressions of power, and the significance of the latter. Much of the exhibition operated within the context of current events in Turkey, where Bucak lived as a member of the country’s Kurdish minority before moving to London, and which is notorious for being a hostile environment for journalists and academics, especially following the failed 2016 coup d’état against the government of incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The works dealing directly with this subject matter, though understated, were the exhibition’s most effective. In Black Ink (2016– ), the artist has created a movable type whose text—which is displayed on an accompanying print—describes the recipe for the ink with which it is used: one part gum Arabic, two parts distilled water and black ash from a book burned on June 10, 2016, during an attack on a Kurdish publishing house in the city of Diyarbakır. As part of a weekly performance at the gallery, Bucak created further prints using the type. However, the ash that gives the ink its tone is exhaustible, suggesting that once the resources and infrastructure that allow journalism to flourish is destroyed, the transmission of truth is liable to atrophy.

FATMA BUCAK, Black Ink, 2016– , movable type and movable type print with ink from the ashes of a burned book found at the charred warehuse of an independent Kurdish publishing housing. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Pi Artworks, London.

FATMA BUCAK, 342 Names, 2017, 13 litho prints, 55.8 × 76.2 cm each. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Pi Artworks, London.

The artist further explores this concept in another piece, 342 Names (2017), for which she carved into a lithographic stone the names of the 342 people who disappeared following another military coup that took place in Turkey in 1980, such that the marks she made overlapped to the point of illegibility. Especially for the exhibition, the stone was used to create a series of prints using only one inking, once again suggesting the potential for historical erasure, and further demonstrating the artist’s interest in working with solid source materials whose capacity to leave lasting traces is precarious.

Bucak’s tendency toward symbolism was well executed and effective in these two pieces. Elsewhere, however, the artist’s symbolic acts engaged less convincingly with her subject matter. In the video installation, Scouring the Press (2016), three women, including the artist, kneel before washbasins and scrub Turkish newspapers, divesting them of their ink and information. While the threads in the piece are clear—censorship, the dissolution of the journalistic record, references to what is traditionally considered women’s labor—the conceptual basis for combining these tropes in such a way is unclear, with none of the three enhancing the significance of the others.

FATMA BUCAK, still image from Scouring the Press, 2016, HD video with color and sound: 9 min 20 sec. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Pi Artworks, London.

FATMA BUCAK, Damascus Rose, 2016– , damask rose cuttings from Damascus grafted onto rose plants, dimensions vary. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Pi Artworks, London.

In another symbolically direct piece, Damascus Rose (2016– ), Bucak focused less on the movement of information and more on that of people. The artist had a collection of clippings from the eponymous plant transported from the Syrian capital—via a contact in Beirut and a horticulturalist in Italy—and presented them in a box of soil in the gallery. Some of the plants, marked with a white label, were grafted with trimmings from Turkish roses, and it is unclear whether they will survive, emphasizing the clear reference to migration and the process of settling in a new land. While the work is undeniably poetic, both in its development and gallery manifestation, beyond the clear geographical parallels it is questionable to what extent this symbol engages meaningfully with the weight of reality—plants are not akin to people.

FATMA BUCAK, There May Be Doubts, 2015, from the series “A Study of Eight Landscapes,” digital archival pigment print from large format film, 110 × 140 cm. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Pi Artworks, London.

The show also included three pigment prints from “A Study of Eight Landscapes” (2014– ), a series of compositionally striking images made in the artist’s studio using objects found in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, Turkey and Armenia, and Syria and Turkey. Invoking the sticks in the exhibition’s title, There May Be Doubts (2015) depicts two halves of a putrefying fish spiked at either end of a metal rod, one half elevated on a piece of rubble, and the other on the floor. In some ways the simultaneous connection and separation that this stick enforces, though oblique, provides commentary that is more compelling than the blatant symbolism found elsewhere. While the adage that inspired its title esteems the physical and direct above the verbal and abstract, Bucak’s first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom was an effective exploration of both.

Ned Carter Miles is the London desk editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

Fatma Bucak’s “Sticks and Stones” is on view at Pi Artworks, London, until November 21, 2017.

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