• Ideas
  • Apr 27, 2011

Alptekin & Friends

This is part two of a three-part report on Istanbul's newest art space. Links to the other parts can be found at the bottom of this page.


The outsized ambition, as well as frenetic, festive atmosphere around Salt’s opening felt very much in the spirit of Hüseyin Alptekin. The Ankara-born artist was by all accounts a manically energetic personality and a prolific producer of images, words and collaborations—not only in Istanbul but in art communities in Finland, Sweden, Brazil, France, the Balkans and around the Black Sea, and wherever else he traveled. Artist-architect Gabriel Lester, one of the commissioned artists for “I Am Not a Studio Artist,” fondly described him as a “Turkish Danny DeVito on speed.” Nearly everyone who knew him has at least one anecdote about his concocting grandiose schemes, and another of escapades from his hard-partying lifestyle. Often they’re chapters in the same story.

Along with his high-voltage charisma, the multidisciplinary practice of Alptekin—who was a philosopher by training and an artist by disposition—helps to elucidate Salt’s mission. In the galleries, Alptekin’s forays into sculpture, video, installation, photocollage and his collaborations with the artist Michael Morris, are undoubtedly contemporary artworks. However, they also convey the sense of a person concerned not merely with the production of objects and images for their own sake, but with exploring the phenomena of the world as he saw it.

As such, snapshot photography is at the core of Altepkin’s practice. In the photo-installation Stranger in Paradise (2006), Alptekin grouped together hundreds of closely cropped images showing the facades of modern buildings. In the middle of this eight-meter-long assemblage are several dozen pictures of trucks driving along highways. What at first seemed to be a stylized configuration of buildings’ designs becomes a diagram of the industries and economies that fueled modern Turkey’s growth.

The series “Disappeared People” (2006) is similarly modest in its method. While traveling, Alptekin photographed public posters of missing people in Kosovo, and, in Chechnya, of relatives holding pictures of their lost loved ones. Shown as slide shows on two video monitors, each accompanied by musical soundtracks, the pieces document a poignant and humanistic—rather than cynical and postmodern—example of the potential of re-circulated and reproduced images, particularly for those dispossessed and disenfranchised by political violence. Bombastic in lore, Alptekin evinces sympathy and humility in his artworks.

Ever interested in systems of naming and cultural appropriation, and how such instances appear to connect places and people across time, Alptekin discovered the cities of the world in Istanbul. Beginning in the late 1990s, he would wander the seedy migrant neighborhoods of Laleli and Tarlabası at night, photographing the hotel signs with names of foreign places—Hotel Bonn, Hotel Lima, Hotel Genevre, Hotel Sarayevo, Hotel Dallas, Hotel Sidney—many of them printed in the same generic all-caps fonts. These photographs ended up in a series of works called “Capacity/Capacities” (1998). Alptekin later produced his own generic hotel signs, “H-Fact: Hospitality / Hostility” (2003), which, installed above other works in one of the large galleries, don’t quite manage to evoke the seedy districts Alptekin visited. They are interesting as undesigned, almost accidental objects, with everything about the indifference with which they were created standing in contrast to their setting at Salt.

Alptekin’s signature working method was gathering images and objects, sorting them by similarities and differences in typologies and linking perceptions of the world through an empirical yet intuitive logic. It is what makes him—and other artists today sorting, creating and displaying archives of images—not social scientists or photojournalists, but no less incisive for his portrayal of microlevel evidence of macro, global developments. With the “Capacity/Capacities” series, to see how social systems produce communities that express themselves in something as unexpected as hotel signs is at once a visual and intellectual pleasure—and itself not a form of visual tourism. 

No matter how much Alptekin took from the world for his artworks, they never lose their sense of his dynamic, distinctive subjectivity. Standing the gallery with his four-by-six meter sign TREMOR RUMOUR HOOVER  (2001), in which the title words are spelled out in colored circular sequins against a field of shimmering silver circles, it is enough to imagine some joyous, perhaps drunken, free-associative word game. Dig into Salt’s handsome monograph on Alptekin and there’s a poem and notes connecting Istanbullus’ fear of earthquakes with personal dissatisfaction (“Tremor makes rumour / Rumour makes humour”) with the artist’s wish to escape the city (“Tremor Sea / Black Tremor / Hoover the water”) and to purge himself (“Hoovering life / Hooover, I know all about your rumours...”).

There’s no denying that for all of his ecstatic artworks, full of Istanbul’s terrifying and enlivening cosmopolitanism or his own enormous personality, Alptekin also knew the city’s melancholy. But for him, this affliction was still productive. In a series of notes from 1996 to curator Rosa Martinez: “I believe depression is another way of perceiving and conceiving life. Through depression we can reach new modes of consciousness and only art can decode and transform it into a joyful cognition.” The process of this transformation from inward reflection to verbalized thought to artwork is embedded in the installation, Winter Depression (1998). A neon sign of the title phrase hangs on the wall, casting a pink light over the space where a desiccated fish is lying on a cloth-covered examination table. Behind the fish (a surrogate for the artist as patient) is a wall-sized poster of a happy-looking movie audience wearing 3D glasses. Alptekin’s work simultaneously evokes a tanning salon, psychiatrist’s office and movie theater—three sites of personal therapy—at the same time. There is a funny verbal triangulation between the miserable, mute fish, the illuminated declaration on the wall, and the slaphappy faces in the crowd. It feels sardonic, but nonetheless: from the artist’s misery comes expression, which brings joy.

CAN ALTAY, Merzbahri: Global Hangover (Detail), 2011. Photo by Atlagan Cerito

Complimenting Alptekin’s works were newly commissioned pieces by five artists who knew him well. Among them, artist-architect Gabriel Lester’s sculptural curtains billowed into the exhibition space, recalling a sequence of photographs that Alptekin took of a white lace curtain for his photo-installation Melancholia in Arkadia (2000). Another artist-architect, Can Altay installed kinetic works, Merzbahri: Global Hangover (2011), that similarly referred to motifs from Alptekin’s life and works: globes and plastic balls. One was a low platform made from discolored chipboard (recycled from an earlier Altay project in Maçka Park) with an embedded speaker filled with small globes. As it vibrates to a low-frequently soundtrack, the globes bobble together. The other was a mobile of plastic toy balls in mesh bags that whips around like a tetherball, referring also to hanging sculptures that Alptekin made with Michael Morris for an exhibition in Budapest.

Alptekin’s widow, the Brazilian artist Camila Rocha curated a selection of 369 slides, from the years 1978–89, which illustrated that Alptekin had been a relentless visual chronicler of urban life in the decades before he’d switched from the field of philosophy to art (Kortun cites 1990 as the date). Rocha’s own videos were based around a particular story about Huseyin’s Saab and another about folding chair, leading to a decadent scene of women gabbing in various languages and gambling the night away. Rocha’s most exuberant tribute was to parade around the opening in a big green dress accompanied by a marching band.

Before the exhibition opened, it seemed like a risky proposition to have artist-friends make artwork about or based on Alptekin’s practice. But all five managed to avoid the pitfalls of the “tribute album”—weak imitations and sentimentality—by drawing out themes and motifs from Altepkin’s practice without sacrificing their own voices. At some moments, the chosen artists even felt like counterpoints. One of Nedko Solakov’s three videos, Tourist #1 (The Great Wall of China) (2011), features the artist miserably ascending the steep Chinese fortifications, grumbling all the way about the absurdities of the tourist trade. Solakov’s humorous curmudgeon put into stark relief Alptekin’s empathy and curiosity about the world, a fascination that persisted despite all of the suffering that he encountered.

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