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  • Nov 11, 2015

Obituary: Cengiz Çekil (1945–2015)

Portrait of *CENGIZ

The influential Turkish artist and educator Cengiz Çekil died in İzmir, a major port city in western Turkey, from complications following surgery over the weekend. He was 70 years old. As news of his passing circulated on social media, many in the Turkish art community fondly remembered the charming, mercurial elder statesman of contemporary art, whose practice fused Anatolian references with process-oriented and readymade modernist sculpture into a unique sculptural language.

Born in 1945 in the central central Turkish city of Niğde, Cengiz Çekil studied in Ankara in the Department of Painting and Handicrafts at the progressive Gazi Institute of Education, before receiving a state bursary to attend the École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts in Paris. A photograph taken at the Parisian school’s courtyard depicts his 1974 work Accumulation—a square, nine-level stack of railway ties, with a sheet of paper stretched on the top, which forms a hut-like structure from the minimalist cube.

The following year, in July, in the basement of Metronome café, located at 12 Rue Domat in Paris’s 5th arrondissement, Çekil held his first solo exhibition, called “Réorganisation pour une Exposition.” One of his extant works from that year, shown in his first solo exhibition in Turkey, curated by Vasıf Kortun for the opening of Rampa Gallery in 2010, was Iron Earth, Copper Sky (1975), a stack of three plates (from top to bottom: copper, mica and iron) held together by iron bars on the corners, which form a 50-centimeter cube with a heating element in the middle. The sculpture shares a title with a 1963 novel by Kurdish author Yaşar Kemal about peasants who create a mythical character to alleviate their suffering, and it encapsulated Çekil’s interest in the metaphoric potency of raw materials.

Çekil returned to Turkey in 1976, pursuing an MFA at Ege University in İzmir. Günce (“Diary,” 1976), his work from that time, has pages stamped with the phrase “BUGÜN DE YAŞIYORUM” (“Today I am also alive”). It not only echoes Japanese conceptualist On Kawara’s contemporaneous telegrams reading “I am still alive,” but also demarcates surviving a particularly violent period between left-wing and right-wing groups in Turkey. The diary has flowers on each page, as if it belonged to a young woman, and comes in a box with a romanticized image of a young bride and groom. The final page of the book, stamped June 30, 1976, reads “ASKERE GİDİYORUM, (“I am going to the military”)—whether the protagonist is going for protection or for obligatory military service is uncertain. The work is now the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was featured in curator Christian Rattemeyer’s show “I Am Still Alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing” in 2011.

Although Çekil held a solo exhibition at the Taksim Art Gallery in 1978, he remained largely peripheral to the Istanbul art scene for the next 30 years, serving as a professor at Dokuz Eylül University in İzmir. He was never entirely forgotten, however, having participated in seminal exhibitions in Istanbul such as the artist-organized series “10 Artists, 10 Works: A-B-C” (1989–92) at the Atatürk Cultural Center, as well as various large-scale, state-sponsored shows in Ankara and through the fine arts academy Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul. International interest in his work was renewed when René Block included Çekil in the 4th Istanbul Biennial in 1995, and following his participations in Manifesta 5 in San Sebastian, Spain, in 2004, and the 11th Istanbul Biennial in 2009. After he relocated his studio to Istanbul in 2007, his works became more visible again to a younger generation of artists, particularly through Rampa’s two exhibitions that introduced works from his 40-year career.

Left to right: Vahap Av

Cengiz Çekil is also widely remembered for a 1986 exhibition that he organized immediately upon hearing of Joseph Beuys’s death. He gathered artists including Vahap Avşar, Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, Erdağ Aksel, Halil Akdeniz, Michael Bishop and others, for “Another Art: For the Memory of Joseph Beuys,” held at the İzmir German Cultural Center. Çekil’s student at the time, Avşar created a three-dimensional light-box, Living Picture, that was meant to contain a single white dove, but the venue did not allow it. Çekil’s own work was deeply influenced by Beuys as well as Marcel Duchamp. Towards Childhood, Since Childhood (1974), for instance, is an arrangement of 12 one-liter glass Coke bottles on the gallery floor, each mounted on a pair of branches and outfitted with a battery pack and a small light on the front of each bottle. With their simple wiring, the objects resembled homemade toys, or bombs—and echoed Beuys’s sled sculptures equipped with a flashlight, felt and fat.

Through his life, Çekil’s works charted Turkey’s social tumult. His installation Reverse Image (1980), comprises a lens that projects an upside-down image of the street onto a scrim and an amplifier that brings outside noises into the gallery—a work he created during the political repression that followed the country’s military coup d’état on September 12, 1980. When I met the artist in 2010 at his Rampa exhibition, he explained that the small sculpture Awakening – Communication Stone (1987) was modeled on a rock that had been thrown through his window during a stint at a teacher training school in Konya in the 1960s. The harsh or difficult conditions of his lifetime were echoed everywhere in his works.

In an essay on the artist, Vasıf Kortun wrote: “In Çekil’s research on the streets, in simple builders’ markets, bric-a-brac shops, and make-shift bazaars of castaway objects, he looks for things he can incorporate into a new poetic. Çekil broadens the need for the simple things of the world to prevail and cluster into new meanings.” Çekil’s work 1,200 Watches (2005) was a late example of his habitual wandering-collecting methods. In five zinc-lined, glass-covered display cases, he had arrayed defunct watches found in flea markets—selected according to diverse but inscrutable criteria—each tagged with a small blue label bearing his name. A private collection of oddities and rarities, 1,200 Watches is a tribute to the artist’s father (who was a watch-repairer) and a meditation on mortality—an impression further suggested by the cases’ coffin-like zinc lining. Though it began in the 1970s, Çekil’s own time and practice live on in the many artists who inherited his model forging a highly personalized language from the materials around us.

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.