View of Kutlug Ataman’s Stefan’s Room, 2004, four-screen looped video installation.

All photos courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

In his 1989 essay “The Contingency of Selfhood,” the late American philosopher Richard Rorty proposed “self-creation” through metaphor as an alternative to the concept of an intrinsic human nature. He saw identity as a contingent linguistic construction—analogous to the imaginative narratives produced by a poet or fiction writer—rather than a constellation of preexistent universal traits. He went on to distinguish “fantasy” from “poetry”—fantasy being a dysfunctional metaphor which “other people cannot find a use for,” while “poetic metaphor” chimes “with some particular need which a given community happens to have at a given time.”

The films of the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman straddle this line. While the works are formally diverse, one of Ataman’s primary methods—remarkably consistent, given the broad social spectrum of his subjects—is to train a video camera on selected individuals and listen to the stories they tell, usually about themselves. (Subtitles supply English translation when needed.) Ataman appears to subscribe to Rorty’s dual Wittgensteinian premise that our attempts at self-definition depend entirely on language, and there is no vantage point external to language from which we can qualify that discourse. “I don’t believe that people have definite identities,” the artist told Die Welt last November. “We are rewriting our identity at every moment” (my translation).

Born the son of a diplomat in 1961 and raised in Istanbul, Ataman makes films that both reflect and address “a given community,” frequently Turkish. In this context, an awareness of the contingency of language could not be more relevant: the Turks were impelled by law, within the space of a few months, to switch from an Arabic to a Roman alphabet when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic, imposed modernizing measures in 1928. At the press conference for “The Enemy Inside Me”—Ataman’s current midcareer retrospective at Istanbul Modern—he characterized the show as a symbolic homecoming. After earning an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1988, the artist lived for periods in France, several South American countries, Germany and England. He has now taken up residence in Istanbul again. During the past decade, his work has been shown in many museums internationally and included in Documenta and Manifesta, as well as the Venice, São Paulo, Moscow and Berlin biennials. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in Britain in 2004 and won the Carnegie Prize in the U.S. in 2005. Although he has garnered three film festival awards in Turkey, Ataman feels that his work has been largely overlooked in his native country, perhaps because a critique of Turkey’s society and politics has been a consistent subject, even if he has usually approached it from an oblique angle.

Ataman began his career as a documentary and feature filmmaker. As an 18-year-old, left-wing activist, he recorded the street protests that preceded the Turkish military coup of 1980; those early films—shot in Super 8—were confiscated and destroyed by the military authorities following a raid on Ataman’s house. He was arrested, imprisoned for 28 days, and subjected to beatings and electric shocks.

Last September, the prime minister, Recep Erdogan, passed a series of reforms, approved by a nationwide referendum, which shifted power from the military to parliament. The political immunity of the 1980 generals was lifted, exposing them to the threat of being brought to trial for their crimes. Ataman has now initiated legal proceedings against those who tortured him. Erdogan’s AK [Justice and Development] Party is conservative, with strong Islamic sympathies, which makes it an unlikely ally of the openly gay Ataman. Yet Ataman regards the mounting of “The Enemy Inside Me” as a sign of a climate of tolerance in Turkey, fostered by the AK Party despite its publicly espoused homophobia and nationalism.

At the November opening, Ataman called the show “a delayed exhibition,” featuring works that Turkish viewers have not had the opportunity to see on their own turf. Of the 11 pieces in the show, only one, Beggars (2010), is being shown for the first time. The artist characterized his films as deeply concerned with identity, particularly how its personal, group and national manifestations overlap. The exhibition was conceived, he said, as a response to his past mistreatment, a flouting of constraints, now that they have been relaxed. Despite this note of resentment, his tone was more celebratory than vindictive. He spoke with particular warmth about the earliest work in the exhibition, Women Who Wear Wigs, which debuted at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and has since acquired unanticipated cultural significance. In 2008, Erdogan attempted to legislate a change that would allow women to wear the Islamic headscarf in Turkish universities. The ban was reinstated a few months later on constitutional grounds, following protests from the secularist establishment. The recent heated debate in France about forbidding the burka in public has given Ataman’s installation a further topical dimension.

On each of its four adjacent screens, Women Who Wear Wigs presents a Turkish woman describing her reasons for wearing a wig. One has cancer and is losing her hair to chemotherapy; another is a prostitute donning a flamboyant blond wig over her natural dark hair; the third is a Muslim college student, obscured by darkness, who has taken to wearing a wig as an alternative to the forbidden headscarf; finally, there is a transsexual whose long hair was forcibly cut by the police when she was arrested for prostitution. Ataman remarked that, given the political climate in Turkey a decade ago, these four women could not even have been in the same room together at that time. Bringing the four narratives into artificial juxtaposition, Ataman’s structure coercively poses the possibility of “community.”

Ataman is always resolutely Freudian, seeing personality as the result of our hapless attempts to control our fears and desires. The wigs suggest that identity is less the blossoming of a “true self” than a masquerade, the donning of a persona. If his films imply that an individual’s interpretations of his or her past are the substance of identity itself, they also intimate, conversely, that identity tends to reveal itself most transparently when one is placed under duress, and one’s accustomed self-image begins to crumble. Ataman seems poised between a belief in the Wittgensteinian autonomy of language and a sense that there may be—or we may have a desire for—some deeper-lying subjectivity beyond one’s web of words, the chance that inner truths are revealed when our control over our own language falters. This hidden story is synonymous with Freud’s “forgotten material” that can be brought to light only inadvertently.

Women Who Wear Wigs is a meditation on the consequences of perceptual overload, both the viewer’s and the subjects’. The four women speak simultaneously about their respective crises, as though competing with each other to hold our attention. Does the predicament of the woman with cancer—or rather her performance of it—make the transsexual’s sufferings appear self-indulgent, or equally severe and undeserved? Using a pluralistic structure, Ataman posits “community” as an arena in which the individual’s “fantasy” is forced to fight it out with the self-projections to earn credibility. The viewer is cast as an arbiter, judging which stories are the most convincing.

The 24 monitors of Paradise (2006) extend the competition of voices broadly enough to begin to approximate a genuine representation of community. Each screen presents the monologue of a resident of Orange County, Calif., speaking about his or her life in the area. The installation dramatizes the element of choice: seeing the images on a range of silent screens to which headphones are attached, we choose which participants attract us enough to listen to their words.

This installation serves to illustrate the truism that appearance is crucial in the business of sales; these are, after all, people selling their versions of “reality.” There is an aged, rheumy-eyed clown in a red afro wig and full pancake makeup; a mother keeping watch at the gates to a playground; a garrulous man who founded a lingerie store; and a plastic surgeon whose taut orange skin suggests he’s taken too much of his own medicine. The impossibility of establishing a firm criterion for the artist’s selection, outside of shared location, foils any attempt to interpret this array of solipsistic narratives as an expression of social solidarity. What is the standard for inclusion? It might be nothing more concrete than optimism, or the confidence that the speakers exhibit when projecting a version of themselves and their place in the world. The title, Paradise, references an imaginative construct specific to each mind. Shared vision can only be fortuitous. The work offers a diversity of faces, voices and personal concepts that refuses to be generalized into any common idea of a heavenly home.

Is Ataman exploiting these individuals, manipulating their vanities? One speaker in Paradise repeatedly characterizes himself as “a solitary person,” even as he is placed by the artist in the midst of this manifold chorus. Ataman structurally overrules his testimony, uses the man for his own purposes; metaphorically, he speaks over his subject.

Testimony (2006) makes this moral ambiguity its subtext, insinuating a narrative that evades the person it portrays. Ataman interviews an Armenian woman who was his childhood nanny and is now suffering from senile dementia. Given the bitter and violent political strife between Turkey and Armenia—the Turkish word for “Armenian” is actually a curse—the woman’s background was kept a secret by the Ataman family. Time and illness have sealed this repression; the woman can no longer recall her own origins. Ataman’s video camera and gently coaxing questions attempt to preserve her image and resuscitate her memory. He casts himself as the Freudian “other,” probing into the darkness of a submerged past, an amnesia that is also his country’s. He hands the woman old photographs which she stares at uncomprehendingly, although she does recognize Ataman: “You are Kutlug. I thought Kutlug was somewhere else.”

The comparison between works such as Testimony, filmed in Turkey, and those made elsewhere is telling. The private worlds described by the former, which make up a little less than half of this exhibition, reflect, even if only implicitly, the national conditions that have molded the fate of the individual, while eliciting from Ataman a more intimate tone, like the shift from a third- to first-person narrative. It feels as though we are moving closer in.

The works made abroad tend to focus on involuted subjectivities, but with greater authorial objectivity. The Four Seasons of Veronica Read (2002) depicts an English woman whose apartment is filled with 900 Hippeastrum bulbs, which flower only once a year. She lovingly tends the plants with an intensity that is somewhere between that of a mother, a friend and a lover. Similarly, Stefan’s Room (2004) is the story of a young German who obsessively collects and archives moths. Claustrophobically projected on clusters of hanging screens that surround the viewer, both works are examples of Ataman’s use of film installation to viscerally impress his themes on viewers, in this case by generating an atmosphere of brooding psychological hermeticism. The walls of the subjects’ apartments, and Ataman’s similarly confining screens, evoke the self-reflexivity of neurosis. And yet each film reaches a symbolic flowering: the moth is freed from the chrysalis, and the bulbs bloom into spectacular color, intimating that if our obsessions trap us physically or emotionally, they frequently liberate us imaginatively. If the far-fetched fictions that we create to explain our lives allow us to cope, while harming nobody else, are they thus vindicated?

These films sometimes document fantasies that do not find a comprehending collective response, yet Ataman’s humanistic art can itself be a bridge out of the isolated of states consciousness it examines. Whatever his structural manipulations, Ataman, as an interviewer, eschews condescending to his subjects. Never My Soul (2001) shows the tranvestite Ceyhan reinventing herself as Türkan Soray, a diva of Turkish cinema. Throughout her meandering monologues, Ataman, with his patient scrutiny, seems to have a stake in the success of her performance. Compassion and artistic self-interest are rendered indistinguishable; Ceyhan might be a surrogate figure for the artist as storyteller. Shown on six old-fashioned TV sets surrounded by decorative plush sofas, the mock-domestic installation makes generic soap-opera viewers of us all, with Ceyhan as the star of the show. She waxes her legs and teases her boyfriend while regaling us with stories of the physical abuse she suffered in police custody and her molestation, at the age of seven, by a male relative; she lies in her bath, wearing only a tiara, surrounded by burning candles, shrieking, “Not now, darling. This is my private life. This is bath time. No filming!” The accoutrements resemble the lugubrious kitsch of Catholic religious imagery. This overt artifice dignifies the squalor of Ceyhan’s world. She is protected by the theatrical distance of her performance; her fraudulence is her autonomy, even if there is no “true self” behind her various masks.

This is a Warholian trope, and Never My Soul recalls the complicit voyeurism of Chelsea Girls (1966), in which Factory regular Brigid Berlin (a.k.a. Brigid Polk), holed up in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, is seen presiding over a sealed-off kingdom of dissolute young women like an all-powerful brothel madam, periodically receiving calls from the outside world while languidly delivering a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy. In both films, a victim is transformed into a heroine by the camera’s unrelenting attention; in both, real-time filmmaking, a realist device, is belied by the theatrical behavior of the protagonists. For Ataman, as for Warhol, the subject’s image is a facade. Unlike Warhol, however, he knowingly presents that surface as vulnerable to being shattered by human suffering, even if the emotional crisis is ultimately revealed as merely another form of rhetoric.

Such, too, is the disconcerting moral ambiguity of Beggars. In each of seven silent, black-and-white projections, we see a single beggar on the streets of Istanbul, either attempting to elicit sympathy and money, or sleeping rough. The over-lifesize, vertical format of the images brings us directly up against the subjects—as though we were literally face to face with the beggars—while emphasizing the schism between the privileged space of museum culture and the exposed domain of destitution and homelessness.

Ataman reconstitutes the familiar ethical dilemma of how to respond to a beggar’s supplications. The seven films depict a gamut of beseeching attitudes—from stoicism to bitterness, from apparently fraudulent urgency to seemingly authentic desperation—complicated by the knowledge that some of the figures are, according to a gallery sheet, actors, although we are not told which ones. The installation thus subtly subverts its own pathos, rousing our innate distrust, as it highlights the fact that begging, however earnest it may be, is an opportunistic act to draw pity, and therefore cash.

As Ceyhan’s theater is the shield of her autonomy, so the possibility that any given beggar may be merely play-acting serves to short-circuit sentimentality, by defining the film as a fiction before anything else. Ataman continuously balances this deconstructive impulse against the film’s emotional reach. On a far wall, we see a woman at the entrance to a subway station, her dark eyes haunted and haunting. Her gaze seems to ask whether we are willing to separate the specific from the general, the individual person from the anonymous community—even if for no more compelling a reason than that her performance is more persuasive than others.

Currently On View Kutlug Ataman’s film retrospective, “The Enemy Inside Me,” at Istanbul Modern, through Mar. 6.

MARK PRINCE is an artist and critic based in Berlin.