The play between sense and nonsense was the leitmotif of this show of recent works by Turkish-born filmmaker and artist Kutluğ Ataman. The exhibition comprised a selection of pieces from Ataman’s series “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies” (begun in 2009), which focuses on the history of Turkey and, ultimately, on history itself as a form of story-making.
Ataman is best known for video installations that—like works by contemporaries such as Omer Fast and Walid Raad—blur the line between documentary and fiction. His primary subject is the construction of identity, and how self-concepts bear the traces of political, religious and societal conditions.
Early installations were studies of individuals, like the 87-year-old Turkish opera singer in Semiha B. Unplugged (1997). More recently, Ataman shifted his attention to communities (as in 2004’s Kuba, for which he interviewed the residents of an Istanbul slum) and now to nations and cultures. Here, the subject is Mesopotamia, taken both as the historical land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as the “cradle of civilization” and as an idea, used by the artist to explore regional tension between East and West, religion and secularism, modernization and tradition.
The show opened with Mayhem (2011), a seven-channel video piece in which multiple, close-up views of Argentina’s mighty Iguazú Falls (located in a region also named Mesopotamia) are projected onto the floor and onto screens suspended from the ceiling. Inspired by the Arab Spring, Mayhem’s images of water flowing upward and sideways are simultaneously disorienting, panic-inducing and exhilarating.
In English as a Second Language (2009), displayed as a two-channel projection on opposing walls, two Turkish schoolboys recite, in heavily accented English, nonsense poems by Edward Lear. Nearby, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (2009), a handwritten transcription of the playwright’s entire output, scrolls upward too fast to read. Both the English language and Shakespeare’s texts here represent Western culture, with its alien values and its global reach, imported to the East in the name of progress.
The show’s most complex and captivating work is the split-screen film Journey to the Moon (2009, in Turkish with English subtitles). Unfolding on one half of the screen is a fictional narrative, illustrated with black-and-white still photographs and told by an unnamed narrator. The story begins in 1957, when a politician’s car breaks down in a remote Anatolian village and he takes the opportunity to stump for a few votes. In the course of a speech on progress, he mentions that the Russians have sent a satellite into orbit. An ensuing chain of circumstances leads a group of villagers (including a rebellious young woman and a cross-dressing shepherd) to turn the town’s minaret into a spaceship.
Interspersed between episodes of the story are color video interviews with notable Turkish intellectuals and scientists, who offer their expert opinions on aspects of the tale as if it had actually happened, discussing subjects such as what preserved foods the voyagers might have taken with them, if they were able to determine the direction of Mecca in outer space, whether they survived. The film stirs ideas about the role of myth in shaping individual and collective histories. More frighteningly, through its intertwining of folk tale and scholarly commentary, it suggests that even the most irrational mythologizing can be framed in ways that make it seem reasonable.
Photo: Kutluğ Ataman: Journey to the Moon (detail), 2009, two-channel video projection, approx. 79 minutes; at Sperone Westwater.