Erdag Aksel

Istanbul

at Galeri Nev

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A longtime fixture on the Istanbul contemporary art scene, ErdagË? Aksel, 56, is an influential teacher as well as an artist known for provocative sculptures, installations and performances that frequently allude to Turkish history, and most often encompass a scathing critique of militarism. Among the 15 recent sculptures in this show, titled “Remembering/Forget! and Forgetting/Remember!,” were several wall reliefs made of bunches of long, yellow, folding wood rulers. The most dramatic, A Calculated Loss of Memory (2008-09),covered one large wall. Bent and twisted rulers form geometric shapes in 39 different configurations that here were neatly aligned in three rows. The series assumes the aspect of an imaginative alphabet. According to a press statement by the Izmir-born artist, the illegible symbols reference Turkey’s sudden conversion from Arabic to Roman characters in 1928, during the time of Atatürk’s wide-ranging reforms. For many in Turkey today, the nation’s written history prior to 1928 remains as impenetrable as Aksel’s fanciful script.

The exhibition’s two eponymous works, each a freestanding, approximately 6-foot-tall electrified sculpture displayed on a tall metal stand near the gallery entrance, were among the show’s best. According to the artist, each is a maquette for a proposed monumental sculpture to be installed in a central Istanbul plaza where once stood a giant sword, erected in 1960 to commemorate the first military coup d’état in modern Turkey. Retained during subsequent periods of civilian rule, the sword was removed by the military junta following yet another coup d’état in 1980.

With tongue in cheek, Aksel, in Remembering (2007), underscores the sword as a phallic symbol by replacing it with the even more blatant penile shape of a tall narrow curving steel rod that juts vertically from an upended sword handle inserted into a pile of small rocks on the stand. Glowing a faint red-orange, the rod doubles as an electric heater, which could cause a serious burn if touched, and would hopefully, the artist says, remind one of the perils of a military takeover of a democratic government. This sculpture’s similarly wacky counterpart, Forgetting (2009), features a thin, phallus-shaped tube of pink neon surmounting an assemblage of feminine accessories, such as lipstick tubes, nail polish bottles and jewelry, all covered with drab, military-green paint. On one level, this striking work appears as an erotic and slightly vulgar pop-art object, but Aksel has in mind a more acerbic and sobering purpose. He created the piece as a reflection on current fears of Islamic fundamentalism, which have gripped and divided Turkey, and prompted recent demonstrations by a number of women’s groups favoring the preservation of a secular government by any means necessary, including another military coup.   

Photo: ErdagË? Aksel: Forgetting, 2009, mixed mediums, 703⁄4 by 193⁄4 by 13 inches; at Galeri Nev.