Kutluğ Ataman’s “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies”

Arnaud Gerspacher

November 23, 2012
Sperone Westwater, New York
November 1–December 22, 2012

If you’re overly tapped into art world tropes or academic hotspots, it’s tempting to think that there would be little new to offer in the archival impulse, in interrogating documentary conventions, or in playing with the effects fictions have on the facts. But like Harun Farocki, Amar Kanwar, or Omer Fast, Kutluğ Ataman does it so well you end up reconsidering those knowing prejudices you carried into a gallery. Ataman’s current show at Sperone Westwater, featuring four works from his “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies” series, is a case in point: through subtlety, craft, and humor—edged by formal and conceptual rigor—his approach demonstrates that well-worn strategies are not inherently exhausted and that our discourse is as coerced by the detracting force of cliché as any other.

Mayhem (2011) comes first. The seven-channel video installation is a multiplied and vertiginous view of the massive Iguazu Falls, specifically the area known as the Devil’s Throat, between Argentina and Brazil. Each video is a close-up of cascading torrents of water foaming, pouring, and crashing in on themselves from various angles. Ataman calls this work his direct response to the Arab Spring, describing the water as both a violent and cleansing force. This response is deeply ambiguous. The water might easily be the ineluctable rise of democracy as a force of nature as much as an endless death drive barreling over a cliff. The work’s formal elements are equally ambiguous. What at first might be taken for a Bill Viola-like moving-image sublime quickly becomes mediated and desublimated. There are no overwhelming sounds to suck you in. There is also a conspicuous lack of on-screen gravitational coherency, since the direction of the water seems to go every which way but down on any of the floating screens or the (yes, step-on) images projected on the ground. This denaturalization of nature—a waterfall that doesn’t “fall”—gives off a strange yet pleasant feeling, a slight pull inside the body not unlike the disorienting effect at the beach when staring down at the sand as it’s being pulled away by a receding tide.

Following Mayhem (2011) are two video-works shown in tandem: the two-channel English as a Second Language (2009) flanking and framing the single-channel The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (2009). The first depicts two Turkish schoolboys reciting poems by Edward Lear, a nature illustrator and poet renown for his nonsensical limericks. The boys are dressed for business but standing in a largely barren and rural landscape. Yet the real twist is this: the source poems make as little sense to English-speaking viewers as they do to the boys uttering words they do not comprehend. Lear’s non-sense is lost on the vocalizers struggling to communicate what lacks meaning in the first place. The absurdity lies in their situation and the English language itself which, as the global lingua franca, is more commonly borrowed for economic and diplomatic transactions than genuine cultural translation between peoples. And if unable to understand the first work audibly, the opacity of the next work is textual: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (2009) is a downward scrolling text comprised of all fourteen comedies, eleven tragedies, and ten histories handwritten directly on the 35mm film by the artist and projected on the wall. The pace of the falling text allows for a perceptual recognition that these are written lines whizzing by, but they move too fast for any lasting cognitive purchase. The totalizing reification of such a textual oeuvre makes it a collectible yet unusable archive, perpetually deferring any hopes of meaningful engagement.

Rounding out the show, Journey to the Moon (2009) betrays Ataman’s grounding in filmmaking. A multimedia installation made of ostensibly real archival photographs accompanied by screens showing archival film footage next to video interviews of present-day contemporary Turkish intellectuals, the film’s fiction is centered on the story of a remote village in Anatolia that in 1957 collectively decided to transform a minaret into a spacecraft. The fabricated photographic evidence shows the community posing for the camera and interacting with the supine minaret, which also appears with a balloon at its end begging for flight. The film is feature length and thematically complex, inspecting the relationships between idiosyncratic craftsmanship and technology, the effect of global events on local ambitions, faith and science, tradition and modernization, and a meta-level framing of how myths continue to interact with the stories we tell ourselves about our reality and our past. The two-channel installation toggles back and forth between the narrated archival film footage and the present-day interviews commenting on the purported historical tale. It quickly becomes apparent that the fiction becomes a foil for real-life contemporary socio-political issues in Turkey, with one interviewee even describing being human as a fundamental immersion in fantasy. But not all fantasies are created equal and some, even the violent ones, have decisive power behind them. Ataman’s film is a largely whimsical and jocular take on the role fantasy plays in historical understanding—uncovering how ultimately myth is always the genealogical bedrock of meaning, and that fictions perpetually color the facts.

Installation, Language & Linguistics, Film
Video Art, Water & The Sea, Arab Spring, Poetry, Libraries & Archives, Fiction

Arnaud Gerspacher is a PhD candidate in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, writing a dissertation on animals, posthumanism, and ecology in art.

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Sperone Westwater
November 23, 2012

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