By Gregory Volk
These are good days for Kutlug Ataman, a 43-year-old Turkish artist who divides his time between Istanbul, London and elsewhere. He has a new video installation in the Carnegie International, for which he won the Carnegie Prize; he was a finalist for Great Britain's prestigious Turner Prize; he recently presented another impressive video piece at Lehmann Maupin in New York; and he is also preparing for a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney later this year. That's not bad for someone who wasn't even exhibiting visual art per se until 1997, although he has been making experimental and feature films for a while, oftentimes to considerable acclaim.
Ataman and the conceptually minded sculptor Ayse Erkmen are now broadly recognized as the two premier contemporary Turkish artists; like Erkmen, Ataman is one of the few Turkish artists in recent memory to enjoy a robust international reputation. Most of his career, however, has transpired far from his home country, due to the fact that, aside from the acclaimed Istanbul Biennial, Turkey has not developed an arts infrastructure capable of supporting such a professional life. It was the 1997 version of the Istanbul Biennial, curated by Rosa Martinez, that first brought Ataman to the attention of a large international art audience, for his kutlug ataman's semiha b. unplugged (1997), a quirky documentary concerning the (at the time) 87-year-old, decidedly eccentric Turkish opera singer Semiha Berksoy. This was also my first encounter with Ataman's work.
In the mid-1980s, Ataman studied drama and film at UCLA, where there were ample opportunities to make connections to what is called in those parts "the Industry." Therefore, it is interesting to note that all of Ataman's major works to date are actually about as un-Hollywood as you can get. The slow-moving, single-screen projection kutlug ataman's semiha b. unplugged is a perfect example. It is some eight hours long, although the audience can easily jump in at any point, and is devoid of action and ploy. You can forget about digital wizardly or any other razzle-dazzle effect, although subtle shifts in camera angle and a quiet attention to detail make it visually captivating.
Ataman taped Berksoy in her home, with a handheld camera, giving things a lush, grainy, improvisational, ever-shifting, home-movie look. What one sees almost exclusively is Berksoy herself (wearing outlandish clothes, wearing just stockings and undergarments, wearing smeared-on lipstick and caked-on rouge and mascara) as she essentially disgorges her life. She acts out opera scenes and sings snatches of arias, preens before the mirror as if about to go onstage and discusses her prolific expressionist painting -- a medium she turned to late in life. Throughout the subtitled video, she speaks of art as an exalted, rarefied zone far beyond and superior to normal life; but she also tells of her childhood, her cherished mother who died young, her tormented father and her own career as a singer, including professional triumphs. She also discusses the many obstacles she faced in Turkey, where opera was often perceived as a European import, and where her flamboyant persona flagrantly challenged social restrictions.
When Berksoy speaks of her mother, she often addresses her words directly to a partially clothed mannequin whose face is outfitted with a photograph of Berksoy's actual mother. There is something both endearing and creepy about this ersatz "Mummy," as Berksoy calls her, or it. This is one of many times when you think Berksoy might truly be nuts, and it's also one of many times when you feel uncertain and uncomfortable. You're not sure if what you're seeing is staged or for real. You're also something of a voyeur, and Berksoy's crammed rooms along with her equally crammed mind feel claustrophobic and disturbing. Still, there is something charming about how she constantly reinvents herself, remakes her life and continues to act like a prima donna, although the public's attention has long since turned elsewhere; her body has grown old, and her voice has turned raspy. In between ad hoc performances, Berksoy fumbles through boxes of well-thumbed letters, reads from them and muses on the past. Her solipsistic ruminations signal a true diva's self-absorption, yet they also have a sneaky evocative power. They become a portrait of life in 20th-century Turkey, of flamboyant, proto-feminist artist making do in a male-dominated culture and also of a proud woman (with her million memories) beset by encroaching mortality.
Berksoy, who recently died at the age of 94, is a real-life figure, not played by an actor, and Ataman's process was strikingly intimate. He was there by himself, in another person's home, and in another person's psyche and life, not so much recording what he wanted to see, but what she wanted to present and reveal. As with most of Ataman's works, conversational, unscripted language is a potent force here: how Berksoy speaks, how she uses language to construct not only her identity but the epic story of her life, how language is a vehicle for communication and discovery but also for self-delusion and concealment. What slowly accrues is a complex layering of personal memory, ambitions, sadness, sensuality, playfulness, disappointment, love, obsession and canny positioning, all mixed with powerful social and historical forces.
Because of the work's length, it is almost impossible to see it in its entirety. You stay with it for a while, leave and return, and it becomes a work of fragments, repetition, tangents, threads and abrupt transitions. Moreover, with all its fits and starts, repetition of stories and vignettes, and the occasional confusion and forgetfulness, this innovative video is uncannily convincing as to how the memory of an 87-year-old might actually work. In this sense, Ataman's piece is not so much about Berksoy as it is Berksoy – her mind with all its exquisite oddities and compulsions, her life with all its outsize desires and its faltering grandiloquence. This work also has a curiously meditative, even transportive, power. You don't really enter another world, but the world of another person, via a blur of reportage, and playacting, mundane chitchat and theatrical verve.
In pursuing her music, which involved studies in Berlin and other lengthy stints abroad, the trailblazing Berksoy, who has referred to herself as "Turkey's first opera artist," sometimes collided with an authoritarian streak in her own country. After she visited the well-known poet and avowed Communist Nazim Hikmet in prison in the late 1930s, for example, she was dogged by false accusations of being a Communist supporter, which she believed hindered her career. This raises a fascinating aspect of Ataman's work. In taping others—oftentimes eccentric others who are in the grip of private obsessions—Ataman winds up delving deep into his own psyche and concerns, including, but hardly limited to, his own conflicted relationship to Turkey. As a 19-year-old in 1980, when the country was convulsed by a military coup, Ataman was arrested for recording a leftist demonstration and imprisoned for 38 days. He has both enjoyed critical acclaim and, as an openly gay man, endured substantial anti-homosexual bias. Then there are the facts that Ataman's kind of media art is "foreign" in Turkey, and that, like Berksoy, he spends frequent time abroad, simultaneously engaged with, but willfully distant from, Turkish culture. Dealing with Berksoy allowed Ataman, however implicitly, to plumb issues of fundamental importance to him. He has often mentioned how important it is to him to have a multifaceted sense of connection to the people whom he tapes.
My next encounter with Ataman's work was at the last Documenta, where he showed his video installation The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read (2002), which was one of the must-see pieces at the exhibition. It concerns a British woman who is a world-class expert on the Hippeastrum plant (commonly known as amaryllis), about which she knows everything there is to know. Hippeastrum dominates both her private and her professional life (she has been dubbed National Plant Collection Holder of the Hippeastrum by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, a British charitable organization). The plants fill her cupboards, sink, closets and garden. She is a scholar/aficionado whose interest has long since shaded into total obsession.
Presented as a four-screen installation in which approximately one-hour-long videos (concerning spring, summer, winter and autumn) are shown simultaneously on adjacent screens installed as a square structure in the middle of the room, the work unfolds as a year in the life of Veronica Read, in relation to a year in the life of her prized plants. She cleans and plants bulbs and is bedazzled by the flowers months later, all the while talking excitedly about them. She dons antiseptic rubber gloves while she slices bulbs, in effect turning her kitchen into an operating room, and she is always lifting, hauling, pruning, watering and otherwise caring for a collection that begins to look like out-of-control mutants from a cheesy horror flick.
The more you spend time with the work, the more you are absorbed into Read's special mind, parceled out in Ataman's kind of collage, which is filled with repetitions and unexpected transitions. She is clear-headed horticulturist who is interested in facts and processes, but these plants also have intense personal meaning for her. When she is with them she is never alone—and there appear to be very few other people in Read's life. They are her surrogate children, and, you also suspect, her surrogate lovers, for there are many points in the work when Read's obsession seems frankly erotic. She touches her flowers lovingly, exults with them and suffers with them when they have problems. And problems they have in droves when they are invaded by mites, which make Read feel furious and helpless, as the excellent order she has tried to muster is suddenly turned to mayhem. All of this is revealed to the audience through her monologues, delivered in her singular crisp cadences (the plants give her "enormous pleasure," you hear over and over, while the mites are "horrible, nasty little creatures," which you also hear over and over.)
Throughout the work, Read's unusual domestic conditions resonate with multiple psychological and social connotations. Her home with its routine (for Read) events becomes the world, and also the mysterious inner depths of her psyche. You can't help but wonder if her comprehensive involvement with these flowers constitutes some sort of refuge or escape from the human world out there, and if so, why this might be the case. Ataman's wraparound installation is highly effective in this regard. Each scene, and season, leads to the others, in an endless cycle of growth and decay. At the same time, the arrangement of the screens confines Read as surely as she is trapped in her obsession. She collects Hippeastrum plants, but they also collect her, and have gathered her entirely into their botanical universe.
Ataman found Veronica Read through his own abiding interest in Hippeastrum, but it is also not a stretch to imagine that her total devotion to these plants, and her admiration of their beauty, correspond to the ways that many artists (including Ataman himself) pursue their own visions and efforts. The Hippeastrum devotee, for whom botany shades into erotics, religiosity and psychology, is also something of a real oddball: the woman with 800-plus plants in her home, the neighborhood eccentric who, on the few occasions when she goes on vacation, takes photographs of her plants with her, to look at longingly and lovingly. It's likely that Ataman, too, knows something about against-the-grain obsession, and from his time as an expatriate, it's also likely that he knows, or once knew, something about loneliness and alienation. As a Hippeastrum fan, it is certain that he knows a great deal about these plants, highly artificial things made from assiduous cross-breeding, and all of this factors into the work. It is not that Read is a stand-in for Ataman. She is her own sharp-bordered, voluble self. But a complicated exchange takes place between subject and artist, for in filming a consummate Other, Ataman once again explores matters that are close to his soul. He rarely appears in this or indeed any of his works (usually through an occasional question asked from off-screen), but you're always aware of his presence, and you deduce some of his questions from the answers given by Read.
A brief tour of Ataman's other works suggests how searching and evocative his kind of monologue-heavy quasi-documentaries can be. Women Who Wear Wigs (1999) sounds like some campy movie made by, well, an ironic student at a Southern California film school. In fact, the subtitled video is a poignant and hard-hitting meditation on four Turkish women who wear wigs, and why they do so. The work is shown in four simultaneous DVD projections, an arrangement almost guaranteeing that the viewer's response is partial and piecemeal, the result of darting from story to story. In one, you rarely see the subject's full face as she tries on wig after wig, but mostly just the back of her head of her hands as she runs her fingers through the hair. As she does, the woman talks mainly about being a clandestine messenger for banned left-wing groups in Turkey in the early 1970s, when arrests, torture, imprisonment and murder were commonplace and traumatized much of the nation. Wearing a wig while pretending to be an airline stewardess was what helped this woman survive, yet always being in disguise made selfhood an enormously slippery thing. The video emphasizes how she is still hidden and still in disguise, some 30 years later.... (Continued)