“What cannot be said above all must not be silenced, but written” – Jacques Derrida
Understanding an artistic practice or philosophy from within an unfamiliar context, especially through a Western eye, can often lead to misperception. Such is the case in the discussion of contemporary art in Turkey, whose more traditionalist political ideals lead to creative restriction. As a result, many artists face an array of difficult circumstances in regards to their subject matter and the ways in which their art is exposed both on a local and international level. Despite a cultural boom in the past few years, Turkey’s artists are continually scrutinized under Erdoğan’s conservative fist, leading to misrepresentation for many.
One such artist who endures this reality is Ismet Doğan, whom I had met at his home studio last year in the beating heart of Beyoğlu. His art is a poetic meditation on the changing world around him, consisting of hyperrealistic impulses and raw motifs of unreserved humanism which wholly embody the ways in which he perceives his surroundings. The works, which is a versatile collection of paintings, mixed media, photographs, and sculptures, observe and criticize societal conventions implemented in Doğan’s world and are explained through a mixture of metaphor and irony fueled by dark energy. With an interest in understanding his artistic process and how a contemporary artist works in a non-Western arena, something I am admittedly not so familiar with, I interviewed Doğan and learned how both his country and the Western centric art world affects him directly.
In the midst of our conversations, he informed me of Jeff Koons’ latest exhibition with Gagosian ― a series entitled Gazing Ball ― which resembles Doğan’s own series Appropriations from the 1990s so similarly, that it can hardly be a coincidence (à la the recent Lady Gaga and Orlan dispute). In this series, Doğan strategically places his signature convex mirror on a replica of an old master painting in order to decontextualize its implicit Western meaning and involve the viewer directly. Though Koons’ explanation derives from an entirely different cultural phenomenon, a reference to the ‘gazing balls’ of Victorian-era gardens, the aesthetic similarities to Doğan’s work are inescapable. It is moments such as these that the blue-chip world can typically flee the consequences, and artists like Doğan in many cases cannot.
Though his deliberate choice to remain in Istanbul as a career artist instead of relocating to an industry nerve center such as London or Paris may be a result of this, it nonetheless tells the story of an artist who has remained as true as possible to himself as an artist.
How would you describe your own philosophy? How do you bring your ideas to life?
What I basically attempted to do in the 1980s was ponder over the artist and the art in the conceptual and ontological senses. I primarily started to question and think about “what the artist is”… The artist is the odd, the bizarre, the concerned, the unruly, the one who is never at peace with the official ideology… The artist does not know what he or she wants…He or she is a soul who has issues with “space” and “time” — who is worried at where the world has come, who always suffers and reflects this suffering on his/her works, who can always be confused, who is childish and naive, and who can stand up to the male-oriented perspective and the patriarchal system.
Consequently, I started ontologically questioning the art, after the artist. Accordingly, the language-culture, the text, the discourse, the demonstration, the simulacrum have become problematic. Identity is a cultural construction. We become a person in the societal processes. And at this point, it is necessary to point out that language facilitates the understanding of the concept of identity. Certainly, identity is not absolute. Memory…which memory? Art is actually calling into question the identity. I was the “other” artist of the West, and I have always worked in this awareness. I have made hybrid works because here it was a hybrid culture.
How was the Appropriations series produced and what is its underlying theme?
Supersession, supplanting, taking the other’s place, being the other of the West, and the context in semiotics was crucial. By superseding a subject in simulacra, I was displacing that subject; but in the place of the subject I supplant; I am forming a character that remains marginal and does not set a norm. The new subject should be someone who does not set the truth. And yet, representation is another problematic…For me, the dreams are also a sort of supplanting. And I have been influenced in this context by Freud’s interpretation of dreams and psychoanalysis methods. Supplanting is basically about the transfer of powers. I am dealing in a new context with what I encounter and what I am exposed to. I am intervening in it and by re-appropriating what is appropriated I am re-contextualizing it.
For the Appropriations Series, it is necessary first to talk about the “dispositif”. No wonder, the most basic structure that is dispositif is the language; a sort of an apparatus to supervise and to determine, a machinery, a device. Agamben defines it as, “a set of strategies of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge”. In short, I have greatly reflected on the “apparatus”, the “model”, the “medium”, and discourse. Needless to say, this is a Western case. In my opinion, these concepts are the main issues of the Western-centric, modern capitalist paradigm. Other cultures could have formed otherwise. In summary, I was trying to break this “apparatus”, sometimes by Nietzsche’s whip, along with rage or a kind of sentiment (perhaps to create other devices), and by crossing out or vomiting over the metaphysics of modern art and the empire of simulacra. I am scrambling everything given to and imposed on me, removing, nestling, and parting them; by cutting and cropping intersections, differences, similarities, I insert and remove. In short, I do changes in place.
Signification is more important than knowledge. I had an issue with the representative simulacrum imposed on me. For instance, I was reading The Order of Things, and then I was tinkering with a printed replica of Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas (1656) between 1999 and 2000. I was always conscious of not having such luxury since here has always been penetrated by replicas. I was surrounded with second hand simulacra in encyclopaedias and museum books. I was reinterpreting the simulacra that lost their aura and then changed the context. For instance, I was installing a physical convex mirror over the mirror reflection in the Las Meninas painting. The issue here is to remove the context imposed by the West.
It is quite obvious that modern art and its historiography is Eurocentric. What is at stake is that the Western civilization (colonialist) that created a monster is blessed and looked up to. In the off-modern societies, like here, thinking over the boundaries of the concept compels one to wonder on different and dangerous meanders. “Off-modern thought offers a critique against both admiration for modernity and at least as much the revitalization of the tradition that is modern.” Critical thinking, in short, has been my job and key issue. Foucault says, “The power of reason is a bloody power”.
What role do mirrors play in your work? How can this practice be linked to that of Anish Kapoor or Jeff Koons?
The mirror has been a fundamental component of my art. In the 1980s, I did paintings over convex mirrors. I designed in 1990, a physical mirror as an art work. In doing this, I kept in mind the technology in Istanbul. The furnaces were no bigger than a square meter (There was no colored mirror technology that is used by Anish Kapoor in London towards the 2000s). Since I formed these mirrors on identity and vulnerability, I produced them in great numbers and sold them…In other words, there is a history in this geography of this mirror, and of my use of mirrors.
Afterwards, I started using them in my paintings in order to include the viewer in the art-work. That is, in the context of “the viewer is the one viewed”. The word ‘Ayn’ means eye in Arabic. So, the Turkish word ‘Ayn-a’ for ‘mirror’ derives etymologically from the word ‘eye’. I was interested in Shamanism. It symbolizes the border between this world and the other. It is perceived as a window that opens to the world of spirits. By looking into the mirror, the Shaman prophesizes or can see his own spirit. I personally discovered this and experienced it. Turks were still afraid to look at the mirror due to this shamanic tradition. I have also used mirrors in my paintings for them to face this. In other words, my basic issue was about the culture here and the unconscious mind of the ‘modern and concerned’ Turks.
Accordingly, Anish Kapoor and Jeff Koons adopt, in my opinion, a cheap, elementary, and a colonialist attitude in this regard. I know this already. And this is nothing surprising. This was how it was supposed to be. They are the star artists of the center West and they are not troubled with this. Ethically, they must know and recognize this. But it is too late. I do not think they understand either what Derrida and Deleuze call “Difference”. They are so at the center; being at the center, to sell and to sell…that is all. My response to them is that art is made in a place and according to that place…according to the reality of that place. History will not forgive them.
I could have lived in Paris or London. I chose to be here. Since I wanted to keep away from the center West, I chose to live and produce in Istanbul, despite all the agony here. I still pay the price for this. For instance, I have a fundamental problem with the artists at the center. They naturally pretend not to know this. They can afford this. And they talk from there, that is, from the center. But there is no such thing anymore. There are different histories, different geographies, and different artists. And we see and know this via social media. We are no more in the paradigm of 50 years ago.
What do you personally see in the future of contemporary art in Istanbul? How might it change in the coming years?
Istanbul keeps its patriarchal tradition in modern art as well. Polarization somberly remains. But I see hope in the future. Especially after the Gezi resistance, we observe that the deepening political polarization manifests itself in the modern art environment. Good things will happen when this polarization comes to an end.