Judging from attendance on the opening weekend beginning February 24, “Fractured Modernities” will be a popular Academy Art Museum exhibition. In part, it may be due to the show’s subtitle – “Contemporary Art from Turkey” – and the acknowledgment in the introductory wall panel that these works “marry movement and color with the heaviness of the nation’s past, especially in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria.”
It is entirely coincidental that the ‘modernities’ referenced by these four young Turks are “fractured’ beyond recognition in much of eastern Turkey, far removed from the scenes represented in this wide-ranging display of various visual art disciplines.
At the entrance to the first of two galleries, you are greeted by the Turkish word for collaboration in Merve Unsal’s pink neon sign. Inside, the entire wall to your left is covered with black-and-white photos by Erdem Varol. His breadth in subject matter is evident from the start with a large shot of Istanbul high-rises, their middle floors obscured by clouds as the top floors appear to float above the mist. Just below is a small fashion statement with varied plumage protruding from the brim of a hat hiding the face of the man wearing it. Another captures the upturned visage of a sculpture high above a slice of Istanbul’s cityscape beyond. Another shot gives away the secret of his photographic perch as the shadow of an airplane appears in the foreground route to another part of downtown.
The money shot, however, defines the unique geographic character of Varol’s hometown. Hanging over the gallery mantel is a view from 10,000 feet of approaches to a bridge spanning the narrow Bosporus Strait separating Europe to the west from Asia to the east, both within the ancient city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, onetime Roman Empire capital conquered by the Turks to form the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century).
Although the medium is very different – ink and/or watercolor on paper – there is a link in vantage point between Varol and Didem Erbas. Starting in the first gallery and spilling over to the second, her Architectural Remains series brings to mind ancient cornerstones unearthed by archaeologists and skeletal fragments of wooden structures. Meanwhile, her Airport Zone and War Zone series suggest barren land exposed in one by modernized transportation and in the other by the devastation of war surrounding Turkey – from Syria to Iraq and Iran and now, of course, Ukraine. Each War Zone of destruction – one in brown, the other mainly in blue – oddly leaves the land left behind in a natural state. A place, maybe, to start over.
On the floor in the same gallery, Erbas has constructed a site-specific installation mainly consisting of piping pieces for plumbing or drainage. Other than as a statement on wasteful water usage, her intended message eluded me.
On the opposite wall, Zeynep Kayan’s video upends our notion of videography altogether. Although we don’t see her face, Kayan stands in front of the camera, repeatedly gesturing, holding a mirror pointed upward to reflect a ceiling light. In the accompanying text to this Mirror III video, it is performance art said to be ‘meditative.’ It might help to have a seat to meditate on this purposeful monotony meant to teach us not to expect to be entertained.
More engaging to me is Outside Instead of Before, a paired series of two-channel videos by Unsal projected on a bare wall. Although there is subtle motion in the images, they are presented more like a slideshow with a view just outside Unsal’s apartment in Istanbul and the major construction site as he sees it from his literal viewpoint. We see curtains fluttering in the breeze brushing past his open window next to a tall yellow construction crane in a vacant lot strewn with building materials. It’s followed by a nearly identical view from his balcony and a night view of the sleeping site next to a peek through his window of lights and moving figures inside. A small stapled script next to the space where the video is projected poses the question, among many others, “Can one eye unsee what the other has seen?”
A provocative thought suggested by Unsal’s juxtaposed imagery.
But the highlight, in terms of Turkish art and history, must go to Varol’s photograph of a young man gazing through a doorway in front of a poor sculptural reproduction of a bearded elder whose image Osman Handi Bey painted in The Tortoise Trainer. The 1906 oil on canvas is regarded as one of the greatest in Turkish Orientalism – compared in importance on the accompanying wall label as what Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is to Renaissance painting. At the feet of the young man and trainer are a swarm of tortoises signifying the slow pace of reforming the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed shortly after World War I. Fear the turtle?
Fractured Modernities: Contemporary Art from Turkey
Works by four Turkish artists were created in this European-Asian crossroad nation. Through April 16, Academy Art Museum, 106 South St., Easton. academyartmuseum.org
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.
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