Let’s face it, putting the word ‘survey’ in the title of an exhibition is never too invigorating. But for all the dryness that Cuadro’s Survey of Turkish Contemporary Art implies, this dramatic and caustic collection is anything but.
‘We went back to each of these artists and said, “What’s the definition of contemporary art in Turkish art today?”’ says Cuadro director Bashar Al Shroogi. ‘We’ve done this with a lot of our other shows – we started Cuadro with an overview of contemporary art, then a survey of contemporary realism. The space lends itself to these survey shows.’ It’s true. Cuadro’s museum-sized gallery space gives each of the 60 works in this show enough space to breathe and allows for a diverse selection of media. Stroll through the space – dodging video projections, sculptures, prints and a heaving mound of sand with a tiny figure perched on top by Vahit Tuna (far right) – and the experimental attitude of Turkey’s new breed is clear.
Tuna’s tiny wooden figure on the top of this pebbly dune faces a vintage speaker, much like the cone of a gramophone, which drones out a soft melody. ‘The piece deals with ideas of solitude: where we stand, where we are going,’ says Shroogi. ‘We just don’t see enough installation here. Installations are usually done in public spaces or not-for-sale exhibitions, but there’s a hunger for works in this region that push the envelope a little more.’
Where we are and where we’re going, Shroogi explains, is the main curatorial thrust of the show, beyond trying to give a broad overview of Turkey’s contemporary art scene. ‘If there’s one common thread in this exhibition, it’s in how time moves and how time progresses. Take Haluk Akakçe’s video [an animation of shadows of machinery while in motion] – Haluk is dealing with how ideas of time are different between different cultures. ‘If you look at the Islamic world,’ he continues, ‘our idea of how time passes is one thing. Then if you look at the East, how they handle time is different. So the two things that pulled the show together were both motion and time, and this links with how we situate ourselves in where we are today.’
Some of the most impressive inclusions here are the video pieces by Sarkis. Now in his 70s, Sarkis is one of Turkey’s foremost conceptual artists and an entire room is devoted to his work. On each screen we see only a bowl of water and a hardback art book (right), turned to a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Sarkis’s steady hand emerges from the right, slowly and calmly dripping paint into the bowl. Yet as we watch this simple but oddly compelling scene, the tones and shapes of Friedrich’s painting begin to emerge in the water. ‘A lot of video art is a quick fix: it’s bright, colourful, there’s a lot going on,’ says Al Shroogi. ‘Sarkis is an older man, he’s mature and doesn’t need to prove himself.
He’s showing here that there’s still something to be said for taking your time and learning a level of self-control. By the time the piece is complete, you will see the shadows of what he’s trying to paint, especially the lines and the colours, in the water. It’s about being able to control your strokes and getting paint to do what you want it to do.’ It’s as if Sarkis is pointing to the need for contemporary artists to remain mindful of the time taken for a work to emerge – not to be seduced by the fast-paced transience of contemporaneous practice. Or is he suggesting that, now, such precision and time has been resigned to art history – the art book, or the romantic, like Caspar David Friedrich?
Another older artist here, Murat Morova, stands out. Morova works on canvas that has been layered with newspaper, paint and a resinous sheen. In one piece, we see abstract calligraphy that seems to have abstracted further into the figurative. Men, composed of words, are enjoined in a tug of war, while swifts, carefully penned in ink, soar above in a weave of lettering. In two large accompanying diptychs (left), Morova’s scenes of Turkish cityscapes take on the sparseness and two-dimensional simplicity of Chinese landscape paintings. Between aqueducts and Ottoman architecture, TV towers intrude and planes hover overhead. Modernity seems to impose itself onto the balance of these scenes.
‘For a long time, Turkey may have been neglected on an international scale,’ Al Shroogi continues. ‘Here in Dubai you see a lot of focus on work from the Middle East, but I think if we do want to reach out and embrace Turkey as part of the Middle East, we will find very high levels of expression there. There are traditions that have been passed on and that’s something we need to give more attention to.’
Elif Uras, working here in Iznik pottery, right down to the firing and glazing techniques, encapsulates some of this appropriation of older forms with contemporary imagery – a bikini-clad belly dancer is suggested in the design and shape of this traditionally made pottery.
This show is notable, really, for its refreshing experimentalism. It’s easy to forget the importance and profusion of installation, video and sound in contemporary art, and Cuadro’s show, despite its baggier sections, really does give even brunt to those working in more traditional mediums and those looking to tear that apart.
We ask Al Shroogi if the Gulf’s burgeoning art scene should perhaps be looking to Turkey in its ambitions of carving out a local, and locally relevant, contemporary scene. ‘It’s interesting. I think Turkey may be a few years ahead of us in terms of the production of these pieces,’ he says, ‘but also really in terms of rooting and finding themselves through their [own] identity.’
A Survey of Contemporary Turkish Art continues until January 31.