Today`s Zaman, Filya Özlem, Istanbul
I never thought our identity problems in Turkey and our sheer lack of tolerance toward each other could become “sexy” one day, at least theoretically. Here, I mean "sexy" in a pretty "a la Woody Allen" sense.
Our political problems are, in a way, as sexy as Alain Badiou´s or Zizek´s theoretical positions on Kinder Surprise Chocolates or postmodern peace warriors or the bath scene in "Psycho 1.” As far as the identity conflicts in our society are concerned, we are "hot” indeed, being nationalists in a multicultural society, conservative secularists on the verge of overthrowing liberalism for our own good or tolerant tyrants waiting to howl at the other’s first mistake. In that sense, we Turks are hot in the zeitgeist of our time.
What made me think about our "sexy” appeal in terms of our political conflicts was a very clever exhibition I saw in Berlin in a contemporary art gallery by a Turkish political scientist and a Japanese-German art photographer who together put together an art exhibition about Turkey´s identity conflict and democratization process. Since I see the future of theoretical sciences, especially the social sciences, in video art, films and contemporary art exhibitions, what Mehtap Söyler and Masakatsu Yuasa did together -- turning the political conflicts of Turkey into an art project -- struck me as genius at first sight.
The exhibition is a part of the "Peace: Utopia or Real Space?” project, conceptually coordinated and supervised by Tatjana Fell, which took place in the arttransponder project room in Berlin. It is ironic that I, being someone with a rather conservative idea of aesthetics -- I mean, art should be "beautiful” after all, no? -- found myself in the heart of contemporary art circles in Berlin, and I am more and more convinced that though the expectation of art is "to put forward the beautiful” persists, it is "the beautiful” that is altering its definition.
As for Söyler, she brought the beauty of Turkey’s democratization process to the fore with the concepts and stories extracted from her doctoral thesis, and she posed as "Miss Tolerance” to Masakatsu Yuasa’s camera as the actually and conventionally "beautiful.” Söyler studied political science and international relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. She has been working on her Ph.D. at Humboldt University in the department of political science and has been living in Berlin for four years.
When looking at the diversity of the Turkish community in Berlin both with respect to second-generation immigrants such as Fatih Akin or new cultural immigrants such as Söyler, or the grand art community of Turkish musicians, actors, dancers and visual artists in Berlin as well as the kebab chains and exclusively Turkish neighborhoods of Berlin such as Kreuzberg, one understands why Berlin is renowned as the third-biggest city of Turkey. Whatever is done in Berlin about Turkey is twice as important, as the sheer size of the Turkish community serves as Turkey´s major gateway to European-ness. In this regard, Söyler´s conceptual art exhibition was a big surprise for me to witness. She says she had never had any professional experience with art performance. The topic of her Ph.D. thesis is "Democratization Reforms in Turkey.” The story of the exhibition is a pretty interesting one of coincidences. Fell, who formed the conceptual framework of the "Peace: Utopia or Real Space” project, has known Söyler for a long time. She was the one who came up with the idea of incorporating the concepts and excerpts from Söyler’s thesis with the visuals of a photo artist, and she asked Söyler if she would like to contribute to the project as an academic from Turkey. When Söyler asked herself what peace in Turkey meant for her, the first thing that came to her mind was the need for tolerance. She thought she could create a project on the basis of the idea of tolerance.
Söyler thinks peace is a process that starts with the individual. It is such that each individual develops self-awareness by first becoming aware of The Other. The three women who are the subjects of the exhibition personified by Söyler are people who we classify based on instant visual data, i.e., their appearance in daily life in Turkey and with respect to whom we classify ourselves as well. Their veils, or puşi, or high heels define who we think they are and furthermore, on the basis of this visual experience, who we think we are as well. She thinks the intention is to understand the story of The Other no matter how different the background of the person who appears in the story or to understand The Other in his or her own context. That is why she called the exhibition "Internal Peace: A visual exploration of self-awareness and tolerance.”
Before meeting Masakatsu, the project was all about drawing portraits of different women from Turkey for Söyler. She had three women in mind who she was pretty close to in real life and whose stories she knew well. The first woman personified by Söyler in the photos is a doctor who could not study in Turkey because of the prohibition on headscarves at universities and who, after returning to Turkey, has had a great career as a doctor in her field here. In this story, the societal contradictions manifest themselves: Her mother was expelled from her workplace because of her headscarf on the grounds that it was not appealing to clients, and now, her headscarf is the main attraction for the religious female clients at her clinic and it’s part of the reason her boss supports her as an employee. This woman found peace in covering her head and becoming religious at a time when she felt lost in the political turmoil in Ankara. The second woman depicted in the photos is a Kurdish woman who had to flee her village because of the ongoing war; her brother "went to the mountains” and for years she has been working at a textile factory that belongs to her relatives for money -- barely enough to survive -- without knowing what will happen tomorrow. Peace, for her, is the home she left behind in her village and her childhood memories.
The third woman is a primary school teacher who was beaten by her husband since the day she married. She had hoped that having a child together would stop her husband’s violence, but nothing changed. She hoped that police would help her, but they did not. Only after moving to a shelter could she divorce her husband. For her, peace means her occupation. She believes that educating children can help bring peace. When Söyler and Masakatsu first got together to work on the project, they agreed to use one woman to appear in the visuals. But when Masakatsu suggested that Söyler pose for the photos herself, she hesitated at the beginning. But then after long discussions about the content, they started the photo shoot and the result seems really impressive; Masakatsu did a great job in locating the identity of each woman in Söyler’s appearance. The photos are so captivating that one can hardly turn one’s eyes from Söyler’s gaze, disguised in three different identities, basically portraying the feminine faces of Turkish daily life.
In the actual exhibition, there were abstract words and concepts at the top of the installation, below were Söyler´s pictures taken by Masakatsu, next to which the story of each woman was written. Söyler described what these concepts and their contexts meant for her at the opening of the exhibition. I saw, along with everyone who came to the exhibition, that our identity conflicts as women in Turkey are basically due to the borders or veils within our minds inscribed there as prejudices and that we all need such confrontations, especially in the form of art, to face our own limits and prejudices and take a chance to go beyond them. Contemporary art does not, perhaps, make its audience confront the sublime in a conventionally aesthetic sense; however, it creates a space to appreciate the conceptual horizon of everyday life where beauty is ever-changing. Exhibitions and art projects such as Söyler’s, apart from being "sexy” in a Woody Allen sense, create a mirror in which one can look and reflect on the genesis of her society’s identity issues while appreciating the beauty of the photos merging into the words concerning the democratization of our very own country, which tramples our liberties.